Learning from Hugo: Archaeology and Disaster Recovery

George W. McDaniel, May 1991

In the spring of 1990, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the South Carolina Council for the Humanities, and Drayton Hall, a historic property owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, joined forces in an exemplary endeavor, one that sought to turn a disaster into new opportunities.

A word of background is in order. Founded over 250 years ago by the Drayton family on the Ashley River near Charleston, South Carolina, Drayton Hall is one of the more remarkable historic sites of America. Built between 1738 and 1742, the main house of the plantation is considered to be one of the finest expressions of the colonial architecture in America, and its two-story portico is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. Through seven generations of Drayton family ownership, no modern intrusions, such as plumbing, electricity, heating, or air conditioning, were added. The result is a National Historic Landmark whose unadulterated authenticity speaks powerfully of the history of two centuries of South Carolinians, black and white, to the more than 50,000 adults, students, and teachers who visit the site each year.

On September 21, 1989, disaster struck. Hurricane Hugo slammed into the South Carolina coast, ripping houses apart, snapping trees like match sticks, and uprooting others. Fortunately, the main house at Drayton Hall was only minimally damaged, thanks in part to disaster preparedness procedures taken by the staff. The landscape, however, was shattered. Over 60 percent of the trees were down. Immediate salvage logging cleared some of the roads and forests to diminish fire and physical hazards. Could opportunities be found amidst this devastation?

Like other historic properties of the National Trust, Drayton Hall had been seeking to broaden its research and interpretation and to place the main house within its historical plantation context. Visitors touring the beautiful house and grounds have been asking about the life of the black families, the locations of the outbuildings, and the daily operations of the working plantation. Since only one outbuilding (a mid-eighteenth-century brick privy) remained standing, archaeology has been critical. Turning to National Trust archaeologist Lynne Lewis and South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism archaeologist Donnie Barker, Drayton Hall staff, in the wake of Hugo, sought first to protect known archaeological sites from damage by logging and debris removal efforts.

Drayton Hall then turned to the South Carolina Council for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities for assistance and received a grant, "Learning from 'Hugo': Archaeology and Disaster Recovery at Historic Drayton Hall." It consisted of the following components:

  1. A complete archaeological survey of the 115 acres owned by the National Trust, building on previous excavations, oral histories, and documentary research. It would consist of test excavations at 60-foot intervals with intra-site testing as necessary, to determine site size, age, and subsurface integrity. Archaeologists would precisely map the results and develop preliminary conclusions about the placement, age, and integrity of sites with particular emphasis on the location and definition of African-American homes and related activity areas. A written report would describe the methodology, evaluate results, and recommend areas to be protected from further debris clearance as well as sites to be excavated in-depth.
  2. Public programs to educate professionals and the public about the importance of archaeological sites and about methods to protect them both before and after disasters. On the one hand, archaeologists report that, as a result of the heavy equipment used for debris removal, archaeological sites have suffered more from the recovery from Hurricane Hugo than from any previous coastal disaster. On the other hand, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does not recognize damage surveys and salvage of archaeological sites as a reimbursable disaster expense, as it does repair of structures and plantings. Public programs in Charleston and Columbia will bring these issues to the attention of diverse audiences, including FEMA.
  3. A technical guide, which would explain the procedures to be taken by historic sites to protect and preserve archaeological sites both prior to and in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Hugo. Special attention would be given to FEMA and other federal agencies.

An advisory committee of six archaeologists and historians was selected to guide the project: Lynne Lewis, archaeologist for the National Trust; Donnie Barker, archaeologist for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism; archaeologist Leland Ferguson, Department of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina; historian/writer Theodore Rosengarten; historian Myrtle Glascoe, Director of The Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture, College of Charleston; and ethnobotanist John Rashford, Department of Anthropology at the College of Charleston.

In June 1990, the professional archaeological firm, Brockington and Associates, was selected to conduct the project. The survey was completed in August, and drafts of the report and technical guide were completed, for final submission in February 1991. Christopher Espenshade is the archaeologist-in-charge and Marion Roberts the historian.

In October 1990, Espenshade presented one lecture on the project at Drayton Hall. On January 22, he gave another public presentation at the College of Charleston, and on February 14, spoke at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.

In the years to come, results of this archaeological survey will lead to updated tours of the main plantation house, new tours of the African-American community and work places, new excavations of archaeological sites, more informative programs in the humanities for adults and school groups, and new publications about the history of Drayton Hall and about turning disaster into opportunity.

George W. McDaniel is executive director of Drayton Hall.