An Interview with Bob Welch

Interview with Bob Welch, an amateur archaeologist in South Carolina.

-What got you interested in archaeology? When did you get started in the field?

I was born on a farm in South Georgia but raised in Central Florida. When I would go visit the family farm in Ga. I came across ‘arrowheads’ in the fields which greatly intrigued me. Soon I was passionately searching and collecting any ‘Indian’ artifacts that I could find. I showed most of these including many pottery shards to Dr. Marcoux soon after we first met which he was very helpful in identifying. Also, as I grew up in Fla. in the 1960’s, we had several ‘treasure’ ships discovered off the Fla. coast from the 1715 Spanish Fleet that were lost during a hurricane. Other such ships were also discovered from other long past Colonial period adventures, so my interest was always one of dreaming about finding great long lost ‘treasures as well. However, life didn’t go that way for me to pursue those dreams even though I never stopped looking for the Native American artifacts at the old farm when I could.

My first real opportunity to get involved in actual archaeology was about 10 yrs. ago. I currently live in Summerville, SC, which has the Colonial Historical Site of Colonial Dorchester. This town was founded about 1697 by ‘pilgrims who had left Dorchester, England and migrated to Dorchester, Mass. Then, after some years, they decided to move south and came to this location on the Ashley River and founded the town of Dorchester, SC. (I think there’s a pattern here). The town existed for about a hundred years but was burned after the occupying British troops left at the end of the American Revolution and never really recovered. This site is a state historical site maintained by the parks dept. and is sorta unique in that it was never ‘built’ over and, therefore, a pristine site for archaeology. About 10 yrs. ago the resident archaeologist opened it up for the public to come on Saturdays to assist with digging and sifting the artifacts that were on various house sites in the town. I jumped at the opportunity to participate and was blessed to be able to learn a tremendous amount about the artifacts that we recovered, the proper techniques to do so, curating the artifacts and maybe, more importantly, deeper history about the site and it’s role in our early colonization of SC and the US than I would ever learn in history books alone. This went on for about 5 yrs. or so and then the program was suspended at the park.

However, due to my interest, I was able to meet and work with a number of other area archaeologists on some other projects and sites so that now I have a great relationship with many in the filed which is very helpful when I need information pertaining to the site that I work on my own.

-When you start a project, what steps do you take to insure you are doing things “by the book”?

“By the Book” is an interesting query as I have found that different field project managers vary somewhat on their approach. Mostly they are the same but may implement some different techniques. This doesn’t necessarily change the outcome significantly it’s just a variation due to that leaders background training and preferences. Since I have learned some different styles, I try to work with what works best for me. I have yet to be trained on the use of a transit, so I don’t worry much about elevations overall but do keep up with depth of excavation as I work a unit. I usually mark off a 1 meter square of an area I want to dig then excavate 10cm layers recording what is found, soil color and variations, any features, compass direction, GPS location, etc. From my experience with curating in the lab at Colonial Dorchester, I know basic cleaning of artifacts and can identify most of the ceramics and such that are found. Let me interject this: unlike most professional archaeologists, I have used a metal detector on my site to locate potential structures or other features. This gives me an easier method of locating a potential site worthy of my efforts to discover what was left behind and where. To answer this question: I use the experience gained from working with the fine archaeologists I have assisted to go about what I do with the site including the locating, excavation, recording and curating of artifacts. One more thing, I learned electrolysis from my friend at the Charleston Museum (the oldest museum in the US) so that I can properly clean and preserve most metal artifacts that I recover as well.

-Are you working on any projects at the moment?

