Tradd Street Redan

I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in today’s digging at the historic east end of Tradd Street. I will always remember this miserably hot, intolerably bright June day as one of the highlights of my life in Charleston. With the skilled assistance of team members from Charleston Water System, the city’s Storm Water Service, and Dr. Eric Poplin‘s intrepid coaxing of the city’s mega-vacuum, we got to the bottom of the redan brickwork, more than eight feet below the top of the redan, and studied its foundation. In short, we traveled back in time to take a brief once-in-a lifetime peek at the handiwork of African and European laborers in Charleston in the late 1690s.


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The bulk of the day was spent scooping and vacuuming out the water, mud, brick bats, pebbles, and ballast stones from an area about ten feet along the south face of the base of the redan’s south wall, extending approximately three feet  southward from the exposed brick (see the photos above). The goal was to find the bottom edge of the brick, to study the foundation for this massive wall of solid brick, and to record its dimensions. By the end of the day, we had the answers that we had been so eagerly awaiting. I took a dozens of photographs and even some video of this activity, but it will take me a few days or weeks to digest and edit this material. For the moment, therefore, I’ll simply summarize the findings and report more at a later date.

IMG_0549The brickwork of this redan extends 101 inches—nearly eight and a half feet—from the exposed top surface, along the outer slope of the wall, down to the bottom of the lowest brick course. If one remembers that prior to 1785 this wall extended a further six feet above their street level, then it is truly impressive to think that this was once a solid mass of bricks approximately fourteen feet high. The photo at left shows College of Charleston students with archaeologist Eric Poplin recording the height and location of the bottom of the wall. Below left is an image of the measuring instrument perched on Eric’s trowel at the base of the wall. Below center and right are probably the my best and last views of the full scale of the redan’s exposed south face.


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At the level where the brickwork ends, approximately eleven to twelve feet below modern street level, we found a line of cypress planks, approximately two inches thick, which appear to run parallel to the edge of the bricks. Since we used a backhoe (a step up from yesterday’s smaller track-hoe) to clear away part of the mud from this area, a few chunks of this cypress plank were brought to the surface (see the photos below). As you can see, it looks as if it had been hewn yesterday.


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We were not surprised to see cypress planks under the brick because architects Albert Simons and Samuel Lapham reported seeing the same when they encountered the foundation of Granville’s Bastion during their expansion of the Missroon House (40 East Bay Street) in 1925. At that time Simons and Lapham also reported seeing, but did not photograph, palmetto lots directly below their cypress planks, so we expected to see palmetto, too. Today, however, we learned that the cypress planks of this redan are resting on a thick nest of small vertical cypress piles.


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The three images above are the first photographs ever taken of a foundation of Charleston’s waterfront fortifications, which commenced building in the late 1690s (see our time line). As you can see, the horizontal cypress planks, which were a little damaged by our excavation, are pressing all the weight of the bricks above them onto a number of vertical, rough-hewn cypress stakes of varying sizes. We saw no signs of palmetto logs below this material. I am ecstatic to have had the privilege of climbing ankle-deep in the mud with Dr. Poplin to see this first hand. I hope our readers are similarly impressed!

Today was the final day of digging. Friday morning the excavated areas will be refilled with fresh dirt, and next week a layer of asphalt will return. Yes, there is talk of designing a permanent “window” of some sort over the redan, but nothing has yet been designed and no money raised for its construction. If you feel inclined to assist in funding such a project I encourage you to contact Katherine Saunders, co-chair of the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force and associate director of preservation at the Historic Charleston Foundation.

Don’t forget about the upcoming program at the Charleston County Public Library on Tuesday, June 30th, at 6:30 p.m. We’ll review the past four weeks of archaeology and talk about all the lessons learned during this great experience. Please come!

The main excitement today at the Tradd Street Redan dig was the extraction of large objects with the help of the track-hoe. We brought some great historic materials back from the past for viewing, but we also started the clock ticking on the question of the long-term conservation of these materials.

wall_fragment_extractionFor the past week or so I’ve posted images of a large mass of bricks resting in the mud adjacent to the south face of the redan. At first we thought of this object, which is roughly 13 inches wide and about three feet broad, as a fragment of the upper part of the old wall. Perhaps the wall was very skinny at the top, we thought. wall_fragmentAfter reviewing my research notes, however, I now believe this brick mass represents an early manifestation of the above-ground seawall, which, according to legislative reports of the 1740s and 1750s, consisted of a “double brick wall filled with mud” prior to its being rebuilt as a solid brick wall after the massive hurricane of 1752. Our large fragment, seen above being extracted by the track-hoe and then sitting on the asphalt, may therefore represent the thin outer surface of the pre-1752 redan wall.

