Chinese scientists uncover 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles

Kate Ravilious

Thursday October 13, 2005

The Guardian


It was a long time to wait for a portion of noodles. Scientists have uncovered the world's oldest known noodles, dating back 4,000 years, at an archaeological site, Lajia, along the upper reaches of the Yellow river in north-west China. They were preserved in an upturned bowl among the debris of a gigantic earthquake. Until now, the earliest evidence for noodles has been a Chinese written description of noodle preparation dating back 1,900 years.


The Lajia settlement is thought to have been destroyed by earthquake and catastrophic floods. Houyuan Lu and his team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing were excavating this scene of ancient destruction when they came across a well preserved earthenware bowl, embedded upside-down in a layer of clay. In the bowl they were amazed to see the remains of somebody's dinner. "The prehistoric noodles were on top of the sediment cone that once filled the inside of the inverted bowl. Thin, delicate and yellow, they resembled the traditional La-Mian noodle that is made by repeatedly pulling and stretching the dough by hand," said Dr Lu.


An empty space between the sediment and the bottom of the bowl had prevented the soft noodles from being crushed and helped preserve them. "The empty space must have been tightly sealed and become anoxic, allowing excellent preservation of the noodles for 4,000 years," said Dr Lu. When the bowl was lifted the exposure to air quickly oxidised the noodles, turning them to dust, but Dr Lu and his colleagues still managed to analyse the remains.


By analysing phytoliths, the microscopic mineral particles that form within plants, and starch grains from the noodle powder, the scientists managed to narrow down what kind of flour the noodles were made from. Modern noodles tend to be made from wheat flour, but analysis of the ancient noodles revealed they were made from millet, used in making alcoholic drinks. "Our findings support the belief that early plant domestication and food production relied on millet in the semi-arid Loess plateau region of China," writes Dr Lu in Nature today.


This also shows the people in the Lajia region had learned how to make a millet flour dough, that could be stretched into long, thin strands and boiled up.


The next question is what the Lajia people ate with their noodles. Dr Lu and colleagues found bone fragments and an oily substance in the bowl and hope to analyse them to determine the recipe.



Archaeology: Peking Man, still missing and missed 

By Sheila Melvin International Herald Tribune



ZHOUKOUDIAN, China On a sunny morning last month, the normally tranquil Paleoanthropological Research Center at Dragon Bone Hill in the outskirts of Beijing was abuzz with journalists. They were gathered outdoors before a festive red and gold banner that announced the purpose of the gathering: the official establishment of the Working Committee to Search for the Lost Skullcaps of Peking Man.

Beneath the banner were poster-size photos of six skullcaps of the 500,000- year-old human ancestor known as Sinanthropus pekinensis, or Peking Man, now called Homo erectus pekinensis. The bones were discovered at Dragon Bone Hill in the Fangshan District in the 1920s and 1930s but were inexplicably lost in 1941 while being transported to the United States for safekeeping during the Japanese occupation of China.


As microphones were thrust forward and cameras rolled, the Working Committee members - paleontologists, government officials and retired intellectuals - filed onto a red carpet. A local official stepped forward to explain his government’s determination to find the missing bones.

A hot line has been established, he announced. Call 86-10-6930-1287 if you have information about the missing hominids - and 63 clues had been received to date. He then read off a list of the missing bones and concluded pep-rally style by proclaiming, “We hope Peking Man will come home soon!”


If the official’s hopefulness seemed misplaced - scientists, swashbucklers and swindlers have been searching for the bones for more than 60 years - he can hardly be blamed. The discovery of the skullcaps and other bone fragments in a limestone cave in Dragon Bone Hill between 1929 and 1936 was one of the most important paleoanthropological finds of the 20th century.


The fossilized bones from 40 individuals enabled scientists to reconstruct a portrait of the heavy-browed, broad-nosed Peking Man. Burned animal bones found at the site were considered evidence of the earliest known use of fire.


The discovery also settled a controversy as to whether the bones of Java Man - found in 1891 - belonged to a human ancestor. Doubters had argued that they were the remains of a deformed ape, but the finding of so many similar fossils at Dragon Bone Hill silenced such speculation and became a central element in the modern interpretation of human evolution.