A couple of years ago I was hunting deer on a friend’s property a few miles out of town. On one of the hunting roads, I noticed some ceramic shards that I knew were from the colonial period. I mentioned this to another friend of mine who happens to be the Senior Historian at the same CRM firm that Dr. Marcoux once worked (ask him about Charlie Philips). Charlie was able to locate for me a platte map of the property dated 1801 showing the small rice plantation being sold from one gentleman to another. That first owner had owned it since 1767. Most of the artifacts bear this out as they are dating to the third quarter of the 18th century. With my metal detector, I was able to locate an area that seems to be where slaves were living as I have excavated a fairly large ‘trash pit’ full of many European imported ceramic shards as well as a lot of ‘Colonoware’ shards (African slave made pottery). Early this year I used the detector to locate at least 2 (or more) structures with many hand-wrought nails, cast iron pot fragments, buckle, thimble, brass drawer handle, and axe heads.

Unfortunately, for me, I haven’t been able to dig as much this year as before. Our spring was very rainy, and the soil is very sticky clay like when wet. Then the summer was quite hot which is a lot tougher now that I’m older. Plus, as Dr. Marcoux can tell you I actually passed out from the heat while helping with his team that came in June. This has made me more susceptible to getting over heated. So I’m looking forward to COOLER weather here soon so I can get started again on these new sites. Plus, my friend the landowner (who also owns the Lord Ashley Site property) has a lot of land on each side of this small rice plantation. Going by the platt map I have and another time period map Charlie gave me, there are more small rice plantation sites to be found and explored on each side of this one! So far I have found part of a site on what would be the next plantation to the north of the one I’m working. Lots to do!

-What is the coolest thing you’ve found?

The coolest thing that I have found? Oh my, that’s a hard one. One thing that I have learned in the past few years of being involved in archaeology is this: there are many fantastic ‘treasures’  that have little or no monetary value, especially to the uninformed. So much of what is found is ‘ordinary stuff’ but very valuable in what it reveals. It tells a story, a history of a time long past. It tells us so much more than a mere history book can. Of people, their lives, struggles, joys, failures and successes. Their families, customs and rituals, the tools they used. Whether or not they were making their own items or able to import them from afar. Their wealth or lack thereof. So many things about their lives that we don’t know and sometimes take for granted. Finding these things that reveal those stories and how those people lived, that is our real treasure.  Having said all that I will attempt to share a few ‘cool finds’ with you.

At Colonial Dorchester, the first really neat thing I found was a very small intact thimble, green with patina from the brass lying in the ground for over 200 years. I was told that due to the small size it would have likely belonged to a young child or possibly a small fingered lady. On that same site, various ones of us digging found several pieces of a commemorative plate to George Washington. We know this because the date of his death was inscribed on some of the fragments. On another site at this park, during what was the last foundation that we uncovered before the program was suspended. I was screening along and came across what looked like a small bit of ‘frayed’ string. I was about to discard it when, almost as a joke, I handed it to a young lady archaeologist that was volunteering there with us. She took it and examined it and started getting sort of excited. Then she showed it to the resident archaeologist, and together they continued to try and clean it up some more to better identify it. Finally, everyone was almost ‘freaking out’ because what we found was a small bit of GOLD thread from off of some very fancy decorative clothing worn by someone of great wealth living in the town in the 18th century! Pics were taken and emailed to some archaeology people in our area and around the state as almost no one had ever found anything like it before. And to think, I had almost tossed it away………Whoa.

At the Lord Ashley site, we found a good number of glass beads that were brought over for trade with the Native Americans. Dr. Marcoux is very instrumental in helping identify these as he is very well versed in this area. The Charleston Museum has a display of some of the nice finds we have come across the last few years from this site. The field school of 2013 found several areas of a possible moat that surrounded the compound in the 1670’s and this moat area was used as a trash dumping place, so a lot of neat artifacts were found there. In the part that I was helping with we found a good number of fragments of a type of stoneware that was unfamiliar to our ‘experts’. Martha Zeirden from the museum researched and found that what we were discovering was called ‘Fulham ware’ a new type of stoneware that was just starting to be made in London in 1671! That was exciting as it helped date the site and was an early form of a ceramic new on the market at that time.

