TIME AND TIDE HAVE BURIED CRUCIAL CHAPTERS IN OUR ISLAND’S HISTORY. TODAY, THEY ARE BEING REVEALED ONE SHOVEL OF DIRT AT A TIME.
It was only a matter of time.
When their geophysical instruments started pinging, Matthew Sanger and his team from Binghamton University knew they’d found something at Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery.
And Sanger had a good idea what his team might have discovered.
After gently brushing away nearly five inches of debris, leaves and topsoil, there they were: Tombstones, thick stone still shiny gray and bearing the names of some of the cemetery’s inhabitants. Webb. Davant. Early pioneers of a Hilton Head Island long gone.
“That’s probably the most exciting thing we’ve found,” Sanger said. “A lot of people who are buried there still have family in the area … it connects current living people with their ancestors.”
Sanger and his team had been called the island to assist Heritage Library in its efforts to transform the cemetery into a history park dedicated some of the island’s first families — many of whom are buried there. In addition to much-needed restoration of Baynard Mausoleum, plans for the surrounding Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery include interpretive signs, benches and new fencing for existing family plots.
But before work began, obviously, Heritage Library staff wanted to ensure they wouldn’t be disturbing any graves that had been lost to time and the ever-encroaching wilderness.
Enter Sanger’s team, and the ground-penetrating radar they used to survey the whole of the cemetery, seeking what lay below. While they were able to find a number of grave shafts, including an area that most likely served as a yet undiscovered family plot, they were unable to find where the original Zion Chapel of Ease was located.
“There are some heavily wooded areas where we think it might be located, but it’s difficult to get back there with our equipment,” Sanger said.
Nonetheless, the team’s findings have created a stir among longtime island residents and those interested in the Lowcountry’s often-ignored antebellum past.
Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery was not Sanger’s first introduction to Hilton Head Island’s history. His team had been drawn to the island three years ago by its abundance of shell rings, a unique remnant left behind by Native American tribes hundreds of years ago. Having worked on a few of the nearly 50 rings that dot quiet corners all over the Southeast, Sanger was curious what the rings on Hilton Head might hold.
His work began at the Sea Pines Shell Ring, where he has already made a massive discovery — in the most literal sense.
“In this most recent excavation, we pulled out what looks to be a hearth used multiple times to such a degree it was almost turned into concrete,” he said.
At three feet wide and a foot and a half deep, it’s the largest single artifact he’s ever pulled out of one of these rings. And the carbonized remains of the food cooked inside it could go a great way toward settling the debate over what exactly these rings were used for.
“Most of what I’ve found suggests people living (in the rings) year-round, extended groups of 15-20 families,” he said. “Every once in a while, on a seasonal basis, about 100 people would show up for religious events.”
So whether these rings were simply the markings of a village or served as ceremonial gathering grounds, researchers still aren’t quite certain whether there’s a definitive answer. Especially since their usage could have evolved over time.
“Keep in mind there is about a 2,000-year span between the earliest shell rings and some of the last, from here all the way west to Mississippi,” Sanger said.
Impressed by the team’s success unearthing graves at Zion, representatives from Historic Mitchelville invited Sanger out to help look for the site of the first village for freed slaves, lost to time as erosion ate away the shoreline.
The buildings that once housed Mitchelville’s residents are long gone, their foundations swept out to sea. But there is one building that was more than just a building: The praise house was the nexus of spiritual and civic life for the people who called Mitchelville home.
“This was a real cultural touchstone for this place,” Sanger said.
His team took its ground-penetrating radar across likely spots throughout the maritime forest that has grown up over the historic site, comparing landmarks to historic maps in a search for Mitchelville’s lost praise house.
As with the tombstones, it was only a matter of time before their work paid off.
“We found something that has the right size and shape, excavated it, and found materials suggesting we were on top of it,” Sanger said. “I think it’s more likely than not that we have found the praise house.”
But he cautions against celebrating too early, noting that field work represents nearly a fraction of the work that must be done in a lab analyzing findings and officially identify the site. But his discoveries reveal a little bit more of Hilton Head’s history, brushing away layers of time and dirt to unveil the past.