If the discovery of the bones was of vital interest to paleontologists, it also excited the curiosity of ordinary people worldwide and made “Peking Man“ a household name. This was in part thanks to the involvement of a series of colorful scientist-adventurers from the West. The provocative French philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin studied the bones and trained young Chinese scientists. The Canadian doctor Davidson Black obtained Rockefeller Foundation funding for the excavations and led the Cenozoic Research Laboratory, which oversaw them.


Civil war, the Japanese invasion and China’s general poverty made the excavation complicated and dangerous, adding to its romantic luster. The scientists who worked on the excavation rode to the site on mules and stayed in an old caravansary. The first skullcap was dug out by Pei Wenzhong working in a 40-meter crevasse in frigid weather with a hammer in one hand and a candle in the other. Three Chinese workers at the site were tortured and then bayoneted to death by Japanese soldiers, and one worker was forced to drive a rickshaw and died of starvation. Black died at his office desk in the middle of the night with a skullcap of Peking Man beside him.


Although there was some discussion of moving the bones after the Japanese invasion in 1937, they were apparently assumed to be safe because they were housed in the American-run Peking Union Medical Hospital, which oversaw the Cenozoic Research Lab.


Fortunately, Jia Lanpo, a paleontologist who discovered three skullcaps, had the foresight to copy all the site drawings, which showed where the bones had been found. Franz Weidenreich, a German who led the Cenozoic Lab after Black’s death, insisted that copies of all the Peking Man bones be made in the summer of 1941 because he feared (correctly) that Japanese would take over the lab if war broke out with the United States. But it was not until the late autumn of 1941 that the bones were crated and sent to the American controller of Peking Union Medical College for shipment to the United States - and vanished forever.

Many believe that the fossils were transferred to the U.S. Legation, then lost in transit to a ship that was to take them to the United States, but nobody knows for sure.


“It could be that the bones were hidden before they even left Beijing,” said Gao Xing, a paleontologist and member of the Working Committee. “Or it could be that they were shipped to Tianjin” en route to the United States.


“But some people also think that somebody found them before they were put on the train and buried or hid them in Fangshan,” he said. “There isn’t specific evidence.”


The missing bones of Peking Man have acquired an international mystique. They are a magnet for con artists and amateur investigators and the subject of several English-language novels.


They have also attained great symbolic significance in China.

In 1998, members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences called for a renewed search for the skullcaps. In 2000, a manifesto, “Searching for Peking Man,” was published by the journalists Li Mingsheng and Yue Nan, who argue that the only way to prove the nation’s progress is to find the missing skulls of Peking Man, the ancestor of all Chinese.


The bones remain one of the most important finds - and losses - in the study of human evolution. Writing in 2004, the American paleoanthropologists Noel Boaz and Russell Ciochon call the disappearance of the fossils “the single greatest loss of original data in the history of paleontology.”


Judging from the hot line clues - an old man (said to be 121) in Jiangxi Province who says he knows where they are, a man who says they are buried under a house in Beijing - the prospect of finding the bones does not seem likely. But neither was it likely in the first place.


“We don’t know where the bones are,” says Gao of the Working Committee. “They may well have been destroyed. But we have to look.”



More Flores 'Hobbits' described 


Scientists have discovered more remains of the strange, small people that once lived on Flores island, Indonesia.

The announcement last year detailing a single, partial skeleton caused a sensation when it was claimed to be a human species new to science.


Homo floresiensis, as it was called, was little more than a metre tall and lived 18,000 years ago.


Now, the same team tells Nature journal it has skeletal remains from at least nine of the "Hobbit-like" individuals.


The new discoveries include missing parts of the old skeleton - designated LB1 after the caved dig site at Liang Bua - and a collection of other bones, such as jaw and cranial fragments, a vertebra, arm and leg bones, toes and fingers.


The team, led by Michael Morwood from the University of New England, Armidale, Australia, says the specimens have helped build a more rounded picture of LB1, with additional evidence of the little people's hunting and fire-making abilities.



