Like others, they wanted to live near water. The family found a great spot — flat, with a river running cool and silver through the land’s green folds. They built a house.
But something happened. The house caught on fire — whether by accident, or by design, no one is left alive to say. The house by the river returned to the soil. Centuries passed. Farmers came. They broke dirt on the flatland beside the same river that had called to another family 400 years earlier.
When the U.S. government bought the land 80 years ago as part of the Chattahoochee National Forest, farmers made way for campers. No doubt they built fires on the same spot where others had squatted and worked wood into flame hundreds of years earlier.
For one week recently, archaeologists took possession of that tract where long-ago residents lived. They probed the soil with trowel and shovel and screen, hoping to learn more about who was here before the rest of us arrived.
On the fourth day of that dig, James Wettstaed, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service, stood and knocked dirt off his knees. He stood in an L-shaped excavation, maybe 14 inches deep. On one end was a series of charred spots — the remainders of a wooden wall that likely caught fire. He shrugged. “Accidents happen,” he said.
Or they don’t. The family that lived here existed in a narrow period of time that began after Hernando de Soto came to the land now known as Georgia in 1540 and before European settlers began showing up about 100 years later. The family may have been pushed out by unwanted visitors — interlopers coming from the south, or pushing their way from eastern coastal outposts.
The same land features that nameless family liked — water, rich soil, game nearby — could have prompted someone else to run them off, said Holly Krake a public information officer for the Forest Service.
“It’s a prime location,” she said.
Scientists discovered the tract four years ago. Worried that four-wheelers might literally destroy history buried in the soil, specialists visited the site and made some early digs. They came across evidence of human occupation — dark spots where posts once were pounded into the ground, and burnt wood. The forest service won’t say precisely where they made the discovery. The agency fears that might attract amateur diggers looking for native American artifacts.
Scientists then enlisted volunteers through the government’s Passport In Time program, an initiative that allows people to work alongside scientists at archaeological sites. Every year, the forest service advertises for volunteers; this was the fourth annual visit to the site about 85 miles north of Atlanta. A dozen people participated. They were young and old, professional and student, all linked by irrepressible curiosity: What would the next scoop of dirt reveal?
Vanessa Waid slid a pink-gloved hand into a dark-brown pile of soil. Another volunteer had just dumped half a bucket of dirt onto a screen, suspended by four legs. Waid shook the screen. Dirt cascaded through the mesh, revealing larger chunks. Waid leaned closer, looking for pot fragments, maybe a spear point.
She sifted the last, looked, and smiled. Nope, not this time. But that was OK.
“I love being outside,” said Waid, who applied to the program and learned, to her delight, that she would work for a week without pay. Normally, she works in an office. “This is a perfect opportunity to participate in something usually reserved for professionals.”
Nearby, Angela and Cheyenne Welborn, mother and daughter, fingered handfuls of dark loam. Cheyenne, a junior at White County High School, wants to be an archaeologist. She took a week away from classes to dig beside the river. Mom saw a chance to spend quality time with her little girl and came, too.
“I think I’ll learn more out here in a couple of days than I have learned in the last couple of years in school,” said Cheyenne, 17. “It’s also good to be outside working hard. It’s good for the soul.”
The five-day dig concluded on a recent Friday afternoon. It had yielded more than 1,000 artifacts, most of them pot fragments. In addition, they discovered post holes, irrefutable proof that someone had lived on the spot. The search also unearthed “game pieces,” discarded chunks of stone that some long-ago children may have used in games. The haul is sufficient to keep scientists studying for a year.
From a monetary standpoint, the old clay pieces and stone may not be worth much. For researchers, it’s part of a growing wealth of knowledge about Georgia’s earlier years.
It’s intriguing stuff, said Wettstaed. Georgians who are in the dark about who came before may get a glimmer of knowledge from the dark soil of river bottom land, he said.
“We’ll definitely be back,” Wettstaed said. He picked up his trowel, knocked more dirt off his knees, and knelt. What secrets would the next scoop reveal?