___________________________________________________________________________________

 Bush Hill Plantation, Aiken, South Carolina ___________________________________________________________________________________

Bush Hill was a plantation located along the middle Savannah River valley near Aiken, South Carolina and Augusta Georgia.  Situated on the the Savannah River Site, a Department of Energy facility, the remains of the planter's house at Bush Hill were in the footprint of a new landfill for Aiken County.  Consequently, the site was excavated by personnel with the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program under the direction of Melanie Cabak.

The triple volume excavation report Plantations without Pillars: Archaeology, Wealth, and Material Life at Bush Hill by Melanie Cabak and Mark Groover is currently available from the University of South Carolina.  Printed copies of Volume 1 (Context and Interpretation) are available for $18.00 including shipping.  Volumes 2 and 3 are included with Volume 1 on a CD in pdf format.  The CD versions of the report containing all three volumes are also available for free.  To obtain the report in printed or CD format, contact Gary Coleman, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Columbia 803-777-8170. 

Link to Plantations without Pillars: Archaeology, Wealth, and Material Life at Bush Hill, Vol. 1: Context and Interpretation (pdf file, 138 mb)

 

Excavated remains of planter's I-house at Bush Hill, near Aiken, South Carolina.

 

Report Abstract

Volume 1, Context and Interpretation

The results of archaeological investigations conducted at Bush Hill plantation (site 38AK660) by personnel with the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, SRARP, are summarized in the following report.  Bush Hill plantation is located near Upper Three Runs Creek in Aiken County, South Carolina on the Savannah River Site, a nuclear research facility operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.  Data recovery excavations were conducted at the site between 1996 and 1999 in response to the development of the Three Rivers Regional Landfill and Technology Center.  Occupied between circa 1807 and 1920, the site, containing the archaeological remains of a planter's dwelling (an I-house) and house lot, was owned by four generations of the George Bush lineal family.  The enslaved residents of Bush Hill plantation raised livestock and produced numerous subsistence crops as well as cotton.  To date, Bush Hill is the only antebellum plantation on the Savannah River Site, or in the surrounding middle Savannah River valley, that has been the subject of data recovery excavations.  Consequently, the archaeology conducted at the site is significant because it provides important information regarding the material conditions experienced by a 19th-century planter family in the region.  

Interpretation of the material record encountered at Bush Hill plantation, as the title of the report implies, explores the archaeological theme of plantations without pillars.  Using a case study approach, prevalent perceptions regarding the material conditions and the standard of living experienced by southern planters are explored in this study.  To contextualize economic activities and material consumption at Bush Hill, a regionally-based research design is presented that emphasizes reconstruction of economic and material trends among the Bush family and the larger agricultural community.  Reconstructed economic trends associated with the family and surrounding community are then used as an interpretive context to better understand the domestic landscape at the plantation and the extent of consumerism practiced by the family during an approximately 120-year period, as revealed through the archaeological record and probate inventories.  Economic records indicate that the George Bush family was prosperous and was among leading wealth groups within their surrounding community during the 19th century.  Ironically, the Bush family was affluent, yet their standard of living revealed archaeologically was economically conservative.  The family mainly used inexpensive household items and apparently did not acquire the luxury goods that are often thought to be archaeological hallmarks of genteel society, such as expensive dining ware or porcelain tea sets.  The family did not lavishly furnish their home with expensive items, but the archaeological record did indicate that they were aggressive consumers, illustrated by the sheer quantity of material that was discarded by the site residents.  Although the Bush family used inexpensive consumer goods, in contrast their dwelling probably denoted their social position in the local community.  However, certainly not a columned country estate, the main dwelling at Bush Hill was a Carolina I-house, a prevalent yet unassuming architectural style among prosperous rural families.  The example provided by Bush Hill underscores the complexity of individuals and planter households in the past, and illustrates the fact that the wealth held by former site residents will not always be directly discernable in the archaeological record.              

 The results of archaeological excavations conducted at site 38AK660 are summarized in three volumes.  Archaeological interpretation of Bush Hill plantation is presented in Volume 1.  Volume 2 contains a technical description of the archaeological record encountered at site 38AK660.  Several appendices containing primary historical and archaeological information are presented in Volume 3.  The goals and purposes of the archaeological project conducted at site 38AK660 are first summarized in Volume 1, followed by a discussion of the research design used in this study.  The property history associated with the site, family and community history, and related agricultural trends at the plantation are also summarized.  The standard of living practiced in the community surrounding Bush Hill plantation, the site structure and domestic architecture present at site 38AK660, and the standard of living practiced by the George Bush extended family are examined in the latter chapters of Volume 1. 

