True grit: Dredging uncovers more artifacts from Topper site

A dredge is a piece of water equipment that used to clear out or deepen channels in rivers and waterways.

However, for the archaeologists at the Topper site in Allendale County, the dredge is helping deepen their understanding of the prehistory native Americans that lived in this area.

During much of the year, the historical site has relatively little activity; its excavations covered by tarps.

However, during May and early June, the dig is a hive of activity as professional and amateur archaeologists, graduate students in anthropology and archaeology nationwide and an army of volunteers fill the site during its "digging season."

"The dredge has been very successful the last two weeks," said Tom Petierra, the director of operations at the Topper site. "We got a lot of nice points from the Clovis to Mississippian eras."

The "points" Petierra refers to are arrowhead or spearpoints that prehistoric native Americans would have chipped or "knapped" into usable stone tools or weapons.

The Clovis era was from about 13,000 years ago and the Mississippian era occurred around 1200 to 1800 A.D., before the arrival of Europeans to North America.

The Topper site was a veritable prehistoric tool factory for this region's early residents because of the area's large deposits of chert. The site is rich in "pre-forms" or stone artifacts that were shaped to some level of completion as arrowheads or other points before the chert broke wrong, rendering the point useless as a tool.

Petierra jokingly refers to pre-forms as "factory rejects."

One item already uncovered this season is definitely not a reject for Petierra.

The item is a stone that shows definite chipping away of its entire outer layer by human hands, he said.

"It shows definite modification," Petierra said.

What makes this find exciting is the stone was found in a layer of sand that dates to the Pleistocene era, or between 16,000 to 20,000 years ago, which is much earlier than the Clovis era of about 13,000 years ago, Petierra said.

However, Petierra is guarded about making any definitive statements about the artifact until more study is done on it.

"How old it is - we don't know. It was found in lower Pleistocene clay. It could be as old as 30,000 years. It's in soil that is possibly 30,000 years old," Petierra said. "You have to date from the soil."

Petierra said the soil around this artifact didn't indicate any unnatural disturbance that would have pushed it from a later layer of soil into the older Pleistocene sediment.

Chert is a fine-grained, silicia-rich stone that often forms in nodules of limestone, chalk or other porous rocks that create the outer layer of untouched chert. The chert stone in the center is denser and when knapped, creates very thin but sharp-edged tools.

Digging up an artifact is only half the discovery in archaeology. The other part is properly identifying the artifact, its use and recording its discovery location as well as preserving it. Part of that preservation is assigning a collection number to the artifact, which in the case of Topper stone tools, is inked onto the stone or written on the bag the artifact is stored inside.

Bill Lyles helps in this initial process, sorting through the original dredged material, separating out artifacts or possible artifacts from the plain rocks.

"I get to see all the items," he said.

Lyles is a layman or "avocational" archaeologist, meaning that it is a serious hobby for him. Lyles is a retired pharmacist from Lexington. He has been volunteering at the site for some years and has even supervised individual excavation holes dug at Topper.

Lyles is not alone in the sorting process. Armed with an old lunch tray and a gallon plastic bag filled with dredged material, each volunteer sometime during the week sits and sorts through the material.

During one sorting session, Megan Hoak, an archaeology graduate student from the University of Tennessee instructs the volunteers to separate out flat or angular stone bits from the more pebbly dredged material, since that might be possible artifacts.

Each week during the digging season, there are about 30 volunteers on hand as well as about 18 staff members, Petierra said.

The Topper site is headed up by Dr. Al Goodyear, an archaeologist and professor from the University of South Carolina.

However, the dredging is pulling in more volunteers than normal, he said.

"We had a lot of people here for the dredge," Petierra said of last week's work, which attracted about 57 volunteers.

Normally there are about 30 volunteers here during the digging season during a week, he said.

The dredge operation in the river was a cooperation between the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, registered hobbyist divers and the College of Charleston, Petierra said.

Some of the volunteers are also anthropology or archaeology students from other colleges looking for some on-the-job experience or learning.

This year, graduate students have come from schools such as University of Florida, University of Georgia, Eastern New Mexico University, Louisisana State University, the University of Tennessee and Texas A&M, he said.

The volunteers make for a nice mix of people, all bonded by their love of history and archaeology, Lyles said.

"Everybody gets down here and it's like a fraternity. You got ditch diggers to Ph.D's. But when we get down here, we don't talk about work but get in here and talk archaeology," Lyles said. "We get people here who come back year after year. You meet a lot of nice people here."