The researchers say they are now more convinced than ever that Homo floresiensis represents a distinct species and not some diseased individual of modern human (Homo sapiens)as some sceptics have suggested.


"The finds further demonstrate that LB1 is not just an aberrant or pathological individual but is representative of a long-term population," they write in Nature.


A critical line in their argument is the length of time which the new collection of remains represents - possibly 80,000 years - making a disease explanation for the cause of the little people's stature and shape an unlikely one.


More remains are being sought in the Liang Bua cave (Image: Chris Turney)

The team contends that Homo floresiensis, with its 380-cubic-cm-sized brain, is the outcome of a phenomenon known as endemic or island dwarfing.


This sees isolated species, released from the pressures of predation but constrained by limited resources, evolving either smaller or larger forms than would otherwise be the case.


In the case of H. floresiensis, it is said the creature could have come out of Homo erectus, a long-extinct early-human species that was known to populate Flores about 800,000 years ago.



Reconstruction: The Hobbit was only 1m tall and possessed "primitive" features

Daniel Lieberman, of Harvard University in Massachusetts, US, said further discoveries on the island would help settle the issue.


"If the island-dwarfing hypothesis is correct, then the island's earliest inhabitants should be larger than the Liang Bua fossils; and if dwarfing occurred gradually, then it might even be possible to find fossils intermediate in size and shape between H. floresiensis and its ancestor," he wrote in a commentary in Nature.


"More evidence on when Homo sapiens first arrived on Flores is also needed."



Bones of dismembered warriors unearthed at ancient Tul Talesh

Tehran Times Culture Desk


TEHRAN -- Archaeologists recently unearthed a great number of skeletons at the ancient site of Tul Talesh, which are believed to be the remains of warriors who were dismembered and killed in battle, the Persian service of the Cultural Heritage News (CHN) agency reported on Tuesday.


The skeletons were found without heads, feet, and hands in the cemetery of Tul Talesh, which covers an area of 350 hectares. Located 140 kilometers northwest of Rasht in Gilan Province, the cemetery is one of Iran’s unique ancient burial grounds. Tul Talesh dates back to circa 1000 BC.


“In a section of the cemetery, we discovered some skeletons buried with military equipment, including daggers and arrowheads; however, some of their body parts, such as heads, feet, and hands, are missing. The skeletons were found in graves of simple structure, unlike some other megalithic graves that had previously been found at the site. In addition, there are fewer artifacts buried with the bodies in comparison with the belongings found in the megalithic graves. The lower number of artifacts shows that the skeletons belong to persons of a lower class,” the director of the archaeological team working at the site said.


 “We cannot talk with certitude in archaeology; we are only able to rebuild some parts of the history in this way. Thus, the evidence points toward the fact that the people buried in the graves were probably dismembered in war,” Mohammadreza Khalatbari added.


 “We surmise that the bodies belong to a number of warriors killed in war and were buried based on a ritual common to the period. The inhabitants living in the region were neighbors of the Mannai kingdom and the powerful Urartu Empire,” he explained.


Experts have not been able to determine the ethnicity of Tul Talesh’s inhabitants so far.

Khalatbari announced on Monday that his team has unearthed skeletons of a man with military equipment and a woman wearing ornaments from a dolmen at Tul Talesh.


In addition, archaeologists recently discovered a cemetery dedicated solely to horses at the site.

Last year, they also discovered a cromlech at the site in which members of a family had been buried. The body of a woman with a golden goblet and a cuneiform inscription had been buried in the upper part of the cromlech.




By Suzanne Pert

AMAZING finds by archaeologists during recent excavations at Brading Roman Villa mean history will have to be re-written, not just there but at other important mosaic sites around the country.

Although his findings are still to be published, archaeologist Kevin Trott has compiled a 400-page report, which has dispelled some long-held myths and is set to take the archaeological world by storm.

This week he gave the County Press an insight into the archaeologically-explosive contents.

Palladius, the supposed owner of the villa, is now completely out of the frame. It has emerged that when the villa burnt down in a catastrophic fire in around 300 AD, Palladius had not even been born.

There is now overwhelming evidence that the villa dates from the third century, not the fourth as originally thought from the style of the mosaics.

