WPA Archaeology on the Georgia Coast

Submitted by Kevin Kiernan (kevin.kiernan@gmail.com)

Although his pioneering excavations in St. Simons Island, northern Glynn County, and especially Chatham County, are not widely known or well understood, Preston Holder was in fact the most productive archaeologist of the Georgia Coast during the WPA era. The Society for Georgia Archaeology, moreover, which was founded in 1933, played a key role in promoting his excavations and, along with the Brunswick Board of Trade and the Sea Island Company, even paid his salary before WPA funding began.

StSimons Visitor Center

Visitor’s Center, St. Simons Island Causeway

Holder’s extensive work was well known and regularly reported in the newspapers of the 1930’s, especially in Brunswick and Savannah. As he worked, Holder mounted displays of the choicest artifacts at the mission-style Visitor’s Center, designed by the noted architect, Francis Louis Abreu, which the Sea Island Company and the Board of Trade had built at the entrance to the St. Simons causeway. When he went to direct the Irene Mound excavations in Savannah, Holder brought with him thousands of additional classified ceramics for research and for training his assistants, who included Antonio J. Waring (then an undergraduate English major at Yale) and Joseph R. Caldwell, who eventually took over at Irene after Holder left to pursue his PhD at Columbia. The long-range plan was to house these artifacts under the jurisdiction of the Society for Georgia Archaeology when the museum at Ocmulgee was finished.

WPA 2011 Visitor Center artifacts 01

Artifacts once displayed at Visitor’s Center, now in private collections

Holder always kept meticulous field records, wrote regular, detailed reports to Arthur Kelly, his titular supervisor at Ocmulgee, and to Frank Setzler at the Smithsonian, and amassed many thousands of carefully classified artifacts. However, for as yet mysterious reasons, his supervisors did not permit him to publish his voluminous results. Interested archaeologists and historians of Georgia archaeology may none the less study these rich resources in the widely dispersed depositories of the National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, Maryland; the Preston Holder Papers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln; the Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia; the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, Georgia; the Bryan-Lang Historical Library in Woodbine, Georgia; and the Coastal Georgia Historical Society on St. Simons Island, Georgia.

WPA 2011 Visitor Center artifacts 02

Artifacts once displayed at Visitor’s Center, now in private collections

Members of the Society for Georgia Archaeology may read about Holder’s seminal work in Georgia in “Preston Holder on the Georgia Coast, 1936-1938” in the latest issue of the Society for American Archaeology’s Archaeological Record (November 2011: 11.5, 30-3), which is available online in PDF or Online Digital Edition formats. A heavily documented chapter on “Preston Holder’s WPA Excavations in Glynn and Chatham Counties, Georgia, 1936–1938” is forthcoming this Fall in Shovel Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America, edited by Bernard K. Means (The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa: 2012).