It’s going to be very tricky. A river bottom near downtown Columbia, S.C., covered with Confederate era munitions dumped by the Federal Army in 1865. You might imagine that, being underwater for that long, there would be little danger involved in handling rebel grenades and shells and cannon balls. No so. In the 1970s divers found a similar dump behind the Confederate Powder Works on the banks of the Savannah River at Augusta Georgia. A lot of the shells were inert, the water had leached away the powder inside years before. Then again, a lot of them were very much alive—and even more volatile than when they were first made. Colonel Washington Raines, the man who built the Powder Works, was famed for the quality of his gunpowder. When such gunpowder sits undisturbed it ‘matures’ becoming more volatile over time. As the Augusta divers discovered, the powder inside the intact shells they recovered was still capable of exploding.
“We were totally stupid, “ one them told The Archaeology Hour (forty years later he still wants to remain anonymous). “We carefully cut one of the smaller shells open without cutting into the powder, we then made a small hole and got the powder out. We shot pictures of the result—it blew up like crazy!”
In the near future work will begin to recover the munitions in the Congaree River near Columbia. As if the danger of an explosion is not bad enough, there is another complication. Tar. Not only are the munitions underwater, sand and mud—there is also a two foot thick layer of tar over the entire deposit as well!
The river, the tar, sand, mud—and live shells. And it all has to be removed. This is going to be a good story! Scuba divers, probably seeking to repeat the finds of the Augusta divers decades ago, first discovered the ‘tarry substance.’ It was most recently reported to authorities by a wading kayaker. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control decided the mess needed to be cleaned up.
The result is that responsibility for the problem has fallen into the lap of South Carolina Electric & Gas. Eric Boomhower, Director for Public Affairs for SCE&G, told the Archaeology Hour, “The tarry substance is consistent with coal tar created by manufactured gas plants that operated throughout Columbia more than a century ago.
“One of those gas plants, located at Lincoln and Lady Street, was owned and operated by the Columbia Gas Light Company. At the time of closing in 1906, its production was replaced by the output of a new MGP at Huger and Taylor Street (the “Huger Street Site”). Note that the Huger Street Site was operated during its operating history by the Columbia Railway, Gas and Electric Company (a predecessor to SCE&G), thus giving rise to SCE&G’s liability for that former MGP site. In 1925, Columbia Railway Gas & Electric Company merged with the Broad River Power Company Inc. to form the Broad River Power Company. In 1937, the name was changed to South Carolina Electric & Gas Company. It appears that this particular deposit may have originated from the Huger Street Site. “
In accepting responsibility for the problem SCE&G is showing great corporate citizenship. They have hired environmental firm TRC Solutions out of Atlanta, Georgia to handle the decidedly dangerous clean up job.
“TRC’s primary job will be to do the archaeological recovery, they have done this type of work for us before in similar situations,” said Boomhower. “It should be understood though, that our primary concern is the safety of everyone involved.”
While the historical record states that this is the area where Sherman dumped Confederate munitions, Boomhower says that it is by no means certain that live ammunition will in fact be encountered. “If it is—if we encounter anything that has the potential to be live and dangerous—then the bomb disposal experts will immediately take control of the work.”
A further complication is that the Confederate munitions also constitute part of the state’s archaeological heritage. This brings in Jim Spirek, State Underwater Archaeologist at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA). Spirek told The Archaeology Hour, “Historical research suggests this area of the Congaree River was one of several dumping sites of Confederate war materials by troops under command of General William T. Sherman following the capture of the city in 1865.
“Recovery of various Civil War artifacts in this location in the 1930s by the then mayor of West Columbia and later under salvage licenses issued by SCIAA in the late 1970s and early 1980s also provides archaeological corroboration of the historical record. A series of bores was conducted from the Gervais Bridge to the Blossom Street Bridge. The stratigraphy of the river in this area consists of bedrock buried under several feet of sand and mud close to shore with exposed rocks further out in the river, along with sediment filled pockets in deeper areas. The tar like substance (TLS) is approximately two feet thick at its deepest and thins out downstream.
“Presumably the Civil War-era and earlier artifacts rest below or perhaps intermingled with the TLS. More recent artifacts including hubcaps, beer cans, shopping carts, etc. are included in the upper levels of the site stratigraphy, or perhaps scoured in deeper due to periodic flooding.
“At the areas excavated to remove TLS from the river there will be 100% artifact recovery. Artifacts of historic and archaeological significance will undergo conservation treatment. Modern items will be cataloged and then disposed of. Plans call for the conserved items to be curated at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, although some artifacts may be sent to other appropriate cultural institutions for display and interpretation.
In handling possible live ammunition, the ordnance experts will make the call on whether such items will be destroyed by safe detonation or preserved by being defused and rendered inert. These will then be among the ‘conserved items’ that Spirek refers to.
This adds even more complexity to the project. SCANA and TRC have submitted a plan to the State for the work. Spirek told us, “Various remediation scenarios were offered by SCANA at a public meeting held in Columbia on 21 March 2013. DHEC preferred the 100% recovery of the TLS by damming the river in three sequential segments. Recently, the US Army Corps of Engineers has asked SCANA and DHEC to reconsider the damming option and to prepare a revised remediation action. Presumably in the next several months SCANA will provide their modified plan to remove the TLS from the Congaree River.”
There is no word yet on what the new plan will involve. It is thought it will be a modification of the earlier “dam and dig dry” plan. In any event, watchers await with considerable interest to see exactly how this sticky, tricky and explosive project will finally be handled. Archaeologically–whether the project were done underwater or on ‘dry’ land or not—standard procedure would require artifacts (possibly cartridges, shells, grenades etc.) to be carefully excavated, photographed in situ, then delicately removed, cleaned and conserved. Whether this is done or not may be the case by case call of a live ordnance recovery expert working alongside the archaeologist.
The Congaree ‘tar’ project will be featured on an upcoming podcast edition of The Archaeology Hour with audio interviews and more background information.
The archaeology hour podcast can be found at: