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A Hole in Time

by John Lane

“I’m pretty confident I’m in the Pleistocene,” Terry Ferguson says when I ask how deep in time he’s standing. Terry is in an excavated pit. The dirt walls are straight, angular, and stair-step steeply downward toward the past like a drawing for a book explaining Euclidian geometry.  The Pleistocene, the geologic epoch Terry invokes, ended about 13,000 years ago when glaciers covered about 30 percent of the earth and the climate here in Pickens County, South Carolina, was cool as Minnesota. Terry says the visual scale of time he’s etched on the dirt walls of this hole shows how “about every ten inches we go down, we’re back another thousand years.”

Tommy Charles and Terry Ferguson drawing excavation unit profiles.
  Tommy Charles and Terry Ferguson drawing excavation unit profiles.
Photo by Jeff Catlin.

When not deep in a vanished epoch, Terry works with me at Wofford College where he’s had academic lives as a geologist, an archeologist/anthropologist, and an instructional technology expert. Now the two of us, both in our mid-fifties, have changed jobs. We anchor the new environmental studies major, an interdisciplinary program where people like us from different disciplines explore environmental problems together.

This “dig” is some of Terry’s ongoing professional research and there are plenty of environmental questions to work on here—how exactly did people from different ages live in this place, being one of the big ones. We’re hoping we can find several ways that this place and the ongoing work Terry’s doing here can fit easily into our new environmental studies program.

There are six of us onsite today, myself included. I’m observing, asking questions, sitting up in the Holocene, the present epoch, on a shovel-carved lip of dark Southern piedmont alluvial soil just above the Oolenoy River. My feet rest ten or twelve inches deeper on tawny sediments. It’s about 1,200 years to the bottoms of my boots, according to Terry’s onsite time scale.

Though fixed solidly in time, I feel a little out of place. Everyone but me is a regular, here to work. This morning Terry shares this pit with Tommy Charles and Wesley Burnett. Tommy’s soon to be retired from the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology in Columbia, and this is one of the many projects he is still tending.  Tommy and Terry are the professional archeologists on this project—officially known as 38PN35, scientific code for the 35th site investigated in Pickens County—and they’ve been digging together here for four years.  Wes is a retired Clemson geography professor and seasoned archaeological volunteer. When he’s not down in the hole he’s sitting on top of an overturned bucket reading a long history of the Middle East, one of his geographical research interests.

Below the seat of my jeans, in a space about the thickness of the book Wes has been reading, all our American/European history disappears downward—the Iraq War (the present-2004), the Summer of Love (1968), World War II (1945-41), the Civil War (1865-61, what some unreconstructed locals still call “the late unpleasantness”), the American Revolution (1781-1776), the founding of Charleston (1670), Desoto’s journey inland to the Mississippi River (1540).  Below that, it’s Native American occupation—Cherokee, Mississippian, Woodland, Archaic, Paleo—ten feet down to Terry’s clammy Pleistocene floor.

Terry loves research, and he discovered early on that he was good at it. He arrived at Wofford in 1971 thinking he wanted to major in psychology, but he quickly found out that the behaviorists were in power. “I wanted Jung and depth psychology, and I wasn’t very interested in running rats,” he’s said.  He tried physics, but after working on Broad River rock shelters during a January term sponsored by Wofford’s legendary geologist John Harrington, he became interested in archaeology and geology. The summer before his junior year he worked at an archeological field school in New Mexico and used his nine hours credit to anchor a major in sociology.  Even after he choose sociology, Terry’s intellectual interests stayed broad, including upper-level English classes where he studied James Joyce. “I’ve always been interested in the mind of man,” Terry says, “but I ended up looking at the mind of the earth.”

Transit and view of horse farm and surrounding hills.
Transit and view of horse farm and surrounding hills.
Photo by John Lane.

For his master’s work at the University of Tennessee Terry wrote about soapstone quarries in northwestern South Carolina. His Ph.D dissertation at Tennessee was on prehistoric settlement patterns on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee and Kentucky.  Back at Wofford in the mid-eighties Terry continued John Harrington’s tradition of teaching geology as a liberal arts science, though he never lost touch with his love of “depth” in any intellectual form.

More important than our professional affiliation, Terry and I are good friends and this trip to the Pleistocene is another scene in an on-going conversation that goes back over 20 years. I know just enough about science to keep Terry interested, and he’s read most of the authors I admire, particularly the early modernists. Maturing in the age of Freud, the modernists pioneered the idea of depth in literature through the metaphor of conscious/unconscious. “I should have been a ragged claw scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Terry’s no ragged claw deep in his hole, but the idea of going down in order to get enlightenment or knowledge is something that engages him as well as me.