On the site that I’m working on now I have had several really neat finds. Several early, middle and late Archaic period ‘arrowheads’ have come to surface. But the refuge pit that I have dug for the last year or so has yielded a number of really cool finds. Mostly everyday kinds of things from the time period and many are datable to the third quarter of the 18th century. I have one coin so far that is in awful condition but has been identified as an English half penny dated 1789. Another object is a small brass drawer ‘pull’ that is pictured in Noel Hume’s book on Colonial artifacts dating to 1685 to 1720. I was able to re-assemble one of the broken wine bottles that I found about 80 percent. But one little half of a bottle is really neat. It’s small and has embossed lettering on it. My reference person saw a picture of it and said late 19th century. I wasn’t convinced, so I searched the internet and found out the history of this little vessel. A man in London put together an ‘elixir’ of 27 ingredients and called it Robert Turlington’s ‘Balsam of Life’. The top portion of the bottle is missing, but enough of the body and base remain that it is easily identifiable. He began manufacturing this elixir in 1754 and his bottles WERE embossed which was very uncommon because of the expense to do that in the period. His product was made for a number of years, so we don’t know when this one was made but when I told the folks at the museum about it, they were amazed. They had heard of it but never seen an example of this bottle. More recently I found a gilded button that is pretty neat and has the manufacturer’s name stamped on the back, so I was able to get a little information on that as well. The axe heads, cast iron pot, plow frame and blade, several hoes and other tools are great as well since they speak to the everyday life on the plantation. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ‘Colonoware’ fragments that I have found on this site. This is slave made pottery manufactured by the Africans brought here during that time who made their pottery in the ways that had been passed down for many generations of their tribes in Africa. Sometimes I find shards with some design work on them which is kind of rare. It was the Africans from specific areas that brought the culture of rice to America and from whom the early Europeans learned to cultivate rice which made them quite wealthy. These are some of the really ‘cool’ finds I have been privileged to find.

-What is the goal of your excavations?

My goal of the excavations that I’m currently involved with is to possibly get enough presentable finds together along with the research necessary to display them in a local museum for the public to see and learn of their founding ‘Fathers’ as it were of our area of the colony of South Carolina. We actually have as early a history in our county (Dorchester) as anyone, from the European Colonization period, and I don’t think very many people in this area know or appreciate that fact. If we can display the evidence and educate them with their past history as it directly relates to where they live then maybe, they can grasp a new appreciation for what has taken place right under their feet and with a renewed sense of pride seek to pass that knowledge onto each approaching generation. If school children have a place to go and see how their ancestors lived and worked and founded this great country, with great toil, trial, and adversity (both slave and free) then hopefully we can give them something to appreciate, hold on to and seek to preserve. I’m told that a new museum is ‘on the drawing board’ to be built in our county seat in the near future. Maybe that will be an appropriate venue for what I’ve been blessed to discover at this site. I surely hope so! Even if not it’s a fun adventure, and I’m learning a lot, sharing what I find out with whomever wants to hear about it. Keeps this old guy off the street anyway.

So, I hope I didn’t bore you completely to tears. I can talk about this stuff for hours as is fascinates me to no end. If you need anything else from me, please let me know and I will be glad to assist in any way that I can.

Welch, Bob. Personal Interview. 23 October 2015.


Amateurs in Archaeology

If you’ve ever watched an Indiana Jones or Lara Croft movie, chances are at some point you said to yourself “I wish I could do that.” This thought was most likely followed promptly by something along the lines of “I can’t do that” or “that’s not a very realistic job prospect.” At this point, you probably had finished the movie and moved on with life only pausing to revisit that thought when you re-watched the movie. I’m here to tell you that you, my dear friend, were wrong, you can, in fact, be an archaeologist, no degree required! (Disclaimer: the type of archaeology referenced in this blog post probably won’t involve chase scenes or high-drama world-saving antics.)


