Georgia archaeology: Transportation sites

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

If you’re interested in the archaeology of Georgia, check out the titles you can access for free, which are published by the University of Georgia Laboratory of Archaeology, by clicking here. Some of these wonderful reports detail the results of research projects conducted across the state. Other reports summarize the archaeology of Georgia by pre/historical period.

Deep in the 2004 Historical Archaeology in Georgia, by J.W. Joseph, Theresa M. Hamby, and Catherine S. Long (Report no. 39), on page 175, a section titled “Transportation sites” begins. This class of archaeological site is little known. Transportation sites include shipping features like railroads and railroad depots and yards, roads and trails, canals, and wharves and docks. Causeways and shipyards are also features of Georgia’s transportation network.

As the report notes (page 175), “there has been relatively little historical archaeological research devoted to transportation sites in the state.” In the section on canals, which begins on page 176, the report authors note:

Canals were used as transportation systems for the movement of goods in the Coastal Plain and were also constructed for the movement of water in the Piedmont to provide motive power to industrial sites. Examples of both types of canals have received archaeological attention.

SGA members who attended the SGA’s 2010 Fall Meeting on St. Simons Island toured important archaeological sites in that area, including a visit to the now-abandoned Brunswick-Altamaha Canal. The banks of the canal were raised by the spoil produced when slaves and Irish immigrants hand-excavated the canal in the early 19th century. However, Frederick B. Gates, in an article in the online New Georgia Encyclopedia, writes that, “Though portions of the route were excavated, they never held water.”

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The Brunswick-Altamaha Canal, looking North from Highway 99. Photo by Kevin Kiernan, organizer of the SGA’s 2010 Fall Meeting.

Altamaha Brunswick Canal crossing 99

Brunswick-Altamaha Canal in satellite view from Google Maps, where Highway 99 now crosses it.

The Brunswick-Altamaha Canal was part of a grand plan to connect the Tennessee River with the Chattahoochee, Flint, Ocmulgee, Oconee, and Savannah Rivers. This canal network would make shipping of agricultural and industrial products from the interior to Atlantic ports.

2010 sga fall canal lecture

The SGA’s 2010 Fall Meeting tour group listens to discussion of the Brunswick-Altamaha canal.

We commonly think of residential locales as archaeological sites—whether historic or prehistoric—like homes, neighborhoods, or settlements. However the transportation routes that connect these locales are also part of how humans used the landscape in the past. Certainly, the remains of those canals built to haul cargo are part of the state’s transportation network, and are among the many transportation sites comprising Georgia’s archaeological legacy.

For more photographs of SGA members and guests enjoying the tour, click here. To access the University of Georgia Laboratory of Archaeology report list, click here. For more on canals in Georgia, click here to read the New Georgia Encyclopedia article by Frederick B. Gates.

Where to find it