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Unearthing Secrets of the Great Dismal Swamp

Daniel Sayers

Photo courtesy of Daniel Sayers.

Daniel Sayers, anthropology professor and historical archeologist, won’t forget the day in June last year when he got the e-mail. He was down at the crew house in Chesapeake, Virginia, the working base for his annual Great Dismal Swamp Landscape Study (GDSLS) team. It was a message from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He’d gotten the grant—a three-year We the People award of $200,000 to support his project.

Since 2001, Sayers and fellow anthropology professor Lance Greene have been exploring the 200 or so square miles of undeveloped wetlands known as the Great Dismal Swamp, which sprawls across southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina.

Now a national wildlife refuge, home to many endangered species, the region was once a sanctuary of sorts for perhaps thousands of disenfranchised indigenous Americans and maroons, African American fugitives from slavery. “There are interesting parallels,” says Sayers. “What was once more of a human refuge is now a natural refuge.”

Archeologists speculate that maroon outposts began appearing in the swamp as early as the 1600s, with the settlement of Jamestown. A subculture of self-reliant maroon communities began to take root. “These groups are very inspirational. As details unfold, society will get a sense of how one still has the ability, as an individual and a community, to really take control over a situation,” says Sayers.

Sayers hopes to be among the privileged few who get to unravel their story. The additional funding will enable him to bring in experts from other disciplines, including geophysicists, folklorists, and ethnographers; analyze data samples; and support the research laboratory, graduate students, and summer archeology field school.

There are, however, aspects of conducting research in a swamp that no amount of money can mitigate. Navigating the terrain and the logistics of working in a national wildlife refuge present enormous challenges. “Physical access is one of the main issues,” says Sayers. “Negotiating to get to the dry lands, walking through [the swamp] and carrying equipment—getting to a site to begin working can take an hour or more.”

In addition, the GDSLS research team has to take precautions against the natural risks posed by the environment. “One day we turned around and called it a day because of a bear that wouldn’t go away. There’s always some element of danger,” he says, including “ungodly thorns the size of sharks’ teeth.” Which is why Sayers always dons a canvas suit, despite the oppressive heat and humidity.

This summer marks the field school’s fourth year. Each foray into the swamp yields more information. Sayers hopes to follow up on the discoveries made in 2010.

“You need basic skills in excavation and identifying swamps, and even how to navigate difficult terrain,” says Greene. “We make sure that the students are participating in discussions on how to think about sites and analyze artifacts in the lab. I think the students in the field school get great experience in what an archaeologist needs to know and do.”

Students interested in participating in the 2011 summer field school  (May 17–July 3) should contact Dan Sayers at sayers@american.edu.