Earlier this week I reported the presence of several wooden piles situated in a line parallel to the south face of the redan at a distance of five feet from the wall. We were overjoyed to see these posts, which, when back-filled with oyster shells and mud, once formed a sort of breakwater to protect the brickwork from violent tides and rogue ships. The documentary record tells us these pilings, which extended across the entire length of Charleston’s waterfront, were nearly all “carried away” by the hurricane of September 1700 and then replaced in 1702–1703. At some point later in the eighteenth-century the waterfront piles were completely covered over by silt, sediment, and trash, but with some effort and patience the crew managed to extract a total of nine wooden piles from the historic mud.

Agha_with_pileThe first couple of piles were so firmly embedded in the mud that they could be extracted only with the help of a strap attached to the track-hoe bucket. After the initial piles were out of the mud, the remaining ones came out with less trouble. At left is Brockington and Associates archaeologist Andrew Agha standing with the first of the piles. Soon we had several piles, well, piling up at the edge of the pit, still covered with mud (see photo below right).

fresh_wooden_pilesImmediately the several professional archaeologists on hand realized that they needed to begin to protect these 300-year-old organic objects from being damaged by exposure. Remember that they’ve been soaking in water, protected from everything, including oxygen, for more than 200 years. Loose ballast stones (extracted today from the same mud) were quickly gathered and arranged into long rectangles on the ground, then covered with plastic sheeting. One by one the water-logged timbers were placed in these makeshift baths, rinsed with a hose, and covered with water (see the photo at left). Once that frantic activity was accomplished the archaeologists and College of Charleston archaeology students began studying and measuring them.


I can mention three significant features about these piles. First, they’re all roughly seven feet in length and just over a foot in circumference. Second, their bottom ends have been shaped with an ax into a crude but effective point, as seen in the photo above center. Third, the majority of the nine piles we recovered today are native cypress timbers, as you can see in the photo above right left of the newly-rinsed piles soaking in their protective shallow bath. In this same photo, however, you can clearly see that the pile at the top of the image is red cedar. Even after 300 years, they still look nearly as fresh as when they were harvested from a local forest.

Which brings us to our final point of the day. These wooden piles are precious historic objects that tangibly connect us to Charleston’s distant past, but they’re also composed of organic materials that will rapidly decay now that they have been removed from their “home.” The several professional archaeologists on hand today talked amongst themselves in an effort to make some decisions about the future of these piles, and also consulted with visiting conservation experts from the Hunley conservation laboratory. The short answer is this: It will cost several thousands of dollars to conserve the piles—perhaps as much as $10,000 for permanent conservation of two of the nine extracted from the colonial-era mud today. By Friday morning, June 26th, we will have to decide whether to put some or all of the piles back in the pit to be reburied, or to keep only one or two to be conserved and displayed at the Charleston Museum. Money is scarce all around for such projects, but we hope some folks in the community will lend some financial assistance in this matter.


A sneak preview of a new 3-D rendering of the Tradd Street Redan, showing the line of piles in front of the wall

I think this is a wonderful opportunity for anyone passionate about Charleston history to pitch in and help preserve part of this city’s storied past for future generations. Why not consider “adopting” a wooden pile from Charleston’s colonial waterfront. These silent piles once witnessed the arrival of pirates, African slaves, and optimistic European immigrants, and it would be a shame to lose this opportunity to pass them forward to inspire future Charlestonians and visitors alike.

There was a lot of energy in the air at the dig site today due to several factors. We’ve had a lot of interested visitors who generally seem to share our enthusiasm for the project, and this fact seems to inspire everyone to work a little harder. Also, we’re getting down to the last few days of the dig, and many of us are working through a mental checklist of features we’d like to see, measure, and explore. Finally, the College of Charleston  student archaeologists are finding some really great artifacts in the earth, and everyone is very excited and looking forward to each new shovel full of dirt. Let me give a couple of examples.

I mentioned yesterday that the students had uncovered two wooden piles in the deep pluff mud, at a distance of five feet from the south side of the redan. Further digging in that wet, messy unit revealed three more piles (so far!), altogether forming a straight line parallel to the redan. The photo below left shows the piles (bottom right) in relation to the redan (top left). The photo in the center below shows the piles in a bit more detail (note the clouds reflected in the water), and the photo below right is a close up of one of the piles. From surviving legislative records we know that piles were placed on the outside of the waterfront fortifications more than 300 years ago to protect the brickwork from the storm tides and shipping accidents, but archaeologist Eric Poplin of Brockington and Associates, visiting the site today, suggested that boards placed against these piles may have also been used to create a coffer dam to facilitate the construction of the brickwork in the late 1690s and early 1700s. Stay tuned—we’ll certainly learn more about these piles in the next two days of deep digging!


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While I was discussing these possibilities with Dr. Poplin, a student announced that he had found a medium-sized mass of corroded iron in the pluff mud just a few inches from the point of the redan. It was encased in a thick layer dark pluff mud, so we walked out to the tent where other students were rinsing buckets of mud through the screens (see below left). The mass of iron got a good rinsing (see below center) and Eric held it for me to photograph (below right).