This revision of its date has repercussions for other prominent Roman sites, which have been dated from the style of their mosaics.

"Our findings have even surprised experts like me but it is clear that basing a date on the style of mosaics is a false way of doing things," said Mr Trott, whose fast-growing reputation means he is being invited to talk at conferences about his work.

"The work we have just completed has unravelled everything completely," said Mr Trott, 33, who lives with his wife Kathryn and son, Joseph, one, in Staplers Road, Newport.

After his excavations, which began in 2003, the pottery, glass, coins and other artefacts were sent off to individual experts for their analysis. Once those reports came back, all the evidence was analysed and pulled together by Mr Trott.

He and a team of up to 28 people have looked at the site from the very earliest period 8,000 years ago in the Middle Stone Age up to the present.

During the period of the Roman Emperor Nero, in about AD60, there was a high-status building on the site.

"Not only did the owner have mosaics but also painted wall plaster and the interesting thing is that he could afford minerals to make the paint up, cinnabar and Egyptian blue, which came from Spain and Egypt respectively. Only five other sites in Britain have this and they include such significant places as Fishbourne Roman Palace," said Mr Trott, who comes from nine generations of Islanders.

The villa in Brading, as it is seen today, was built in 270AD, but it was to be completely destroyed in a catastrophic fire just 30 years or so later.

Soil samples suggest there was never a formal garden at the villa. All that was outside was domestic rubbish and toilets in front of the building.

Thousands of charred beans were also found, the largest amount discovered in Britain, and it is Mr Trott's view they were a staple diet on the Island, in the same way that Lincolnshire became known for producing brussels sprouts.

The beans were preserved by being charred, probably in the fire which destroyed the villa.

14 October 2005



Ancient relic is 'once in a lifetime' finding

AN ANCIENT relic worth thousands of pounds was recently dug up on an Aughton farm, by a man who thought it was a milk bottle top.


Metal detecting enthusiast Tim Pearson, of Denaby, found the gold Saxon aestel, which has the appearance of a four inch bottle, back in January this year and had no idea what it was.


"I've been going to that farm for six years and the only things I'd ever found was a Roman coin," he said. "I was off work at the time because I'd smashed my fingers. It was boring being at home so I decided to do some metal detecting. I was all ready for packing up when I heard the machine beeping."


Tim found the 9th century artefact eight inches beneath the surface. At first he thought it was a milk bottle top, then a Victorian pendant, but once he got it home he found it was much more interesting.


In fact his find is so unique, he's had trouble finding similar pieces with which to compare it.


"There was nothing like it in all my books at home, but I eventually found one like it in a museum in Norway."


"I found out it was an aestel, it would have been used by people as a holder for a stick used to turn pages of religious books because they weren't allowed to touch them."

"I found other examples on the internet, two were priceless. One went for 102,000 and one for 42,000. I couldn't believe what I'd found."


"If I knew what it was at the time I found it I would have had a heart attack, but because I discovered gradually it wasn't such a shock."


Under the law, Tim had two weeks to hand over the 'treasure' to the authorities and when that time was up he took it to Rotherham Museum.


"The guy who filled in the report seemed excited but some of the workers weren't as impressed as I thought they might be. I think interest in it will grow once people know how special it is," said the 39-year-old. "They ran an x-ray on it and found it was 86 per cent gold, which is amazing."


"Rotherham Museum staff then sent it to the British Museum. It's still there now but they haven't put it on display."

"I hope it comes back to Rotherham so I can go and have a look at it from time to time."


When any treasure is found, the finder has to take part in an inquest to determine what should happen to the piece.

In a hearing at Rotherham Police Station on Friday, coroner Stanley Hooper declared that the aestal was a treasure.


This means Tim has to give the piece to a museum, who will then give him and the landowner the full market value between them as a reward.


"Mr Hooper was really impressed by the piece and kept asking me lots of questions about it and congratulating me," said Tim.


"I'm pleased about the outcome because it means I don't have to sell it myself, I wouldn't know where to begin."

It has been a lengthy process for Tim, who trains people in gas fitting at Hellaby, and it's not over yet, he still doesn't know how much cash he is in line for.