Our conversations often wander backward in time—to past cultures, past extinctions, past problems. Terry knows that the human mind, and the culture it’s created, has always served as its own pit worthy of excavation. I’m no scientist and he’s no poet/literary intellectual, but in our shared worlds we often find a place to stand together.

This excavated hole in time is such a land surface. It charges Terry up intellectually and it gives me a place from which I can dream all the way down to a vanished epoch. “You can’t get there from here,” is the old adage for those lost in a foreign place.  The pit is some place I can go and leave the present behind. Down where Terry stands there were families, alliances, and conversations 10,000 years before now. We’ll never know exactly what they said, but I can come close to the spirit of it all by listening to what’s been discovered here. “It’s a layer cake,” Terry says. “Shadows upon shadows. Each inch contains four generations. Same spot, but different people.”

Terry works to find the metaphor to explain it all. “I see dead people,” I want to interject humorously into Terry’s dissertation about the Early Archaic period, but I know I shouldn’t.

“Time’s arrow,” Stephen Jay Gould calls the horizontal way mortals often view our passing lives.  In this metaphor the present is the head of an arrow shooting through space into the future, pulling the lengthening shaft of the past behind it. Yet it seems when time is viewed on a mythic or religious scale it’s almost never horizontal, with heaven above and hell usually below. Here in Pickens County, Terry’s metaphor for time is mythic, a deep stair-stepping hole in the earth, the bottom of which is about the size of a phone booth.

  One of the frequent site visitors.
Photo by Jeff Catlin.

The site of Terry’s hole, the Foxwood Horse Farm, is truly a pastoral spot in this upcountry South Carolina world turning quickly suburban. The farm’s setting is a broad valley up against the Blue Ridge mountain front where the Oolenoy and South Saluda Rivers come together.  The long farm road into the site runs through fertile bottomland fields, and the flatness of the flood plain carries your eye not down but out until it stalls against a sharp line of blue sky and the green ridges confining the rivers.

As Terry narrates from below, I watch Wesley use a large kitchen spoon to remove a “feature” about two feet above where Terry stands. Wesley puts spoon after spoon of dark alluvial dirt in a large white cloth bag for later analysis offsite.  Above their heads, in the present, horses graze in adjacent pastures. They’re kept out of the archeological site by electric fences. A chestnut stallion keeps vigil at the back fence where volunteer Roger Lindsay mans the screens. He examines every bucket of dirt they pull out of the hole for small flakes of worked stone.

Roger’s a retired paint contractor who now lives nearby, and he has been with the dig from the beginning. His interest in prehistory is quite practical—as an avocation he’s a “flintknapper” who makes projectile points and replica stone tools for his own pleasure and understanding. He’s so good at primitive technology that his replicas are in museums, and he’s won contests for throwing accuracy using an atlatal, the ancient “throwing stick” used for hunting and warring, the forerunner of the bow and arrow by tens of thousands of years. In his pickup truck Roger always keeps a full array of bows, arrows, and atlatals made from the similar local materials that the originals would have utilized.  “He knows so much about the way they worked I think Roger’s channeling these people,” Terry explained to me once.

Jesse Robertson, who owns land across the river, sits in an old deck chair and observes the scene as I do. Jesse is another loyal volunteer who has also worked this site since 2004. Jesse contributes much more than his volunteer labor to this project. He has arranged a metal carport over the site to give it shade and protect it from the rain, and it makes a nice place to take a break or observe.

A few years earlier Jesse had been clearing this bottom for his brother while Terry and Tommy were working the land on the South Saluda River just downstream from its confluence with the Oolenoy. He’d yanked up a tree trunk and tangled in its roots was a sherd of 4,500 year-old fiber-tempered pottery. He collected it, and told Terry exactly where it was found. Fiber-tempered pottery had never been reported this far from the Savannah River, so the team secured permission to move the excavation to this terrace above the Oolenoy. The site has proven rich in artifacts and information, with evidence of settlement from historic time all the way back 10,000 years.

Just to Jesse’s right is a line of holes where a Woodland Period palisade, or log fort, surrounded a village here about 700 years ago.  Seven holes are exposed and survey flags mark the location of several others behind us. We sit and watch from just outside the walls of that old Indian log fort. Seven-hundred years is a long time, but it’s not much on a deep time scale. Figuring 20 years a generation, the people who felt secure behind this stockade were separated from the people at the bottom of Terry’s pit by the passing of around 550 lifetimes.