To understand the role amateurs have played in the development of the field of archaeology, one must first look to the past at the history of archaeology. When archaeology first developed there were a lot of amateurs, an understandable phenomenon given the field was still in the works, so to speak. This led to a period known as Antiquarianism, which spanned from the 16th to the 19th century. During this time the focus was mainly in the field of treasure hunting, people were less interested in the day to day lives of the past and more interested in the sparkly, exciting treasures they hoped to find. During this period, many of these exciting treasures made their way into the homes of the wealthy displayed in elaborate displays of “culture” and excess.  These displays known as Cabinets of Curiosities and, they demonstrate a defining idea of the Antiquarianism period: finding cool “stuff” to show off how cultured a person is. Although many such cabinets contained a variety of goods from all across the world, some were the genuine artifacts while others were forgeries. All together the cabinets showcase man’s fascination with the past.


When it comes to cabinets of curiosities they weren’t all bad. Many such collections were the start of museums. Although the cabinets laid the foundations for many museums times have (thankfully) changed and, people now understand the importance of context. While a statue or vase that’s thousands of years old may be cool on its own, no one piece can tell the whole story of a civilization or people. Think about it, when you buy a new dress or skateboard and tell someone about it, which makes the better story? “Yeah, it’s new” or “Yeah, I found this the other day at this little store I found downtown whilst exploring, it ended up being on sale, and I just couldn’t resist.” The second one, right! This is the same thing that happens when an artifact gets taken out of context. It might still look cool, but it loses the very thing that makes it so special: it’s context. Context allows a piece to be seen in unity with other artifacts from the same site, painting a big picture look at the history of a people or civilization.

Many professional archaeologists get caught up in the same problem my precalculus T.A. had: while he adored math and found the process of working through all the steps to be a delightful and exciting process he forgot one critical detail, the rest of us did not. Real archaeology is a multi-step process, and not everyone is that thrilled about each step. This means that the most important part of an archaeological find, context, gets lost in translation. One archaeologist and Professor of Philosophy, William Krieger comments: “If context is the only information tying an artifact to its past, then eradicating that information (or willingly allowing for its destruction) would turn those artifacts into nothing more than old pieces of metal, stone, and glass.” (928). The excitement of unearthing a new discovery remains the same whether the person who uncovered it is a professional or an amateur. What is important is ensuring that that “cool find” remains relevant, no one wants to spend time looking for an artifact only to have a son or granddaughter look at it and say “Oh, that? You can put it in the toss pile, I don’t want it.” The video below is an introduction to the tools of the trade, but also touches on the importance of context, from a real live archaeologist:

How do you go about getting started as an amateur archaeologist? Well, there is no one true way to get started. Some people get started as a hobby and do research to figure out what to do, and others attend a class or two at their state’s archaeological society or a university. For example, the Colorado Archaeological Society partnered with Adams State University to establish Program for Avocational Archaeological Certification (PAAC). It includes classes that cover the basics of archaeology: history, proper excavation techniques and recognizing different materials and artifact types. Other people simply learn on the job, volunteering at a site and learning what to do for the day. Bob Welch, an amateur archaeologist in South Carolina, talks about getting started this way at the Colonial Historical Site of Colonial Dorchester: “the resident archaeologist opened it up for the public to come on Saturdays to assist with digging and sifting the artifacts that were on various house sites in the town. I jumped at the opportunity to participate and was blessed to be able to learn a tremendous amount about the artifacts that we recovered, the proper techniques to do so, curating the artifacts and maybe, more importantly, deeper history about the site.” This next video covers the basics of how to excavate a site:

If you to take on the role of an amateur archaeologist, there are few guidelines to follow:

  1. This one is a biggie: Make absolutely sure you have permission to be digging where you are. It’s one thing to dig in your backyard it’s another to dig in someone else’s or worse on government property. If you don’t take care to get permission you could get into trouble and, in fact, be breaking the law!
  2. Take a class or volunteer on a professional site first, that way you know the basics and won’t make mistakes that land you on the looting side.
  3. Always record the Provenience of a find. The three-dimensional context (including geographical location) of an archaeological find, which gives information about its function and date.

