Backyard History, public archaeology

Graves in the Airport Runway

Have you ever seen two gray rectangles distinct from the surrounding gray of the Savannah airport runway? A friend’s Facebook post of the Dotson Runway Graves led me to several articles on this oddity. In short, as the Savannah Airport expanded into the surrounding farmland, it took over a family cemetery as well. Many of the graves were exhumed and the bodies reburied in another cemetery, but per the family’s wishes, Richard and Catherine Dotson were left in place. According to the Atlas Obscura article, “Citing the fact that their ancestors would have wanted to stay on the land they worked so hard to cultivate and purchase, the surviving Dotson relatives refused to allow Richard and Catherine to be moved.” So the runway was built around them and the graves given new markers.

The Dotson graves. The picture is from the Atlas Obscura article. I suspect it’s a Google maps or Google Earth capture, since we can’t walk out on the runway to take photographs.

While this may seem like a bizarre story, these are exactly the type of problems and solutions archaeologists face everyday. Most archaeologists (probably around 80%) work in Cultural Resources Management (CRM). This means they don’t work in academia or in museums but work for archaeology companies or in government. CRM essentially began in 1966 with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. This federal law mandates archaeology and historic preservation for projects with certain conditions:

  • projects on federal land or in federal waters (like National Parks or the White House front lawn)
  • projects involving federal permits or federal money (like the Savannah Harbor Deepening)

But the laws do not mandate how the archaeology is done. In fact, the law only requires that the project managers “consider impacts” to cultural resources eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Of course, I am radically simplifying a complex process. My point is that archaeologists do more than dig. Archaeologists and their cousins (such as historic preservationists) manage archaeology sites and cultural resources to find solutions that work for the most number of stakeholders: the project developer, descendants, businesses, neighbors, etc. To do so, they often mix many techniques like “consultation with stakeholders”. In the case of the Dotson graves, it was the descendant family members whose ancestors’ graves were disturbed. In other cases, such as the CSS Georgia ironclad, the Army Corps of Engineers represented the military’s constituency, since the Confederate Navy no longer exists.

Barge over the CSS Georgia. From this platform, archaeologists recovered artifacts and pieces of the ironclad for study and preservation.

Most importantly, cultural resource managers need and want your input on projects. Resources on public lands belong to all of us, and we are all stakeholders to varying extents. The CSS Georgia project was much more successful than others in sharing the project with the public. The CRM firm, Panamerican Consultants, Inc., hired an archaeologist specifically to do public outreach, resulting in the Raise the Wreck festival. A documentarian was hired, the CRM company head Steve James spoke to my students at Armstrong, and much more. We need to demand that more projects follow this model so this becomes the norm and not the exception.

Alliance series, Backyard History, public archaeology

October 9, 1779: Backyard History

October 9, 1779, is the anniversary of the Battle of Savannah. Most people don’t know there was a major Revolutionary War battle in downtown Savannah. At 800 casualties, this is considered one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution. However, only approximately 50 of these were British. We lost. Badly. The British held Savannah until the war’s end.

Archaeology has contributed to to our knowledge of this event. The Coastal Heritage Society manages a small, but critical, portion of the battlefield, Battlefield Memorial Park. In 2005, the park was scheduled for rehabilitation and a make-over. Archaeologist Rita Elliott asked for one last chance to find the redoubt, or small fort that the Americans and their allies attacked in an attempt to retake Savannah. She was successful, and Rita’s findings were incorporated into the reconstructed redoubt, memorial stones, and interpretive signs throughout the park. This work was also the catalyst for two National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program grants, starting in 2007. I was fortunate to be part of the “Savannah Under Fire” project team, who extended the excavations throughout downtown Savannah’s greenspaces, finding more intact pieces of the battlefield.

Archaeologists are often criticized for being “elitist” and not sharing artifacts or knowledge. Especially for this project, that cannot be farther from the truth. In addition to the signs on Battlefield Park, there is an exhibit in the Savannah History Museum next door, where you can see the artifacts recovered from the battlefield. The project’s social media is still floating around including this brochure and (my favorite) a video of us in the field. The technical reports for all phases of the project are available as free downloads on the LAMAR Institute website:

(While there, you can also look at more than 200 other archaeology reports from Georgia and the Southeast.)

Finally, today, and every October 9, the Coastal Heritage Society holds a Battlefield Memorial March. I attended several years under obligation as an employee but was always impressed by the event and its significance.

October 9, 2018, Battlefield Memorial March. Photograph courtesy of the Coastal Heritage Society Facebook page.
October 9, 2018, Battlefield Memorial March. Photograph courtesy of the Coastal Heritage Society Facebook page.

I urge you to explore your Backyard History, our Revolutionary War battlefield. There is so much more than I could possibly cover in one blog post. Battlefield Memorial Park is a great place to start.

public archaeology

Introducing the Savannah Archaeological Alliance

Savannah Archaeological Alliance welcomes all partnerships with archaeologists, students, historic preservationists, museums, archives, muppets, and the general public. Email us to discuss a collaboration, request a presentation, or inquire about our public programs such as walking tours and school programs.

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