Everyone’s excited today because 30 inches higher than the floor Tommy and Terry stand on is a perfectly excavated tabletop of silt and sand around a formation of 16 stones placed there by deliberate human hands 10,000 years in the past.  The stones look a little like a patio, though no larger than a living room end table.  Chris Clement, a colleague of Terry and Tommy’s, had been working this site when the feature was discovered two years ago. Jesse says that the stone feature was such an unexpected surprise that those working that day joked it had to be a landing pad for a prehistoric space ship. Tommy and Terry have been asking their colleagues across the Southeast what that thought it could be, and nobody has a clue. Today’s the day Terry and Tommy plan to remove it.

10,000 year-old stone-covered feature.
10,000 year-old stone-covered feature.
Photo by Terry Ferguson.

“It’s something someone placed here,” Terry says when I ask him to explain. They know the feature’s date because the team has already removed a third of the stones and underneath they found charcoal from conifers and hardwoods, and a hickory nut fragment. Radiocarbon dating gave them the 10,000 BP (before present) date associated with the feature, one of the oldest culturally-associated radiocarbon dates in South Carolina. That places the stones near the beginning of what’s known as the Archaic Period of human prehistory.

As Terry and Tommy’s work on this site demonstrates, archaeology is a science balanced between theory and method—“find, excavate, analyze,” as Terry explains it. As a science it’s very different from the image we get watching Indiana Jones movies.  Literary romance is often hard to come by amidst the dust and sweat of hard work with shovels, trowels, and dental picks. They’ve been at it here for four years, and this hole in the ground, several tons of excavated soil, and a few hundred small plastic bags of artifacts and carbonized botanical samples are all they physically have to show for their labor.

When I ask about the slow pace and stop-and-start nature of this project, Terry points out that many in the archeological profession are in cultural resource management, hired gun masters-level researchers working on contracts to meet the needs of a government permit for construction projects. For the most part CRM archaeology is good, but it’s always done within the constraints of a particular project. Once the project is finished, the reports generated often end up as “gray literature,” information not available to the public because the results belong to who paid for them or few find the funds or time to publish the results.

The kind of archaeology Terry’s been conducting in Pickens County is another side of the profession, what he calls “purposeful research,” and it has none of the constraints of CRM work. “You pick a particular site that will answer particular questions,” he explained to me as we drove over to Pickens this morning, “and you work it repeatedly when there is time and money.”

 “Is a feature an artifact?” a large man with a Santa Claus beard asks. He’s standing opposite from me above the pit. He’s shown up this morning to see what the scientists are doing down in this Pickens County pit. He’s been introduced as a serious artifact hunter, and he’s curious as to what they’ve turned up so deep in the earth. 38PN35 has been known since the late 1800s as a location rich in artifacts, and people have been “surface collecting” the fields and pastures for over a hundred years. What they all found “arrowhead hunting” is mostly lost to the professional archaeology community, scattered among a thousand private collections.

7,000 year-old quartz crystal projectile point.
  7,000 year-old quartz crystal projectile point.
Photo by Jeff Catlin.

“No, a feature’s a feature,” Terry clarifies. “It’s something we find that’s human-made. It could be the site of a fire, a cache of decayed plant matter, a posthole, or something else. Somebody dug a pit here where the soil’s dark. And somebody laid these stones on top of it. Actually, a feature can tell us a great deal more than projectile points can.”

I can see this man’s mind processing what Terry has said. He spends his time looking for artifacts on the surface of bottomland fields like this one. He collects projectile points—what everyone used to call arrowheads—also pot sherds, ground stones, objects. The sort of systematic archaeological exploration of a site that is underway here is something he hasn’t thought about much. The past for him is the leftover (and often valuable for trade or commerce) detritus of occupation, like a landlord cleaning out a rental house and selling what’s left behind at the flea market.

What Terry’s interested in is the layers of the occupation.  “It’s not the artifacts,” Terry’s said. “It’s where the artifacts are.” Terry knows that there is so much information available to a careful researcher, things that an artifact hunter could never know about a long-vanished cultural moment, in this case the beginning of the Holocene, 10,000 years before the present.

“I can’t imagine 10,000 years into the future,” Tommy Charles adds, musing suddenly about time in the other direction. He’s shoulder to shoulder with Terry looking up out of the ten-foot-deep excavation pit.  “I know there will be blue sky, clouds. What else? That’s about as far as I can get.”
I write down Tommy’s words in my notebook and think for a moment about my own sense of time. I’m in the humanities, a creative writer, but I’ve been on enough archaeology sites like this one and taken enough geology classes to have what some would consider a well-developed sense of the past—what I like to call “deep time.” I’m never at a loss when thinking back 10,000 years, and I especially like time when it’s layered in depositional sediment like it is on the Oolenoy, an inch for every hundred years.