The aestel will have to go before the UK's official valuation committee within the next few months, but he is hopeful for a tidy sum.


"Something similar in silver was found in 2002 and that was valued at 15,000 so I'm hoping for more than that," said Tim.


"I have been back to the same farm since but I haven't uncovered anything else. I think it's just going to be one of those 'once in a lifetime' things."

14 October 2005



Divers raise anchor of Mary Rose

Press Association

Tuesday October 11, 2005


The anchor from King Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose, which foundered off Portsmouth in 1545, is lifted out of the Solent. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA


The iron anchor from Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose was raised today after 460 years on the seabed.

The operation coincided with the 23rd anniversary of the raising of the main section of the hull that was watched by television audiences around the world in 1982.

The anchor was lifted to the surface this morning after divers secured straps to it in its resting place in the Solent, off Portsmouth, Hampshire.

The work is being funded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which had been considering creating a new deep water channel through the Tudor warship’s resting place for its next generation of aircraft carriers.

If the MoD had pressed ahead with this plan, the Mary Rose site would have had to be completely excavated. However, the Royal Navy has instead chosen a preferred route that will take the carriers - due to come into service in 2012 - along an existing channel.

The decision means that some remaining timbers and other artefacts from the Mary Rose will be left at the bottom of the Solent where they will be naturally protected.

Navy spokesman Anton Hanney said the MoD had spent about 400,000 on funding dives and excavations of the Mary Rose site over the past three years while considering options for the new channel.

“It is a happy irony that the future generation of warships have benefited our appreciation of a ship from the birth of the Royal Navy.”

A section of the bow of the Tudor warship was also raised about an hour after the anchor appeared.

Mr Hanney said the most vulnerable timbers were being brought to the surface for conservation, together with artefacts uncovered in in 2003.

“Other sensitive but less exposed remains, whose extent has not yet been established, will be re-buried on the seabed to preserve them from decay and the ravages of marine organisms.”

The Prince of Wales, who is president of the Mary Rose Trust, sent a message of support to the divers.

“Having watched the raising of the hull exactly 23 years ago and having been closely engaged with the Mary Rose thereafter, I fully understand the excitement today.

“The major timbers from the bow will allow both architects and visitors to understand far better the structure of the Mary Rose, this sole survivor from the Tudor navy.”

He said it was “particularly gratifying” to see that the preparations to introduce the future aircraft carriers had “enabled the safety of the earliest flagship from King Henry VIII’s navy to be assured”.

The Mary Rose, which was completed in 1511, was the pride of Henry VIII’s navy, but she sank on July 19 1545 with the loss of hundreds of lives after a skirmish with French ships.

The excavated sections of the Mary Rose are on display at Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard.



Public release date: 12-Oct-2005

Contact: Lori Stiles



University of Arizona


Radiocarbon dates reveal that New Guinea art is older than thought

When the de Young Museum reopens in a new, earthquake-resistant building in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park next Saturday, Oct. 15, it will debut what curators consider the largest and most important private collection of New Guinea art in the world.

Gregory W. L. Hodgins and A. J. Timothy Jull of The University of Arizona will attend the gala event. The scientists have radiocarbon dated some of the collection that New York-based entrepreneur John Friede and his wife, Marcia, are giving to the de Young Museum as the Jolika Collection.


The Friedes amassed an unparalleled collection of almost 3,000 objects from the South Pacific island of New Guinea during the past 40 years. Many of the pieces were originally collected during European anthropological expeditions into New Guinea in the early 20th century.


Two years ago, John Friede asked UA scientists to date some of the masterpieces at the university's National Science Foundation - Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) facility in Tucson. Hodgins visited the Friedes's Long Island Sound home three times last year to sample 145 objects now among the Jolika Collection.


Results of this first large-scale dating project on New Guinean art and artifacts are preliminary, Hodgins and Jull say. But their findings so far have stunned museum curators and anthropologists. Their findings challenge previous assumptions that such objects are inherently ephemeral, perhaps surviving only a few generations.


