The Thomas Howell Site, Columbia, South Carolina   __________________________________________________________________________________________

Between 1989 and 1991 I was a graduate student in the M.A. program at the University of South Carolina (USC), Department of Anthropology.  For my thesis research I conducted fieldwork at the Thomas Howell site (38RD397) located immediately south of Columbia near the Congaree River.  While I was initially pondering possible thesis topics and reading about local history, I came upon a map that had been assembled from colonial period plat maps by South Carolina historian Robert L. Meriwether.  Meriwether's map denoted the locations of colonial residences, roads, and river crossings in lower Richland County along the Congaree River.  I subsequently decided to try and locate one of the colonial residences denoted on the map and conduct site excavations.  I selected this research topic for several reasons.  Perhaps most importantly, although numerous archaeological studies of the colonial lowcountry had been previously conducted, archaeological research pertaining to the South Carolina backcountry was somewhat underdeveloped.  Culturally, the backcountry was a very different place compared to the lowcountry, so I thought it would be interesting to explore a topic that had not received a lot of research attention.  Also, logistically and financially, it would have been very difficult for an impoverished M.A. graduate student based in Columbia to conduct lowcountry research.  Consequently, I decided to conduct colonial archaeology in the local area near the USC campus for my thesis research.    

To accomplish the goal of locating a colonial frontier site, I compared the Meriwether map to a modern topographic map of the area and looked for colonial residences that were in currently undeveloped areas--hence increasing the likelihood of locating preserved archaeological resources in these selected areas.  I also wanted to study a colonial domestic site that had abundant preserved historical records, which would enhance the interpretation of the archaeology encountered at the site.  I selected the Thomas Howell site that was denoted on Meriwether's composite map.  The Howell site was located in a plowed field on property maintained by a hunt club.  After successfully locating the site through pedestrian survey, I conducted systematic spatial analysis of surface material and located the subsurface remains of an earthfast or post-in-ground wooden structure, which I called Structure 1.  Occupied between the 1740s and 1780s, the structure probably resembled wooden frame "Virginia houses" described during the colonial period.  Structure 1 was approximately 16 by 16 feet square.  It contained a large pit cellar and a wood-and-clay chimney.  The pit cellar contained a relatively abundant deposit of domestic material.  The structure at the Thomas Howell site had been destroyed by fire and I thought it had probably been a detached kitchen.  The architecture and artifacts from the site offered an interesting illustration of the Native American, African American, and European American material traditions that had intersected and were transformed in the South Carolina backcountry. After graduating from USC in 1991 I published my thesis in 1992 through the Volumes in Historical Archaeology series funded through the Conference on Historic Site Archaeology.  I also published a journal article about the Thomas Howell site in a 1994 Historical Archaeology article.


Groover, Mark D.  1991    Of Mindset and Material Culture: An Archaeological View of Continuity and Change in the South Carolina Backcountry.  M.A. thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

Groover, Mark D.  1992    Of Mindset and Material Culture: An Archaeological View of Continuity and Change in the South Carolina Backcountry.  Volumes in Historical Archaeology 20.  Conference on Historic Site Archaeology, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

Groover, Mark D.  1994    Evidence for Folkways and Cultural Exchange in the South Carolina Backcountry.  Historical Archaeology 28(1):41-64.



Dig here!: 1746 Plat map showing the location of the Thomas Howell house on Raiford's Creek.



A crew of two: Mark and Melanie excavating the Structure 1 pit cellar at the Thomas Howell site, ca. February 1991.


Structure 1 base map.


Salzburgers in Ebenezer, Ga. (near Savannah), 1734, constructing dwellings similar to the structure encountered at the Howell site.



Microphotograph of silver and gold twist thread and ribbon recovered from the basal level of the Structure 1 pit cellar.


West African inspired clay spindle whorls in colonial South Carolina?

A fired clay object very similar to West African spindle whorls was recovered from the Howell site.  The item was found in the basal level (Level 4) of the Structure 1 pit cellar.  This level, created while the structure was standing between the 1740s and 1780s, contained kitchen artifacts typical of a domestic occupation and a large number of sewing-related artifacts, consisting of 67 straight pins, 17 glass beads, 90 fragments of silver and gold twist thread, and 11 fragments of silver ribbon.  The spindle whorl was consistent with the other sewing/clothing related activities that had transpired in the structure.  A spinning wheel and a loom and gears were listed in the probate inventory of Thomas Howell, indicating textile manufacture had occurred at the site.  At his death in 1760 Thomas Howell also owned 14 slaves. 

The item was made from fired clay.  The top was smooth and the base of the object exhibited use wear (spiral scratches and edge nicks).  The spindle whorl was possibly derived from West African textile traditions.  If this is the case, then it is an interesting example of an obscure and poorly documented material culture element from Africa that was practiced in the New World.  Admittedly, if the item found in the Structure 1 pit cellar was a spindle whorl, then this tradition that was transplanted to South Carolina was not prevalent, was short-lived, and did not survive beyond the colonial period.  A few other examples of clay spindle-whorl like objects have been found in South Carolina.  Jim Michie found a whorl-like item in Georgetown during excavations of a historic structure.  Chris Judge also found a whorl-like object at Mulberry plantation near Camden.  Future excavations of colonial period sites may likewise recover additional examples of these items. 

As an interesting side note, in 2004 I met Janilee Plummer, a new graduate student at Ball State University.  Spindle whorls were her thesis topic and main area of research.  She looked at sketches and photos of the item recovered from the Howell site and confirmed that, in her opinion, it was clearly a clay spindle whorl.  Likewise, she has clay whorls in her own extensive ethnographic collection that are very similar to the object found at the Howell site.    

The clay object from the Howell site is illustrated below, along with a few ethnographic illustrations of spindle whorls used in West Africa.


Sketch of possible clay spindle whorl recovered from the Howell site.


 Top of clay item (scale in centimeters).              


Bottom of clay item, showing use wear.


   Microphotograph, top of clay item showing smooth surface.       


Microphotograph, base of clay item showing use wear.


  Left: Clay spindle whorls from West Africa.

  Right: Dogon granary charm/fetish made

of a civet and a string of clay whorls, Mali.


Yoruba spinner with a clay whorl in a ceramic sherd.

Back to Research Page