Returning to the Mica House

The next post in our series on Student Research in South Carolina is by UofSC graduate student Johnny Dodge. Johnny was the recipient of the 2020 ASSC Student-Grant-in-Aid award.

Uncategorized sherd with an unusual impression on the surface.

When I came to the University of South Carolina for my Master’s degree, I was presented with the incredible opportunity to continue work started by South Carolina archaeology powerhouses including Gail Wagner and Chester DePratter on the Mica House. The Mica House, as it’s usually referred to, is a truly unique context at the Mulberry site–a special place that I’d been lucky enough to work on in the summer leading up to my first year in graduate school. Based on a very late radiocarbon date taken from maize in the house’s floor and a Partial ceramic analysis that seemed to support that date, the assumption, for quite a long time, was that the house was used in the late 17th century, beyond what was thought to be the tail-end of Mulberry’s Native American Occupation. The focus of my research at the beginning was the site’s occupants. I wanted to see if I could use the pottery to identify specific groups and hybrid artifacts, supposing that the Mulberry site may have become home to one or more displaced peoples in the colonial period. The reader will understand, then, that I was becoming very worried when, halfway into my research, I was still unable to tell any meaningful difference between the usual Mulberry pottery and the artifacts from the Mica House. There was an abundance of pottery, mostly small sherds, but plenty with identifiable surface treatments and decoration. Between the amount of complicated stamping present and the absence of specific rim decorations associated with 17th century pottery, there wasn’t much evidence emerging to support the idea that the house was any older than the 16th century. In terms of paste and temper (and I devoted quite a lot of time to checking the sherds for idiosyncrasies in the paste), there was, again, very little variation outside of the sandy sherds that characterize the Wateree River valley.

Rectilinear Complicated Stamp with a segmented rim strip.

I was beginning to doubt my eye for the finer details of hybridity theory and coalescence when I sent off for two radiocarbon dates from the house, funded by the ASSC. Those two hickory shells brought us bittersweet news: the Mica House seemed to be at least 100 years older than we’d originally assumed. Meaning that, while I was happy to learn that I wasn’t missing something important in the pottery, I wold to (optimistically) save much of the work I’d put into my background and theory for a later publication. That’s what we get for having assumptions! The bulk of the work–the pottery analysis–can of course still be salvaged, buy my research questions may shift towards the more objective question of when exactly was the house occupied. The radiocarbon dates were extremely enlightening, but not perfect in and of themselves, thanks to a little wiggle in the calibration giving us bimodal results. The difference between possibilities is only about 100 years, but it happened to be a pretty significant hundred years for the region, as the early date places the house just before European contact, and the later date right around Pardo’s entrada. What that means is that I’ll have the privilege of learning a new skill in navigating OxCal (software used to calibrate radiocarbon dates) and working with radiocarbon dates. Hopefully, when all is said and done, we’ll at least have an answer to the chronology question and a decent look at some of the dishes from one of the most interesting houses in South Carolina!

I’d like to thank Gail Wagner, Terrence Weik, and Sherina Feliciano-Santos for agreeing to be on my thesis committee, and providing invaluable feedback during this process. I’d also like to thank Adam King, my committee chair, and Chris Judge for mentoring me along the way. Thanks again to ASSC, without whose funding I might still be panicking about an illogical chronology. Finally, I’d like to thank the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Muscogee Nation, Thlopothocco Tribal Town, Kialegee Tribal Town, Alabama-Wuassarte Tribal Town, Poarch Band of Creek Indians, and the Catawba for their support and informing the work that has been done on Mulberry, in the land of their ancestors.

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