Of the objects dated, 78 contain wood that pre-dates the 18th century and 33 contain wood older than 1670 A.D. "A small percentage of this collection are pieces that are very old -- 600, 700, 800 years and older," Hodgins said. The oldest mask in the collection dated at between 660 A.D. and 860 A.D. "These measured ages imply that a few of the objects were in use for more like 50 to 100 generations."


Humans first occupied New Guinea 35,000 years ago, according to the earliest archaeological records. People sparsely populated the landscape for most of that time, living as hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. But with the introduction of the sweet potato 400 years ago, according to archaeological and ethnographic evidence, the population exploded dramatically and diversified to the point where New Guinea has the highest cultural and linguistic diversity in the world.


"The significance of objects now in the de Young Museum is that they offer a glimpse at the time before this agricultural revolution began," Hodgins said.


"The ages for this art totally change the bias that says Stone Age peoples living in isolated communities do not develop art with that kind of complexity," Jull, director of the NSF-Arizona AMS Lab, said.


"It is a tribute to John Friede's vision that he thought seriously about dating his collection," Hodgins said. "It's not customary to radiocarbon date these materials. In fact, when I initially talked to John, I told him that I didn't think it was a particularly good application of this method, because he assumed that most of the pieces were probably less than 500 years old. New Guinea is a tropical environment, where wood decays rapidly. Also, radiocarbon dating doesn't work very well over the last 500 years because of a combination of natural and man-made phenomena. But this is certainly going to make museums from all over the world think about dating their collections."


Hodgins, an assistant research scientist at the NSF-Arizona AMS Lab, is also a UA assistant professor of anthropology who earned his doctorate at the University of Oxford in 1999. He contacted Chris Gosden, curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, England, and an anthropologist who specializes in the archaeology and anthropology of New Guinea and its surrounding islands.


"Chris agreed that the dates, if correct, are absolutely extraordinary and will have a significant impact on the New Guinean people as well as the region's anthropology and archaeology."


Clearly, art and artifacts like those found in the Jolika Collection have influenced European art and culture, Hodgins said. Even the casual observer can see the resemblance in trends in early 20th century French and German painting and sculpture, he said, so that much New Guinean art seems simultaneously exotic and familiar to those from Western cultures.


Scientists at the NSF-Arizona AMS Lab need only milligrams of material - wood shavings, in this case - for radiocarbon dating. They burn the sample and use a huge machine called an accelerator mass spectrometer to measure how much radioactive carbon, or carbon 14, is present in the carbon dioxide given off by combustion. The researchers convert the carbon 14 measurement to calendar dates by comparing the amount of radiocarbon in the sample to radiocarbon contained in tree rings of known calendar years.


The NSF-Arizona AMS Lab, established at UA in 1981, is a shared facility between the departments of physics and geosciences.



South Carolina

Posted on Sun, Oct. 16, 2005


Work uncovers site where raid freed 700 slaves

In 1863, the Civil War came to the Combahee River in the form of abolitionist Harriet Tubman


Senior Writer


RURAL BEAUFORT COUNTY Archeologists have unearthed artifacts they believe pinpoint the location of a Combahee River ferry crossing used in a Civil War raid led by legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman.


The 1863 Union army raid, which freed more than 700 slaves from plantations in Colleton and Beaufort counties, is widely considered the first in U.S. history to be led by a woman. It cemented Tubman’s legend as a daring and courageous emancipator, and it bolstered Union forces in the Palmetto State.


The archeologists were hired by the state Department of Transportation to probe the area before U.S. 17 is widened. In the process, they unearthed artifacts they believe came from a house or tavern near the ferry crossing where Tubman and black Union soldiers surprised local plantation owners.


A brief study conducted in 1989 revealed Confederate earthworks and an old African-American cemetery in the low-lying, undeveloped area. But when plans to widen the highway were shelved, no follow-up surveys were taken.


This year, with plans to widen the highway back on track, DOT and the private company have reviewed centuries-old maps, recovered artifacts, and conducted underwater and soil tests that have shown the area to be of great historical significance.


