The Moat at Lord Ashley: A Unique Feature at a Unique Site

Jon here. When I left the field today, Andrew, Nicole, Martha, Ron, and the College of Charleston students were still toiling away in the excavation trench cutting though part of the moat. While I am dying to stick around to see how it all turns out, I have to get home to my wife and my two and a half year old and eight week old sons (and yes after leaving my wife to tend to real life problems for four weeks away, I have a lot of making up to do when I get home!). While I am sure Andrew will have a great wrap-up post, I thought I would lay out the history of our excavations in the moat.

If you have ever watched the TV show The A-Team, you have doubtless heard Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith’s (George Pappard) classic line “I love it when a plan comes together.” In every episode, Hannibal muttered this tongue-in-cheek phrase (a post-hoc gloat really) after his plan had succeeded – a plan that invariably deviated from the original plan and that usually ended with spectacular 1980s TV explosions. About a week ago, as our excavations in search of the moat at the Lord Ashley site proceeded and the evidence came into clearer resolution, my mind was immediately drawn to the cigar chomping Hannibal saying his catch phrase. Here, the reader can feel free to picture exploding oil drums and flipping cars.

Enough setup- on to the basic questions: Why do we think a moat was present at the site? How do we look for evidence of the moat? What does the moat look like in the archaeological record? I will answer these three questions in turn.

Why do we think a moat was present at the site?

Early in his research on the site, Andrew Agha found a number of late seventeenth century historic accounts referring to fortifications at St. Giles Kussoe (the Lord Ashley site). These include the testimony of two English runaway indentured servants seeking asylum in Spanish Florida. Both of these men report that Ashley’s plantation featured a moat, palisade, and four artillery pieces. Andrew also pointed to records that show a likely sizable portion of the Charles Towne public store of gunpowder was kept at Lord Ashley. One could easily imagine that such a valuable and dangerous commodity would only be kept in a secure location. Together, these pieces of historic evidence allowed us to form a hypothesis that we could test with archaeological evidence – a moat is essentially a large ditch, so we reasoned that it should leave a rather obvious archaeological signature. Luckily, we could also consult Stanley South’s work on a similar defensive ditch or moat at the 1670s site of Charles Towne Landing for clues on how to look for this feature.

How do we look for evidence of the moat?

The answer to this question involves scientific testing and luck. The luck part of the answer happened when the land owner demolished an old cattle pen and uncovered a sizable collection of artifacts and brick fragments (some of which are now on display at the Charleston Museum). In 2011, the College of Charleston field school excavated a single unit in this area and encountered very deep deposits, but the unit was too small to get a sense of the size or shape of the feature.

Unit Locations

Map showing magnetometer survey results and locations of excavation units for 2013 field school.

In January 2012, Andrew, Nicole, and I conducted a magnetometer survey of the site (See my post from a couple of weeks ago) and identified the linear feature that we thought must be the moat. In fact, the location of the moat passed right into the excavation unit mentioned above! In fact, it looked like the unit may have been place near or at the western corner of the moat.

This serendipitous discovery and the magnetometer results were used to guide the placement of units this season (see map). We placed a unit at the suspected western corner of the moat adjacent to the 2011 unit. We placed a trench of narrow units in order to cut across the southern run of the moat. The goal here was to expose the entire profile of the moat (a cross-section). Finally we placed three units in the northwest portion of the site in the hope of encountering the northern run of the moat.

This process of excavating units in order to see whether our magnetometer map was correct is called “ground truthing.” This is absolutely essential in order to confirm the patterns identified in any remote sensing survey (GPR, resistivity, aerial and satellite reconnaissance, etc.). The proof is in the pudding- or the dirt in this case.

What does the moat look like “in the ground”?

The answer to this question is deceptively simple- by definition a moat is a linear ditch excavated around a settlement in order to present any world-be attackers with an obstacle. These are often paired with a wooden stockade or palisade erected on the inside of the moat. Excavations of mid 17th century forts in St. Mary’s City, Maryland show what a moat looks like in cross section.

Schematic showing cross-section of a moat (from Forts of St. Mary’s website).

St. Mary's moat-profile

Schematic showing archaeological cross-section of a moat (from Forts of St. Mary’s website).

So the basic shape of a moat is straightforward. The complicated part of the question lies in what lies in the moat. That is, a moat is a defensive structure, but as a low spot it is also a prime candidate for having soil and garbage deposited into it. This results in a very complex series of episodes of filling by people and nature. Heavy rains might wash in soil, people may throw out garbage accumulated after sweeping their house, people may drop the butchered remains of a cow into it. Additionally, when the the site was abandoned, people likely threw lots of things into the moat, and when the site was repurposed for agriculture, the land had to be leveled and any vestiges of the moat obliterated- at least those noticeable on the surface. On top of that, we have identified about 80 linear feet of moat surrounding the western portion of the settlement. Garbage was not thrown out uniformly across the entire moat; therefore, it is likely that different areas of the moat have different garbage deposits. This adds up to a really complex picture, one that will take years of research to figure out!
North Moat South Profile
In the northern portion of the moat, we were able to define the middle and inner margin of the moat. The deposits here are over 2.5 ft deep!

West Unit Corner

West Unit West Profile
In the western unit, we were able to confirm that the moat corner is in this area. We caught the spot on the inside margin where the moat is beginning to turn to the north. Future field seasons will expand on this area. Given that our goals in this area were to confirm the presence of the corner, we did not excavate into the moat fill.South Trench top of moat facing south

Southern trench facing south. The moat stain extends across the top (southern) portion of the trench.

South Trench southern moat edge facing west

Southern edge of the moat.

South Trench mostly excavated

Mostly excavated trench, facing south.

South Trench Stratigraphy west profile

Complex stratigraphy hints at a complex history of filling.

In the southern trench, we confirmed the presence of the moat. We were quite surprised at how wide the moat was when we first uncovered it (about 15 feet!). As we excavated down, the profile or cross-section of the moat came into view. Here, we saw that the slope of the outside edge of the moat is less severe than the inside edge- just like in the case of the St. Mary’s City forts! Also, we saw how complex the history of filling is through the stratigraphy or layering of soil in the profile. Each of these distinct soil lenses represents a different episode of filling. The goal of the laboratory analysis following this season will be to see if we can use artifacts and other data to reconstruct this history of infilling!

What a great field season! I got to work with and learned a ton from the best archaeologists in the region, I got to introduce my students to my life’s work, and I got to meet a bunch of great students from the College of Charleston. I am really looking forward to future work at the site. I really do love it when a plan comes together!

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One Response to The Moat at Lord Ashley: A Unique Feature at a Unique Site

  1. charles philips says:

    Really enjoyed reading your summation, John. I am excited about what is next. . . one day the LA house. It has to be there somewhere. Also, very exciting to see that there is a house by the fireplace foundation, not just a random foundation. All very exciting. Looking forward to further reporting.


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