Saturday, January 28, 2017

Georgia's Camp Lawton: Archaeology students back on POW site to unlock mysteries

Work several years ago in presumed barracks area (GSU photo)

After a year and a half absence, archaeology students are back on the site of a Civil War prison near Millen, Ga. Their prime objective this year is to locate more evidence of the structures and features used by Confederate troops to guard 10,000 Federal soldiers.

Ryan McNutt, assistant professor of historical archaeology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, has been teaching newer students the proper use of metal detectors in the dappled light of Camp Lawton.

“For spring, our initial focus is on potential rifle pits around the earthworks of Lawton. This may expand to the potential barracks area, depending on progress and what we discover around the fort,” said McNutt.

The Confederate camp broke into the news in 2010 when federal, state and campus officials announced that its location had been confirmed and the site already was yielding a trove of artifacts. Lawton was only open for about six weeks in autumn 1864. It held POWs moved from Andersonville and other sites as Union troops moved into central and south Georgia after taking Atlanta.

A major challenge is the lack of photos and plans of the camp, and archaeologists working the site know very little about the location of Confederate structures.

McNutt met last year with officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources about long-term plans for surveying and excavating the pristine site.

Prisoner map of Camp Lawton (Library of Congress)

Why two agencies? The federal prisoners were in a stockade that extended to a hillside that later became part of a now-closed fish hatchery. The Rebel captors were based on the other side of a spring, in what is now Magnolia Springs State Park.

Field school students this spring (Jan. 13-April 28) and summer (May 15-June 16) will be focusing their efforts on the state side of the site. McNutt wants to them to concentrate on areas that may contain remnants of defense and support structures.

Camp Lawton was last excavated in summer 2015 by students working with then-project director Lance Greene, who left soon after for a teaching position at Wright State University in Ohio. That summer, they concentrated on the Federal area, continuing the excavation of a prisoner hut and brick oven. The gap in field work at the site from summer 2015 to this month was attributable to finding a new director and McNutt studying past analysis and plotting new and revised objectives.

Over three years, Greene and his students also excavated what may be the Confederate officers’ barracks, but were unable to identify other Rebel portions of the site, including where the enlisted men lived.

Harmonica reed found in possible barracks area (GSU photo)

Like Greene, McNutt is interested in understanding the difference in the quality of life and the relationship between prisoners and guards.

Students in the spring field school are only at Camp Lawton on Fridays. The summer session will be Monday-Friday.

“The summer field school will focus in the main on the barracks area itself, though this is tied to the information gathered this spring,” McNutt told the Picket.

Students are using metal detectors to search grids.

“If we find concentrations of period artifacts, or changes in soil color in holes where metal detector hits are excavated, these may be indicative of high-activity areas in the past, or surviving archaeological features under the plow zone. In this case, we'll examine them through small 1x1 meter units to determine what's going on,” McNutt said. “We can then continue excavating if it seems small enough to tackle for the spring field school, or record the location, photograph and map whatever is there, and then return in the summer.”

Ryan McNutt (left) explains metal detector techniques (GSU photo)

“The summer will be a mix of this metal detector survey, and excavation in 2x2 meter units of areas of interest, like a chimney fall and concentrations of potential Confederate artifacts in the barracks area initially investigated by Dr. Greene.”

Those interested will have an opportunity to witness the work or, on a few days, help out. Volunteer days are May 27, June 3 and June 10.

A public day will be held in late March or early April. McNutt said those interested can contact him to arrange a visit during either field school. “The park staff can direct any visitors to our work area, and someone will give them a tour and explain what's going on.”

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