What happens when you ignore these rules? Well you end up with something like this:

If you can’t immediately tell what’s wrong with this picture, I will give you a hint (lack of context). If your goal is to fill up a case or two and make some interesting designs with the arrowheads you’ve found chances are your only goal is to find “cool stuff.” This means a lot of important information gets destroyed. Once you’ve excavated the site, it is gone forever. It’s very important to take the time and effort to carefully record provenience and preserve as much of the material culture as possible. When finding arrowheads or other “cool” stuff the little things that can tell us a great deal about a culture are ignored and usually destroyed.

Amateur archaeologists offer meaningful contributions to the field of archaeology. Although many of these contributions seem minor compared to the flashy finds that make the news, it is worth remembering that just because it doesn’t seem important at first, even the smallest of finds can make a difference. Bob Welch’s story of one of his coolest finds is one such tale:

“I was screening along and came across what looked like a small bit of ‘frayed’ string. I was about to discard it when, almost as a joke, I handed it to a young lady archaeologist that was volunteering there with us. She took it and examined it and started getting sort of excited. Then she showed it to the resident archaeologist, and together they continued to try and clean it up some more to better identify it. Finally, everyone was almost ‘freaking out’ because what we found was a small bit of GOLD thread from off of some very fancy decorative clothing worn by someone of great wealth living in the town in the 18th century!”

Many of the large-scale discoveries made by amateur archaeologists occurred during the Antiquarianism period, like the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. The stone was discovered by Napoleon’s soldiers as they were clearing a wall to enlarge Fort St. Julian. The soldiers realized the writing on the stone was important and sent it to Cairo to be studied further. The Rosetta Stone is one of the most important discoveries in the history of archaeology.

Not all important amateur discoveries are a thing of the past, recently a remarkable discovery in the history of human evolution was made by two recreational cavers. Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter were exploring a cave system called Rising Star when they discovered a burial chamber that turned out to contain bones from a previously unknown species of hominid. They passed their discovery onto Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist who determined the bones were a new species that he called Homo naledi. This discovery cast a new light on the history of where our species of hominid, Homo sapiens, came from. Whether big or small the contributions that amateur archaeologists make shouldn’t be dismissed. Amateur archaeologists form an important backbone of how the field of archaeology has developed and are an important part of its future.

For a great resource to help you understand more about the field of archaeology, check out the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA)’s PDF “Archaeology 101”.

Another great resource, is this newsletter from Colonial Williamsburg, Discovering the Past: An Introduction to Archaeology.

If you are interested in reading the full interview with amateur archaeologist, Bob Welch, click here.


Work Cited

CoopersFerrySite. “The Excavation Process: How We Excavate.” YouTube. YouTube, 3 July 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

CoopersFerrySite. “The Excavation Process: The Tools.” YouTube. YouTube, 5 July 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

Department, AIA Education. “Archaeology 101.” Archaeology 101 (n.d.): 1-4. Archaeological Institute of America. Archaeological Institute of America. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

Flintobsessions. “We’re Back with a Rough Start.” YouTube. YouTube, 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2015.

Imperato, Ferrante. Dell’Historia Naturale. Digital image. Wikipedia. N.p., 23 Jan. 2008. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

JamestownRediscovery. “A Day in the Life of the Archaeological Dig at James Fort.” YouTube. YouTube, 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 05 Dec. 2015.

Krieger, William. “Marketing Archaeology.” Ethical Theory & Moral Practice 17.5 (2014): 923-939. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

“PAAC Program Introduction.” PAAC Program Introduction | History Colorado. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

Poole, Meredith. “ The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Official History and Citizenship Website.” Discovering the Past: An Introduction to Archaeology : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 30 Apr. 2003. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

Schoville, Keith. “The Rosetta Stone in Historical Perspective.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society (2001): 1-21. Andrews University. Andrews University. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Shreeve, Jamie. “Mystery Man.” National Geographic Oct. 2015: 36-57. Print.

Welch, Bob. Personal Interview. 23 October 2015.