DOT believes it now knows where the ferry crossing was located. It also may have found a submerged vessel that could date from the 19th century and the remains of buildings that could have been associated with the ferry. Other old maps show that slave huts were strung along the Colleton County side of the Combahee, though researchers have not yet found any structural evidence of the buildings.


Tubman is best known for escaping slavery and helping others to do the same along the famed Underground Railroad, made up of safe houses and secret passages.


But no single act in Tubman’s life would free more people than the Combahee raid. And yet, even in the state where it took place, its details are not widely known.


Brockington and Associates, the private firm of historians and archeologists working with DOT, has suggested the state designate the area as the Combahee Ferry Historic District. Such a designation could be a first step to having the area listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., whose congressional district includes the Confederate earthworks on the Colleton County side of the Combahee, wants the area to be included in a proposed Gullah-Geechie history corridor.


Jason Ellerbee, the Brockington historian who first told his colleagues and DOT that the ferry site was a staging area during the raid, said the earthworks, the ferry, the submerged vessel and the African-American cemetery make the place special.


“It has significance for African-American history, women’s history, military history,” said Ellerbee, who is African American. “In this one night, (Tubman) freed over 700 slaves. This hits so close to home.”




Marsh has reclaimed the fertile rice fields that lined the serpentine Combahee River in pre-Civil War Beaufort and Colleton counties. That rice filled bellies and fattened wallets up and down the river.


Sprawling plantations, points of antebellum pride for the white gentry, took up vast chunks of land. The Heywards and Middletons had their place among the wealthiest families of the area.


But war threatened their privileged places and, on a June night in 1863, the Civil War was brought to the bountiful plantations of the Combahee by a black woman who had a price on her head and an anti-slavery passion in her heart: Harriet Tubman.


By 1863, Tubman was already a mythical and mysterious figure. An escaped slave from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, she had survived brutal treatment in bondage. As a girl, Tubman was beaten so regularly and so severely that she learned to wear multiple layers of clothes to cushion the blows. A blow to her head once nearly killed her. Some of her sisters were sold away, never to be heard from again.


Tubman became one of the principal conductors of the Underground Railroad, leading hundreds of slaves daring enough to try the journey north to freedom.


Fourteen years after she ran for her own freedom in 1849, she was on the steam-powered gunboat John Adams, probing deep into enemy territory, risking capture or worse if the Confederates all around her were roused too soon.




Confederate officers were reluctant to place troops too near the Combahee River, and one trip to the woods just off its banks makes that reasoning clear. Mosquitoes, undaunted by repellent and possibly carrying diseases that killed hundreds of soldiers during the Civil War, seek out every section of exposed skin.


Wayne Roberts, DOT’s chief archeologist and an ardent Civil War buff, knew to bring his can of repellent.


“Make sure you get your ankles,” he said, offering his can to those who had joined him on a quick tour through the woods near the Combahee.


Not far from a still-operating boat landing on the Beaufort County side of the Combahee, Roberts pointed to ground that slopes down to the river. “This is where we think the ferry was.”


Roberts then pointed toward what old maps show was once a road leading away from the river, heading south toward Savannah.


The road, which offered access to nearby plantations. stopped at the Combahee, making the site a logical spot for the ferry landing, Rogers said.


U.S. 17 now runs parallel to that old road, and big trucks roar by. It’s a dangerous road, one some local residents are eager to see widened.


But that widening will come at a cost. After artifacts are removed, the widened road would cover an area where historians and archeologists believe ferry buildings were located.


Moving the road east would mean damaging the Civil War earthworks and the cemetery, which includes the graves of two black soldiers whose regiment participated in Tubman’s raid. Moving the road west would mean removing a boat ramp and possibly uncovering more historical artifacts.


“We’re kind of damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” Rogers said.


A pair of community meetings, one at Green Pond Baptist Church on Nov. 7 and another the next day at Whale Branch Middle School in the Seabrook community, will allow local residents to discuss the road project.


Clyburn said the area’s historic importance doesn’t mean the road shouldn’t be widened.


“It’s one thing to say, ‘Let’s just leave this area alone and never touch it,’ “ he said. “But it’s another to do the work, retrieve the artifacts and put them on display. I think there is a win-win possibility here if we work together.”