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possible_pistol_barrel_3Hmm . . . it’s iron, it’s long and skinny, and it has a few odd bumps and articulations (besides the encrusted organic material). To top it off, the artifact is definitely a partially-flattened tube. Perhaps it’s the barrel of an old pistol. If so, it may have been discarded into the mud in front of the redan 300 years ago. Only after the piece has undergone some conservation treatment and further study at the Charleston Museum will we know for sure, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with one final shot (pardon the pun) of the business end of the potential pistol barrel.

The greater part of this hot Monday was spent cleaning profiles, measuring angles, and photographing units. A bit of digging turned up at least one exciting new development. Digging deeper into a square unit just a few feet south of the redan’s apex, the student archaeologists began exploring the muddy soil at the water table. Here in the South Carolina lowcountry we call this watery stuff “pluff mud,” and its distinctive organic odor quickly filled the dig site. This layer soon proved to be rich in cultural artifacts, most probably dating back to the very early 1700s. One large, cylindrical item proved to be tenaciously stuck in the mud, however, and a little extra weight on the shovel caused the fiberglass handle to shatter (see below left)! Upon closer inspection, we realized that it was not a brick or ballast stone or bottle but the top of a wooden pile, and then noticed a second once a few inches to the northeast (see below center). A quick check with the tape measure confirmed my suspicion that these piles were located approximately five feet from the the face of the redan, and that they form a line parallel to the south face of the redan. These characteristics match our records of a legislative discussion in 1702 that mentions a row (or double row) of wooden piles to be placed in front of the sea wall at a distance of five feet, back-filled with oyster shells and mud, to protect the brickwork from storms. The mud surrounding the piles seems to be very interesting, but the students will have a devil of a time screening it. As you can see in the photo below right, this pluff mud is so wet and sticky that it’s nearly impossible to work through the wire mesh of the screens.


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Meanwhile, back at the redan, I spent some time today measuring surfaces and angles in order to create a three-dimensional model of the redan. I must say that there are many physical features here that don’t quite match the documentary evidence we have in the surviving colonial legislative records. We have much puzzling to sort out before we can theorize the “original” dimensions of the redan. I use that term “original” loosely because the documentary evidence tells us that the redan and the brick “curtain line” running on the east side of East Bay Street were repaired, augmented, and substantially rebuilt on several occasions in the eighteenth century. Take for example the large mass of bricks laying in the mud just a few inches from the south face of the redan (see below left and center). Is this a fragment of the upper part of the redan wall, or is it a fragment of the lower part of what was once a pair of thin brick walls forming the back and front of the redan, filled with mud in between? The surviving colonial legislative records mention both of these options, so we may be looking at remnants of the redan from before the destructive hurricane of 1752 and remnants from after that storm.


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To make this matter more confusing, we can now make out two distinctive semicircular mortar patterns on the top of the redan (one of which is pictured above right, looking southwest). What is the significance of this pattern? At this level the fractured surface of the redan is 60 to 62 inches wide, and the diameter of this semicircle, located more or less in the center of the wall, is approximately 30 inches. Hmm . . . more head scratching is required.

Fridays usual afford the archaeologists an opportunity to finish the tasks at hand and review the progress made so far. Today was no exception, and I’m happy to have some great views of the redan to share.

The work of removing the remnants of the 1786 floor of the Lower Market the top of the redan was completed today, allowing us to get a good look at the scars left by the demolition of the upper parts of the wall ca. 1784–1785 (see below left). This work also revealed the inside edge of the redan’s south wall (see below center), which unfortunately abuts the extreme northern limit of our dig site. Just as we found in 2008 while excavating the north wall of this redan, the breadth of the wall at this point is five feet at the top. The original breadth of the upper parts of the wall, which were demolished after the American Revolution, is still somewhat of a mystery, but we have definitely located a large fragment of that upper wall. The photo below right shows Martha Zierden pointing to a large chunk of brickwork that tumbled down from the upper part of the redan when it was demolished. We’ll definitely learn more about this large fragment next week.


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As a result of the students’ hard work, our view of the redan in general is much improved. For those of you not able to visit the site in person, I offer you the following images. The first, below left, is a shot looking down the south flank of the redan from very near the point. The second, below right, is a flawed panoramic view (imperfectly stitching three photos together) showing the top of the exposed redan wall, from the apex at the left toward East Bay Street to the right.


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Another day, another round of new artifacts. The earth is yielding some late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century objects this week, such as this fragment of bowl-form mottled manganese ware (below left). Many pieces of early Delft ware have been found, such as this fragment of a flat, footed plate (below center). The final photo (below right), taken on one of the sifting screens, shows a cache of the sort of early combed and trailed slipware that has been very plentiful at this site. Fabulous stuff!


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