Big Digs

June 2016
Written By: 
Pam Windsor
Photographs by: 
Bobby Altman

‘Every day is a treasure hunt’ to archaeologist Susan McMillan

In late March, Susan McMillan and members of the Waccamaw Archaeology Partnership gathered at a vacant lot in a quiet neighborhood of Surfside Beach for the final dig of the season. There was an air of celebration as they prepared to wrap up the nearly six-month project, but they were intent on making the last day count. They quickly fanned out over the property. Some grabbed hand shovels and began digging in open, marked holes, while others stood over a wire screen to start sifting through buckets of dirt. They’d already confirmed the 1820-era Ark plantation home once stood here, but were still searching for clues as to how people lived here so many years ago.

This group, nicknamed “The Diggers,” has worked side-by-side excavating area plantation sites for nearly 20 years. They all share a deep love of history and a fascination for digging up the real story.

“Every day is a treasure hunt,” McMillan explained. “No matter what the legend is as to what happened where, the ground doesn’t lie.”

This was the latest in a string of successful digs for McMillan and her all-volunteer group, recognized for their work at plantations like Brookgreen, Wachesaw, Hopsewee and others.

The Surfside Beach site was different than their previous plantation digs. This one, right in the middle of a residential section, was closer to the ocean than most. The Ark home was located about two-tenths of a mile from Surfside Pier, while the entire plantation stretched over nearly 3200 acres, encompassing most of what is today Surfside Beach.

“This was close to the ocean. It was lived in by a bachelor. John Tillman had no wife and no children. And he was a very thrifty man. I think he lived a Spartan life. He didn’t have any affluence or the material wealth that we think of with a plantation.”

Different crops were grown here, with indigo in the early years and upland rice, sweet potatoes, Indian corn and others in later years. Slaves lived and worked on the property, but the plantation home was much smaller than most.

“It was a four room farmhouse called a plantation house, although it wasn’t Tara,” noted Joanne Milnor. “It wasn’t some big palatial place. It was a modest home.”

Trying to find the home’s original foundation and locating artifacts tied to 1800s proved to be a little challenging because in later years the house was turned into a hotel.  

“It became a hotel and they added 18 rooms,” said Milnor. “So, you have some artifacts left from that period. Then it became housing for the lifeguards.” They’ve termed that “the lifeguard period” referring to the large number of bottles left behind. “They were drinking a lot of beer,” she added.

McMillan says they were able to locate the corners of the original house and although everything was torn down around 1960 and the lot apparently bulldozed, they did find some interesting artifacts that tie back to those early years.

“We found a Civil War broach which is the photographic type that became very popular during the war because all of those young men were going off to fight and their wives and sweethearts wanted a picture to carry with them.” There’s no sign of a photograph, but the filigree trim that would have served as a border is still evident.

They also found an 1823 silver dime. Joe Troy was operating the metal detector, which had thus far been turning up things like nails and other surface metals, when it suddenly registered a deep signal that indicated silver.

“So I got really excited and dug it up,” he said. As he pulled a circular object from the ground and cleared the dirt he saw the date and Lady Liberty. “It’s nice when it shines back at you,” he said with a smile.

Although Troy is one of the newer members, most of the group came together in the late 1990s. Back then, Brookgreen had an educational component and many of them had signed up for Campus Brookgreen’s Plantation Archaeology class. McMillan, a former newspaper editor and high school teacher who became interested in archaeology later in life, was co-teaching the class. Everyone enjoyed it so much that when Brookgreen later disbanded the program, they wanted to find a way to continue learning more.

McMillan recalled their disappointment at the time. “They said, ‘You have to find us a dig. We don’t want to quit, we love this!’”

At the time she had no leads at all as to where they might use the skills and the experience they’d gathered at Brookgreen.

“I said, ‘OK, if you find a place, I’ll run the show,’ because I had the equipment. The next thing I knew I got a call. ‘We’ve got a job at Wachesaw!’”

They spent a year or two digging at Wachesaw and when that ended, another opportunity came along, then another.

“The word got out that there’s this group that’ll do your archaeology if you call them, and the rest is history.”

Over the years they’ve grown so close they consider each other family.   

“We’ve got a lot of unique personalities, everybody has different interests, but it works,” McMillan said. “We enjoy getting together for meals and do that occasionally. The joke is that we’re a dining group with a digging problem because we just enjoy each other’s company. I really love them, they’re wonderful.”

While some group members are in their 60s, most are now in their 70s and 80s and still going strong. And over the years they’ve made a number of significant discoveries. During one of their many digs at Brookgreen they unearthed a smokehouse with an external firebox that was never even listed on the map. According to McMillan it was built with technology learned in Barbados by slaves on the property. It was designed to use a coal smoke process so the meat never came in direct contact with the fire, making it much safer. Only two such smokehouses have been found in the U.S., the one at Brookgreen which has since become a permanent exhibit and one in North Carolina.

The request for the group’s services in Surfside came from the Surfside Beach Historical Society. Ben Burroughs, who is the Director of the Horry County Archives Center at Coastal Carolina, has been working to locate the Ark Plantation for the past 10 years. He, along with others in the community, began pinpointing that it might be at this location.

“Mainly we were hoping to confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is where the old house sat and we’ve done that. And we wanted to know more about the people who were living here.”

Burroughs said with the support of the Surfside Beach Town Council there are plans to put up a series of historical markers throughout the Surfside area. One will mark the site of the Ark home and another the old cemetery nearby. He believes it’s important to mark what once happened here for local residents, as well as out-of-town visitors. It allows everyone to share in an appreciation for history.

“This is not just a bare piece of sand that’s sitting over on the coastline that has no cultural heritage,” he said. “It’s roots, it’s a sense of place.”

Discovering that sense of place and an appreciation for the cultural past continues to motivate McMillan and her group, although with the Surfside dig complete they are currently without a future project.

“I don’t know,” said McMillan when asked what might be next. “But when I left Brookgreen I didn’t know what might happen and the next thing I knew there we were, so … we’ll just see.”