 

Carolina I-house on the SRS in 1951 similar to the planter's dwelling at Bush Hill.

 

Report Citations

Cabak, Melanie A. and Mark D. Groover  2004 Plantations without Pillars: Archaeology, Wealth, and Material Life at Bush Hill, Volume 1: Context and Interpretation.  Savannah River Archaeological Research Papers 11.  Occasional Papers of the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

 Cabak, Melanie A., Mark D. Groover, and Elizabeth Scott  2004 Plantations without Pillars: Archaeology, Wealth, and Material Life at Bush Hill, Volume 2: Technical Description of Excavations, Features, and Artifacts.  Savannah River Archaeological Research Papers 11.  Occasional Papers of the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

Cabak, Melanie A.  2004 Plantations without Pillars: Archaeology, Wealth, and Material Life at Bush Hill, Volume 3: Archaeological and Historical Data.  Savannah River Archaeological Research Papers 11.  Occasional Papers of the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

Reviews of Plantations Without Pillars

Review by Nicholas Honerkamp, Southeastern Archaeology 2008 27(1):150-152.

 Plantations Without Pillars: Archaeology, Wealth and Material Life at Bush Hill. Vol  1, Context and Interpretation. Melanie A. CabAk and Mark D. Grover. Savannah River Archaeological Research Papers, No. 11 Occasional Papers of the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Columbia, 2004. iii-xii + 254 pp., 150 figs, 74 tables. $18.00.

