Book chapter highlights Holder’s work on the Georgia coast

Submitted by Keith Stephenson

“Preston Holder’s WPA Excavations in Glynn and Chatham Counties, Georgia, 1936-1938” by Kevin Kiernan. Pp. 202-222. In Shovel Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America edited by Bernard K. Means. Published 2013 by the University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa. Reviewed by Keith Stephenson.

With the country well into the depths of the Great Depression, the presence of archaeologist Preston Holder excavating prehistoric sites in the St. Simons Island vicinity between 1936 and 1938 must have seemed a cause célèbre to the local public at the time. Today, there are precious few memories of Holder’s fieldwork across the island, and the significance of his research is marginalized to vague passages referring to long-past archaeology in the Marshes of Glynn. This major oversight has been rectified in a recently published article by Kevin Kiernan describing and discussing the still-relevant work that Holder conducted on the Georgia coast three-quarters of a century ago.

As Kiernan reveals, Holder, for reasons that remain obscure, was not allowed to publish the results of his archaeological findings. Through scholarly pursuit of Holder’s meticulous field records curated at the Smithsonian Institution, the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, and the Preston Holder archives at the University of Nebraska, Kiernan has unearthed the results of Holder’s work. Due to delays in the bureaucratic process, particularly at the Savannah WPA district office, early fieldwork in 1936 was sponsored and financed by the Sea Island Company, the Brunswick Board of Trade, the Glynn County Commissioners, and the Society for Georgia Archaeology. In all, Holder’s WPA excavations occurred at five locations on St. Simons Island, including the Airport site, Sea Island Mound, Charlie King Mound, and the Gascoigne Bluff and Cannon’s Point sites. His pre-WPA crew consisted of two African Americans, George Life and Charlie King, both residents of St. Simons Island, the son of the St. Simons Island lighthouse keeper C.O. Svendsen, and Holder’s wife, Ruth.

When the WPA project was at last funded, Holder’s crew expanded to 10 men who excavated some 200 burials and some 3,000 postmolds indicating the presence of domestic structures at the Airport site. A suite of prehistoric interments was also encountered at the Sea Island Mound site where numerous adolescent and children burials with seashells were noted. After completing his work on St. Simons Island and Sea Island, Holder moved to the Evelyn Plantation site near Darien where he identified the first demonstrable ceramic stratigraphy for the Georgia Coast. Finally, he relocated to Savannah where he initiated a five-month project of investigations at the Irene Mound site. Thereafter he departed for graduate school at Columbia where he intended to use the Glynn and Chatham county materials for his dissertation. Throughout his field study, Holder consistently delivered letter reports to his supervisors in Washington, D.C. and Georgia detailing the results of all his projects. The significance of Holder’s research lay in his formulation of a culture historical chronology for the prehistoric occupation of the lower Georgia coast initially and, coupled with his work in Chatham County, eventually the entire Georgia coast.

Holder never produced a final publication on his important site investigations in Glynn and Chatham counties. This is unusual for someone as erudite and socially progressive as Holder, who himself repeatedly mentioned his plan to use the material for the thesis topic of a dissertation. Kiernan presents compelling evidence that Holder’s lack of published material was no fault of his own. Kiernan points to correspondence between Holder’s WPA supervisors in Washington and those in Georgia denying him permission to publish, and indicating that Dr. A. R. Kelly was expected to publish on the coastal Georgia archaeology. Kelly, as Director of the WPA excavations at the Macon Plateau site, would have held academic prestige that Holder lacked at this time. Kelly never wrote up this work, however.

Kiernan recently published a concise version of Holder’s WPA archaeology in the Society for American Archaeology’s Archaeological Record (2010), and he has made a significant contribution to the history of Georgia archaeology with this much expanded and detailed account of Holder’s work (most of it unknown to the public) in Glynn and Chatham counties. This is a much anticipated history of Holder and his important contribution to the developing role of archaeology in Depression-era Georgia. All Georgia archaeologists, as well as the interested lay public, should have this book in their libraries and read especially Kiernan’s portrayal of Preston Holder as the original practitioner of Georgia coastal archaeology.