Out where DOT and Brockington believe the ferry buildings stood, there isn’t much to see. It is brush and woods, colored by orange markers tied to branches and vines to mark where archeologists working with DOT have conducted shovel tests.


One hot spot includes items that date to the 1700s, when historians and archeologists believe the first ferry structure stood. Another hot spot offered items that date to the mid-1800s, when its replacement stood.


Brockington’s researchers learned the Combahee ferry was first chartered by the state in 1715 and was required to be staffed 24 hours a day.


Operators in the 1700s and 1800s tended to live near their ferries, and it was typical for them to have their home double as a lodge or tavern for travelers. Artifacts recovered from the area, pottery, buttons, pieces of a large glass jug or bottle, shards of ceramics, are likely what’s left of items used in a ferry lodge or tavern, Brockington’s researchers said.


Some of the glass Brockington’s researchers found was burned, possibly during the raid.


While many of the archeological and historical finds are pointing in the same direction, Rogers said researchers still have lots of questions about the raid and about life in the area.


“Hopefully, data recovery will answer some of those questions,” Rogers said.




In the days leading up to the raid, Confederate pickets along the Combahee were spooked. Their false alarms so angered Capt. James Lowndesthat, on May 26, 1863, he fired off a special order threatening court martial for anyone who gave another “groundless alarm.”


Precisely what alarmed the pickets isn”t known. But Tubman, who had been sent to Beaufort by Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew in 1862 to work as a spy and a scout for the Union’s Department of the South, busily was assembling intelligence for a raid that would cause Confederate alarm.


Tubman had met local blacks, including Walter Plowden, who knew the area well and got word to slaves on nearby plantations that their liberation was at hand. There is no firm evidence that Tubman went onto the plantations herself but such a tactic would not have been unusual for her. She had done it before, disguised as a poor old woman.


Tubman passed on what she learned from her Combahee compatriots to Col. James Montgomery, the white commander of the black Union forces. Montgomery counted John Brown as a hero and embraced his style of all-out, abolitionist warfare.


Montgomery was reviled by Confederates and even by some Union officers. His regiment, the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, later was reorganized into the 34th U.S. Colored Infantry. It is portrayed in the 1989 movie “Glory” as an undisciplined group of marauding blacks.


True or not, Tubman knew Montgomery’s anti-slavery zeal approached her own.


She had a very different view of the Confederate Army.


For her, it was the devil’s legion. Its victory would mean more beatings for enslaved black men, more rapes for enslaved black women and more sales of children ripped from their mothers.


“It was completely personal to her,” said Kate Clifford Larson, a Tubman expert who wrote “Bound for the Promised Land,” a biography of the abolitionist. “She had grown up in a violent culture and knew that it was life or death.”


Tubman was with Montgomery in the dark, early morning hours of June 2, 1863, when the John Adams and other gunboats steamed up the Combahee River.


Confederate pickets, some stationed at the Combahee Ferry, were to immediately alert plantation owners and fellow soldiers if approaching Union forces were too much for them to repel.


In a statement he gave on the raid, planter William C. Heyward reported that the pickets did not reach his plantation until at least an hour after he himself had seen the Union boats.


Questioning one picket, Heyward was furious.


“Asked why they were so slow in reporting, he said, ‘Ordered not to report until we are certain of the facts; thought perhaps they might be our boats,’ ”Heyward wrote in his report.


By the time the pickets reached the Heyward plantation, Montgomery’s men had reached the Combahee Ferry and disembarked as Union gunboats blasted their horns and waved their flags in a pre-arranged signal for slaves to abandon the plantations and flee to the Union boats.


Montgomery’s men put Heyward’s plantation, as well as those of William Middleton and Charles Lowndes, to the torch.


Tubman ushered slaves on board the Union boats and sang to them during their flight.


Union reports put the number of freed slaves at 725; Tubman said the raid liberated 756 people.


The Confederates were enraged. After-action reports were full of second guessing and finger-pointing.


“Their success,” wrote Confederate Capt. John F. Lay of the raiders, “was complete.”


Reach Washington at (803) 771-8385 or wwashington@thestate.com.