        As most of us are aware, there is a wide spectrum to be found in the quality of research reports in historical archaeology, be they academic or cultural resource oriented. Some are of the melancholy bare-bones variety, reflecting constraints on research time and funding. And then there are the truly remarkable efforts that stand as models for archaeologists of all stripes. Cabak and Groover’s exhaustively researched Plantations Without Pillars falls into this second category.
        The Bush Hill plantation (38AK660) is located in the Savannah River Site in Aiken County, South Carolina, on a Department of Energy nuclear research facility. The site was investigated as part of the Savannah River Research Program and it is the only antebellum plantation in the middle Savannah River valley that has been the subject of data-recovery-level research. As the title of the monograph implies, Bush Hill was a working plantation rather than a columned country estate. It was owned by four lineal generations of the same family and occupied from about 1807 to 1920. In the pre-Emancipation period, the plantation was an unpretentious but certainly successful cotton producing operation. A central theme of the research design for this site is defining and contextualizing the “working” versus “show” plantation distinction, with a goal of correcting the common “Gone With The Wind” stereotype of Southern plantation life. The authors waste little time in doing so: the first paragraph of their introductory chapter points out that only 5% of white males in the Old South even owned slaves in 1850. Cabak and Groover argue that for several generations of the Bush family—and imply that for many other mid-level planters like them—wealth was expressed primarily in land and labor ownership rather than over-the-top architectural extravagance and lavish material possessions. While this observation is not unique in plantation studies, the approach used in demonstrating it is unusual for its thoroughness and quantitative emphasis. 
        The authors begin by defining a plantation as “an agricultural operation where most of the agricultural products were raised through the use of enslaved labor…,” a definition that is not contingent on acreage or the number of slaves present. Besides distinguishing plantations from farms that lack slave labor, such a flexible approach accommodates the dynamic nature of plantation evolution. Linking the trajectory of plantation development to a Wallersteinian world system model, with a reliance on the scholarship of Francis Braudel, the authors propose a plantation typology that is defined by several variables. These include regional and temporal trends in demographics, settlement patterns, subsistence practices, economic characteristics (crops, land and slaveholdings, labor systems, wealth groups, etc.), material culture (architecture, material possessions, etc.), and social characteristics (including slave autonomy). They then seek to identify the range of variation among plantations within their study area, and also to define the relative socioeconomic position of the study household among other planters using census data and probate inventories. One way the latter goals are accomplished is to calculate Bush family financial averages from the census information and compare them to averages calculated from 15 names immediately before and after the Bush census entries. This allows outliers in the region to be easily identified. Corresponding differences in standards of living are then determined, as revealed archaeologically and from probate inventories. A strong point of this approach lies in the objective manner in which test implications concerning rich and poor are generated for comparison.
        Two chapters of Volume I are devoted to the archaeology of the Bush Hill main house and surrounding landscape. Besides the dual chimney I-house planter residence, features such as a well, outbuildings, a charcoal kiln, and a probable cotton press pit were located. The meticulous excavations at the Bush residence revealed that while it was a “rural symbol of prosperity and social status in the local community” compared to other residences in the region, it was at the same time anything but an ostentatious manor (p. 8-61). Similarly, luxury items and decorative goods were rare, especially early on: a “conservative consumer orientation” was seen in the mostly undecorated refined ceramics, locally made stoneware, low-quality domestic faunal remains, and inexpensive clothing and jewelry artifacts that were recovered. However, what the Bush family lacked in quality, it made up for in quantity, particularly in the second half of the 19th century when a spike in mundane consumer items and a wider variety of faunal species was measured. Despite the agrarian setting, the residents of the site were participating fully in the larger technological and consumer trends affecting the nation.
        Curiously, research devoted to the slave component at Bush Hill Plantation is conspicuous by its absence. Although the ultimate success of the plantation obviously depended on slave labor, slaves are examined primarily as a documentary reflection of the planter’s absolute and relative wealth. Apparently a slave presence occurs archaeologically at the site about 200 meters away from the main house, but it was not excavated, possibly as a result of CRM requirements (this is not explained). Considering how remarkably detailed the planter material conditions are delineated in this report, a comparison with the slave component would have been fascinating. So also would comparison of Bush Hill slave assemblages with other working or show plantations in the South. Given the thoroughness of the authors, however, that would have probably upped their output to a five- or six-volume report! As it is, there are three beefy volumes devoted to Bush Hill: hardcopy Volume I contains the essence of the documentary and archaeological information and analysis, and comes packaged with a CD version; Volume II (field methods, features, and artifact analyses) and Volume III (appendices) are also included as CDs. No index appears in either format, but of course the CDs are searchable. The hardcopy and digitized illustrations are in black and white. While this format is arguably at least as useful as color for field photographs, it would have been nice to see color artifact illustrations, if only in the digital version. It should be noted, however, that all the graphics in the three volumes are of uniformly high quality.
        These minor quibbles should not detract from what Cabak and Groover have accomplished at Bush Hill. Solidly grounded in theory, they bring an ambitious and thought-provoking methodology to elucidating the social, economic, and material context of a planter family through time. In so doing, they buck the atomizing tendency that is often seen in plantation studies by offering a systematic, quantitative, comparable analysis of both the document- and dirt-based data. Their work—and the challenge that it presents—deserves serious consideration by plantation researchers.


John P. McCarthy, Historical Archaeology 2007 41(4):221-223.


Plantations Without Pillars: Archaeology, Wealth, and Material Life at Bush Hill

Melanie A. Cabak and Mark D. Groover

Savannah River Archaeological Research Papers 11, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, Columbia, 2004.  226 pp. 143 figs., index, CD, no price, paper