I’m 53 and my half-inch of time/sediment shows up quite well here at the surface of this site, though it looks precarious on the lip of the dig, as if it my life could blow away or be scooped up without much effort. 

But the future? I can’t get much further than Tommy. My sense of future time plays out too often in Jetsons fantasies of flying cars and personal convenience, but most times I have no idea where the arrowhead is flying. “The future,” as I heard one prognosticator say recently, “is always someone’s fiction.”

Jessie Robertson, Wesley Burnett, and Tommy Charles mapping exact locations of rocks in the feature.
Jessie Robertson, Wesley Burnett, and Tommy Charles mapping exact locations of rocks in the feature.
Photo by Terry Ferguson.

What does the story of the next 100, much less 10,000 years hold for valleys such as this one in the fast-growing piedmont of South Carolina? My interest in the future usually focuses on land use and environment and population, and here in the valley of the Oolenoy the stories the prognosticators are floating are not all happy—more people and pollution to come. Less biodiversity. Global warming.

So what can the past tell us about the future?  The band of Archiac nomads who laid these stones probably included at most 30 or 40 individuals. There may have been more than one band in a watershed, or maybe there was only one. We know that they moved seasonally up and down river systems searching out available food. They may have crossed into other watersheds for resources, such as stone for making tools. They hunted and gathered shellfish, berries, roots, and such. Their way of life was appropriate for the area’s resources and probably persisted for many thousands of years with little change. With modern Holocene humans like us our lives are changing daily, and our supply lines grow shorter every day.

I look down from above and try to find my own pattern in the intentional arrangement of the Archaic stones. I grasp for some hint into the Stone Age mind that placed this pavement here.  These people who lived 10,000 years ago had the same mental capacities as I have. They weren’t “primitive” in the way we’ve always meant that word—backward, under developed, haltingly simple. Their evolved culture had pushed their technology and hunting/gathering as far as resources allowed. It’s sites like this, rich in information, that can slowly help fill in some of the blank spaces.

I like to imagine that this arrangement of stones was recreational—almost like the Stone Age patio it resembles—or a ceremonial or religious spot. It could be a sweat lodge or altar or an old-time geocache. I can sense how pleasant it would have been to sit on what Terry’s excavation has discovered was a small bluff above the river 10,000 years ago.

Terry makes sure I understand that poetic revelries are fine, but they don’t know what’s below the stones. He can see that something was buried there because the excavation has already taken off the side third of the feature, exposing the faint outline of a pit filled with discolored soil. “It could be a cremation or a bundle of artifacts.  It could be something else,” Terry says. He says they may find out what it is when they remove the remaining stones, or the answer could be found when they excavate down to the bottom level of the small pit, or they may get some clarity when the data comes back from botanical analysis months later—or, as Terry admits, “We may never really know.”

Wesley Burnett, Terry Ferguson, and Tommy Charles working on features in deep excavation unit.
  Wesley Burnett, Terry Ferguson, and Tommy Charles working on features in deep excavation unit.
Photo by John Lane.

Later in the day as Terry removes the first of the sixteen stones, I remember when I sat in a Crazy Creek camp chair in the Cirque of the Towers high in Wyoming’s Wind River Range many years ago and watched as my archeologist friend and his brother John ascended a 2,000-foot rock pinnacle, a remnant of the Ice Age, carved by Pleistocene glaciers. It took them all day, and I watched through binoculars. What was it? Sixteen years ago?  It was a long time for time’s arrow to fly on anybody’s personal time scale.

All day Terry, the geoarcheologist, and his brother, the geophysist, climbed hard rock higher and higher through the clear Wyoming summer air, and the poet took notes below.  The irony of it all was that when they arrived on the top of their spire, they were standing, as Terry was now, on the Pleistocene.

As I reassemble that long-ago trip I remember how we fished most days for trout in high alpine lakes, and what we caught we kept fresh in a snow bank left over from the winter before at 11,000 feet. Up there in the high Cirque we were hunter/gatherers for two weeks. We caught our own meat, camped in temporary shelters, talked around campfires. Instead of furs we wore expensive petroleum-based designer fleeces to keep warm. Instead of discussing kinship we talked of books we’d read and past trips into the wilderness.

In reality it was hard to leave the Holocene behind. No matter how much we wanted to be Romantics about our time in the Wyoming wilderness we knew there were two or three dozen other climbers who possessed permits and had also hiked ten miles into the Cirque over two 12,000-foot passes to camp and scale the famous wild peaks.

