Wall around Charleston reveals buried treasure

James Bonnett of the Charleston Water System maneuvers his backhoe to expose a larger chunk of the redan that was part of the city's colonial walls. The dig reached about 10 feet below ground Wednesday before workers called it a day.

James Bonnett extended the claw of his backhoe deep into the hole just off East Bay Street, revealing with each scoop just how massive the city's early walls were.

For a month, college students and their archaeology instructors have used shovels and screens to sift slowly through the dirt that had covered a brick redan at East Bay and South Adgers Wharf.

On Wednesday, that dainty digging gave way to much heavier equipment on loan from the Charleston Water System. As Bonnett maneuvered the backhoe, others extended a metal tube deep into the hole to suck out the groundwater.

Their goal was to reach the bottom of the redan, a triangular point along the massive brick wall that protected the eastern side of the colonial city.

Despite excavating a few feet below the water table — and 10 feet below the level of the nearby parking lot — the crew didn't get to the bottom Wednesday. It plans to resume today, which is expected to be the final day of the month-long dig.

The backhoe did pluck out five 7-foot-long cedar and cypress timbers that were positioned five feet from the wall. Historian Nic Butler said early writings show this palisade helped protect the wall from waves.

Records show the section between the palisade and the brick wall was filled with mud and oyster shells, while cobblestones were deposited outside the palisade — and that's pretty much what was found.

"We're getting better at having a definitive idea of what the wall looked like," Butler said.

Katherine Saunders of the Historic Charleston Foundation said she was struck most by the scale of the wall and how large it would have appeared.

"It seems incredible," Butler said. "It just underscores how big a building project this was for an infant colony with African laborers."

The dig, orchestrated by the city's Walled City Task Force, the Historic Charleston Foundation and the College of Charleston's archaeology program, has attracted hundreds of onlookers each day.

Saunders said the dig's high visibility has been a big plus. "It gets people more excited about seeing more digs, more history," she said.

Another aspect of its value will emerge only in future months, after archaeologists sort and record the thousands of artifacts, many from the 18th century, that they uncovered.

Beginning around 1690, colonists at Charles Towne began building a wall around their 62-acre city, making it the only walled city in British North America.

The section along the Cooper River apparently was the only edge built of brick; the other three sides are believed to have been built from earth.

As work proceeds today, the archaeologists may confirm whether the wall was built on a cribbing of palmetto logs, which would be a logical foundation in the harbor mud.

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Charleston dig reveals tip of history, published 06/17/09