        This hefty, perfect-bound volume reports the results of 1996-99 excavations at the Bush Hill plantation, located near Upper Three Runs Creek in Aiken County, South Carolina on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site, a nuclear research facility.  The plantation, occupied c 1807–1920, was home to four generations of the George Bush family and their enslaved workforce. While the report presents the results of the excavation of a single complex site, the analyses place these results in a regional framework that emphasize material economic trends using both archaeological data and probate inventories.
        The background, goals, research design, historical context, thematic summary of data, and interpretations are found in Volume 1, reviewed here in hard copy, but also supplied in portable document format on CD, as were Volumes 2 and 3, technical description of the excavations and  artifact inventory and tabulated historical data, respectively.
        While at first blush one might be tempted to dismiss this as just another excavation report, doing so would be a mistake.  While the detailed site information that makes up the bulk of most site-focused archaeological monographs is present, it is largely relegated to the second volume, while this volume focuses on the substantive issues of the research design and interpretation of data. This is to be welcomed, even applauded, and is necessary if historical archaeology is to meaningfully contribute to conversations beyond the walls of our own discipline.  Site-specific observations and interpretations are put in regional perspective and an approach to the systematic study of southern plantations is outlined.  Accordingly, this study’s implications are much wider than usually seen in a site-based investigation.
        While one of the most prosperous families in the area during the antebellum period, the Bush’s appear to have been economically conservative, living in a relatively unassuming house and foregoing the expensive consumer goods of gentile planter life found at other sites.  This demonstrates once again that, especially at rural sites, affluence may not be discernable from the archaeological record alone.
        The study explores the stereotype of the plantation South as represented by the showcase plantations of the elite.  The vast majority of planters did not live lives of opulent elegance. Rather, their plantations were instead working establishments similar in organization and physical extent to the typical farm but with the critical distinction of reliance on an enslaved workforce.
        The study also explores the physical evolution of this plantation over four generations of ownership by the same family.  Previous research by Groover had shown a relationship between the growth history of a family and the extent of material consumption and discard.  In addition, length of occupancy also affected the extent of deposition, with longer occupancy resulting in larger deposits, beyond the obvious connection between length of occupancy and extent of refuse accumulation. Generational secession also influences the domestic landscape as younger members of the family assume control and make changes to some elements, while preserving others unaltered.  At Bush Hill it appeared that yard maintenance declined as a priority as refuse was allowed to accumulate closer and closer to the house. Evidence of windows replacement, chimney repairs, and alteration of the organization of the house lot appear to coincide with a secession event.  There is also evidence suggesting that, following national trends, more financial resources were dedicated to creating an increasingly comfortable domestic lifestyle as the nineteenth century progressed.
        The authors go on to offer their observations toward the systematic study of southern plantations.  They argue for the broader application of the regionally-based approach that they employed.  Their overall goal is to systematically define the economic and material characteristics of plantations in different cultural/agricultural regions of the plantation South through time in quantitative terms.   They suggest three main research considerations be documented for each region: cultural history characteristics, economic trends, and material characteristics.
        Groover previously conducted extensive quantitative analyses of archival data to define the economic and material trends of the region.  This work allowed different wealth groups to be identified, allowing for the systematic comparison of economic indicators between different households.  By extending such detailed analyses to other areas and other economic groups, the authors suggest that it will be possible to develop regional synthesis of plantation archaeology than can be extended throughout the plantation South.
        Bush Hill is the only antebellum plantation to have been extensively studied in the Middle Savannah River Valley so far.  Accordingly, this study is but a starting point for the type of regional approach for which the authors argue.  There are existing data for other regions that might be analyzed, particularly the South Carolina Lowcountry where numerous plantations have been investigated.  However, the task of applying their approach to the Lowcounty, and elsewhere in the plantation South, is left to others.
        Certainly the regional approach adopted here allows the results of a single site to be placed in wider, more meaningful context, something sorely needed in historical archaeology.  It stands as an example of what can be done when archaeologists take the time to make the most of documentary sources.  Everyone concerned with the archaeology of the plantation South will want to read this study and consider the regional approach the authors offer.
        That said, this reviewer is less sanguine about the suggested wider application of quantitative analyses beyond the study region.  The quality and completeness of the documentary record varies widely and surviving data may not be amenable to the suggested approach.  I also find problematic unexamined underlying assumptions concerning human nature and economic behaviour similar to those of the naïve
positivism of processual archaeology.  I suggest that historical archaeologists adopt quantitative techniques, especially those whose roots lie in other disciplines, only with great care.

 

 

Journal Article

Cabak, Melanie A. and Mark D. Groover, Bush Hill: Material Life at a Working Plantation.  Historical Archaeology, 2006 40(4)51-83.

 Journal Article Abstract

Bush Hill plantation, located near Aiken, South Carolina and Augusta, Georgia along the middle Savannah River valley, was owned by four generations of the George Bush lineal family between ca. 1807 and 1920. Drawing upon the interpretive concept of the working plantation, perceptions regarding material conditions and the standard of living experienced by southern planters are explored in this essay.  Economic records indicate that the George Bush family was among the top wealth holding groups within the surrounding community.  Although the planter family was affluent, the standard of living revealed archaeologically was economically conservative.  The Bush family used inexpensive household items and did not acquire the luxury goods often thought to be archaeological hallmarks of genteel society, such as expensive dining sets or tea ware.  Conversely, archaeological data revealed they were aggressive consumers, indicated by the sheer quantity of material discarded at the site.  The example provided by Bush Hill underscores the complexity of planter households in the past and illustrates that the wealth held by former site residents is not always directly discernable in the archaeological record.              

 

The Savannah River.

 

Back to Research Page