Archaeologist honors past at Dorchester
After weed whacking in a ditch full of water, Larry James surveys the property he maintains and proclaims to be the happiest guy in the world.
The land is not just any piece of dirt. James is in charge of what he considers one of the most precious pieces of property in the entire Lowcountry. The 38-year-old is the manager/ranger and resident archaeologist at Colonial Dorchester State Park.
What he loves to do most is discovering what’s underneath the green grass. He only gets to spend about 30 percent of his time doing that, though.
The majority of his days are devoted to interpretive tours, upkeep of the grounds, public outreach and lecturing.
Managing a historic site is a privilege coupled with responsibility. He also knows that anytime you dig a hole, it’s never the same once the dirt is replaced. That’s why he cherishes and protects what he believes is hallowed ground.
Colonial Dorchester and Charles Towne Landing are generally considered to be the richest archaeological sites in all of South Carolina. Not far beneath the surface are pieces of history that tell us about life “... before America was America.”
His grandfather and father were both pioneers in the car business in Charleston. After Larry graduated from the College of Charleston, he tried to appease his dad by pursuing business and sales. Larry loved history, though, not balance sheets and monthly quotas.
In 2005, James returned to the area to be near his father, who was in poor health. He also started to volunteer at the Charleston Museum. It didn’t take long to rekindle that thirst for discovering the unknown and he decided to seek a master’s degree in archaeology at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.
Soon, he would teach at that same school, but something kept pulling him back to his Lowcountry roots.
In 2011, he learned of an opening in archaeology at Colonial Dorchester and after a few years of wondering and wandering, he came home.
Looking for the past
Though everyone knows about Colonial Williamsburg, Va., Colonial Dorchester was actually founded earlier. For 80 years, this trading town along the Ashley River was populated by 800 to 1,000 people.
While Williamsburg has been commercialized and heavily marketed, Dorchester’s landscape remains rustic and largely unchanged. What fascinates James is that there’s still so much unknown about the people and the property because the ground has been undisturbed for 300 years.
He still “feels” something when around the various ruins. The church bell tower remains, though the church was burned by the British. A tabby wall that once protected the powder and munitions is still intact, but there’s a huge crack delivered by an earthquake in 1886.
Archaeology is all about discovering or seeing “the gray”: Often there’s more unknown than known. Sifting through the remains can produce more questions than answers.
This ground is so fertile and its contents so vast. By design, though, barely 20 percent of it has been fully explored. At a recent dig, a 9-by-12-foot hole revealed 4,000 artifacts. There were pieces of ceramic, buttons, glass and coins.
For James, those days when he gets his hands dirty are when the job doesn’t seem like work. But his passion for finding answers is tempered by an understanding that he’s also the property’s caretaker.
The first 100 years of Colonial history are under his feet every day he comes to work. To understand the past, he appreciates a need to protect the present.
He loves to dig and sift in the rich soil that early settlers once found so appealing. There are times, however, he also must grab the business end of a weed whacker to make sure it is as attractive to the eye on the topside as it is to inquiring minds who want to dig a little deeper.
Reach Warren Peper at email@example.com.