Excavations at a Commercial and Residential Site in Georgia’s Historic African American Needwood Community
In 2019, New South Associates, Inc. (New South) conducted excavations in the African American community of Needwood along US 17 between Darien and Brunswick in Glynn County, Georgia. Excavations were limited to site 9GN433, a commercial and residential site determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (Keith et al. 2015). Research was conducted on behalf of CALYX Engineers and the Georgia Department of Transportation to mitigate adverse effects to the site as a result of planned road improvements to US 17.
Site 9GN433 is one of many historical African American sites identified within the Needwood community (Keith et al. 2015). The site was occupied from the late nineteenth century through the present, but research primarily focused on the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century component. Investigations at the site were designed to best identify potential intact cultural features related to this occupation. Research topics included settlement and landscape, respectability and dignity, African American stores and consumer culture, and leisure and childhood.
Historical research into the Needwood Plantation resulted in the identification of only a few references. Needwood is an example of an African American community formed after Emancipation in coastal Georgia. As was often custom, the community took its name from the previous plantation where it was located. The community church and schoolhouse were built in the 1870s. Many residents of the community worked locally in the rice fields on the former plantations where some had previously been enslaved, as well as on farms, at service stations, and as servants (Cate 1955; Department of Commerce - Bureau of the Census 1900).
The Needwood community included multiple stores and a dancehall in the historic period. John Powell of Brunswick, an African American, moved his store to Needwood in 1888 (Daily Advertiser and Appeal 1888), where census data indicate he operated as a merchant through at least 1920 (Department of Commerce - Bureau of the Census 1920). Deed records suggested that Powell’s store was located in the approximate area of the 2019 excavations.
Land ownership represented a statement of freedom, citizenship, and was a basis for establishing communities for African Americans (Barnes and Steen 2012; Bell 2018; Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission 2012:50; Steen 2011). Research questions focused on the organization of the community as seen archaeologically at 9GN433 including both residential settlement patterns and the relationship to the commercial area of the site.
After Emancipation, African Americans exhibited a trend towards goods that reflected ‘refinement’ or ‘gentility’ in clothing, furnishing, and other goods (Arjona 2017; Barnes and Steen 2012; Crockett 2005; Mullins 1999a, 1999b, 2012). The expression of human dignity, described by Palmer (2011:144) as one of the broad historical and cultural issues that archaeologists can address, is closely linked to the ideas of refinement and respectability. Research goals included identifying indications of self-sufficiency, gentility, and dignity within the community.
African Americans avidly participated in the emerging consumer culture of the late nineteenth century, viewing consumption as aspirational of social desires and important symbols of citizenry (Arjona 2017; Mullins 1999a, 1999b). Research focused on store inventory and purchased goods from domestic contexts, with particular emphasis on branding and supply chains, and what these goods imply about the members of the Needwood community.
Stores were commonly a place not only for commercial activity but also for socialization, which can have a similar assemblage to leisure time and children’s activities (Mullins 1999a; Tyson et al. 2013). Research was geared towards identifying contexts with artifacts suggesting leisure and/or childhood in the community.
Archaeological Excavations and Research Results
Archaeological fieldwork included geophysical survey, test unit excavation, metal detector survey, unit-block excavation, backhoe excavation, and feature excavation. Field methods were designed to identify artifact deposits and cultural features associated with the Needwood community. The most common types of cultural features were structural.
Structural features were somewhat useful in understanding site landscape. However, association between posts and construction pits was tenuous and did not reveal settlement patterns. The few structural features in the domestic areas of the site did not provide insight into settlement patterns. The remains of one dwelling were identified in the north blocks. Through feature analysis and artifact patterning, New South identified the location of the store and its socialization area. The commercial assemblages indicated both inventory and space for socialization among community members. There was likely a front porch facing US 17, where people smoked pipes and played marbles.
The clearest indicator of respectability and dignity in the Needwood community is the relationship between past and present residents to the church and school. Although this was not evidenced archaeologically at 9GN433, these institutions fulfilled the needs of the community and were the impetus for improvement among community members. In the Georgia and South Carolina Low Country, the establishment of independent communities with their own churches and schools were a common way for African Americans to create a sense of dignity. Churches in these communities provided moral and spiritual guidance and in some cases took care of the medical needs of the congregation (Arjona 2017:45; Cabak et al. 1995). Schools also played an important role in fostering the dignity of a community, as they provided African Americans with valuable skills for economic growth and self-sufficiency. Personal and clothing items recovered from across the site serve as the best material indicators of dignity or gentility. Whether going to church or elsewhere, community members took pride in their appearance. This is seen archaeologically in the presence of decorative buttons, jewelry, pocket watch parts, and a cufflink. Artifacts recovered from the site also reflect the occupants’ desire to look presentable, including cosmetics, perfume, a razor part, and mirror glass.
Stonewares, used for storage of goods, and canning jar fragments, lids, and liners were recovered from contexts across the site. Preservation of foodstuffs indicates self-sufficiency, which is associated with the themes of dignity and respect. Other evidence of self-sufficiency included hunting and fishing items such as fishing weights and ammunition for small game. Faunal and floral remains recovered from 9GN433 were minimal, but identifiable species include all locally available foodstuffs. The assemblage from the mitigation areas is small and may not be representative of the Needwood community. Oyster and scallop shell were the most common animal remains recovered during excavation. Mammal was the most common vertebrate. Minimal fish and bird were recovered from the site, suggesting these foods were supplemental to the diet. Huckleberry and other edible fruit seeds were common across the site.
Both the commercial and residential artifacts were analyzed to understand African American consumer culture in the historic period. From the store area, identifiable items include canning supplies, soft drinks, canned goods, and ceramic and glass dishes. Only three bottles were identifiable to a brand or the bottling company, but none of these were produced in Georgia. Likely food-related products were sold at the store, but most of the assemblage was unmarked or unidentifiable. From domestic contexts, bottle glass was the most common artifact type. Most of the bottles and fragments were either unmarked or did not have enough of a maker’s mark to identify the contents or origin of the bottle. However, identifiable bottle contents include oils, hot sauce, spirits, and pharmaceuticals and were known to have originated both nationally as well as locally in Brunswick and Savannah.
During excavation, artifacts associated with toys, games, and leisure were recovered from the north and south lots. The south lot assemblage consisted of marbles and was limited to contexts directly surrounding Powell’s store and are likely associated with the socialization aspect of the store. The assemblage from the north lot is both more varied in type and excavation context. The games and leisure assemblage of the north lot was recovered from contexts across the lot and include marbles, checker pieces, plastic toys, porcelain doll parts, a plastic die, and a fragment of a phonograph record.
Although archaeological features were limited at the portion of the site that was excavated in Needwood, investigations were able to generally locate the site of John Powell’s store and differentiate the commercial aspect of the store at the south end with residential components to the north. Artifact patterning suggests that Powell’s store was a location for socialization in the community. Artifacts also demonstrate the pride that community members took in their appearance, which served as a marker of respectability and dignity. Self-sufficiency, evidenced by storage jars and food remains indicating a reliance on locally acquired foodstuffs, also serves as a testament to the dignity of the community.
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View South of Needwood Church
Personal Items Recovered from Site 9GN433
Smoking Pipes Recovered from Site 9GN433
Toys Recovered from Site 9GN433