This federally designated wilderness was under the same types of population pressures as Pickens County is projected to suffer from down the line.  A ranger told us not to drink unfiltered water from the wilderness lake at the center of the Cirque because the bacteria levels—particularly fecal coliform—were disturbingly high that summer from all the human activity of the climbers.

As I sit by this hole in time I feel like I know these Archaic campers, and I think of them as a band of Stone Age brothers and sisters. I know this is dangerous, that now is now, and then was then, but I can’t help it. It’s my natural inclination. It’s the mark of my tribe—to imagine, to teleport back and forward to all ages, to see through time.

Labeling and bagging individual rocks and artifacts from the 10,000 year-old feature.
Labeling and bagging individual rocks and artifacts from the 10,000 year-old feature.
Photo by John Lane.

Back in the present Terry and Tommy remove the pavement of stones from the feature. They bag and number each stone in its own freezer bag, then label with site number, location, and date. As Terry picks them up they often crumble in his hands. He puts all the pieces in the bags. They take dozens of pictures. Each time they take a picture they place the little striped black and white plastic arrow for scale, always pointing north, and write the relevant scene description on the small white marker board they call a mug board.

The most exciting moment for me comes when Terry pries up one stone with his trowel and it’s clear that it’s been split perfectly in half to make it level with the others. One edge has also been chipped away so it would fit perfectly with the stones next to it. Someone did this 10,000 years ago. Someone cared that the pavement of stones was level.

“Was the leveling aesthetic or practical?” My question doesn’t seem to interest Terry much, and he continues to remove all the remaining stones.

After two hours 35PN38’s mysterious early Archaic feature, carefully exposed for the first time in 10,000 years, finally disappears into two peach crates. “Archaeology’s actually a little sad,” Terry says as he places the last stone and climbs out of the pit. “It destroys the past in order to understand it.”

We pack all the equipment in two wheelbarrows and push them across the horse pasture to our vehicles. One more day and this crew of scientists and volunteers will shut the site down since they’re down to the end of their current funding.

In order to limit their impact on Jesse’s land, Terry’s research team has brought in a Porta-John, and it sits just outside the last fence next to the parking area. Tommy goes to take a leak before he hits the road back to Columbia.

Roger Lindsay throwing a spear with an atlatal as was done for thousands of years.
  Roger Lindsay throwing a spear with an atlatal as was done for thousands of years.
Photo by Terry Ferguson.

Roger’s chatting with the arrowhead hunter sporting the Santa Clause beard about the tools he’s made, and as illustration he walks to his truck to retrieve them. He returns with three atlatals and some six-foot long “darts” that fit on the throwing sticks. The atlatals are about 18 inches long, and he’s fitted each with rawhide loops for two fingers. The throwing stick lengthens the arm. They remind me a little of those plastic tennis ball throwers dog owners use. As we look at Roger’s handiwork, he hooks his fingers in the rawhide loops and points out with pride how one of the counter weights on this, his favorite atlatal, was shaped from soapstone to the same pattern as one found right here on the site.

“Turkey feathers,” Santa Clause says, running his finger over the guide feathers on one of the darts.

“The shafts are made from river cane cut right in this valley,” Roger says, placing the six-foot long dart on the throwing stick.

“Throw it,” Santa Clause says, and points at a clay bank 50 yards away.

Roger hops a couple of times and lets fly. The dart sails, flutters a little, and sticks soundly in the clay bank. Roger smiles with pride, and all of us watching give a little tribal whoop.

As Roger retrieves his ancient dart from the clay bank I look around the valley of the Oolenoy, and it’s obvious why these ancient people shaking free of the Pleistocene camped here on their long migrations up from the Atlantic coast—the land is rich in natural beauty. Surely resources such as beauty mattered to them.

No matter how many Holocene humans move into this watershed it will still be beautiful. There will always be this bright blue summer sky, and a tree line in the distance. That much we know. The rest of our lives will disappear into the ground or the atmosphere. 

Even the pit Terry and Tommy have excavated won’t last. Jesse has a backhoe ready to cover it up once the archeologists are done with it. But those post holes still visible from that 700-year-old stockade show me that if you want to leave a mark on the land, dig a hole. So I dig the toe of my boots into the ground at my feet. I’ve pushed down 500 years or so before Terry bids his friends and colleagues goodbye for the day. I left no artifacts behind to mark my visit to the Oolenoy, and the feature I make with my boot won’t last out the decade, much less Tommy’s 10,000 years.


John Lane teaches environmental studies and writing at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. This fall he begins his work as director of the Glendale Shoals Environmental Studies Center outside of Spartanburg. His latest book is The Best of the Kuzdu Telegraph. For more of John’s work see www.kudzutelegraph.com.
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