Winthrop University students will be the first to document a cemetery at Historic Brattonsville thought to belong to slaves of the Bratton plantation family.
Led by Winthrop archaeology professor Christina Brooks, the students will map the cemetery's boundaries and determine the number of burials there. They are eager to play a role in that discovery.
"It's cool to not only read about history, but to play with it, actually put it in your hands," said senior Roxanne Ayers. "It's an amazing opportunity."
Using the historical record and anecdotes from the descendants of the Bratton family slaves, a museum archaeologist located the cemetery and a headstone of Watt and Polly, two well-documented Bratton slaves, said Owen Glendening, deputy director of interpretation for the Culture and Heritage Museums, which manages Historic Brattonsville.
Watt famously informed Colonel Bratton that the British loyalists and Captain Christian Huck were nearby, which historians believe led Bratton and his men to a victory in the Battle of Huck's Defeat of 1780.
The headstone, inscribed by a Charlestonian carver, is a significant find because it was "an expression of appreciation that was unusual" of a master to give a slave, Glendening said.
The headstone since has been removed to prevent looting or vandalism. A replica is at Historic Brattonsville.
No official survey of the cemetery has been done until now, Glendening said.
Saturday was the students' second visit to the cemetery, hidden in Brattonsville's thick woods near McConnells.
The research methods students will learn include surveying, field walking, photographing archaeological findings, drawing site plans and artifact cleaning and conservation, Brooks said. Protecting the site while learning about it is of utmost importance.
The sites will not be excavated. Instead, the class will use ground penetrating radar, metal detection and electrical probing to identify where graves might have been.
The students cleared leaves to locate depressions - possible burial sites - in the ground. They used string and stakes to mark the ground, preparing for mapping.
They identified and measured features, including ground depressions, tree stumps, field stones and anything that could be a grave marker. They mapped the objects in their notebooks.
Even the color of the soil can distinguish a burial, said Brooks, whose focus is on forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology.
When a body breaks down, volatile fatty acids mix with the soil and discolor it, producing an outline of the remains, Brooks said.
Junior Udell Garrison is eager to apply the field research techniques he learned in the classroom last semester.
"Before we raked everything, it was just a bunch of leaves out here," he said.
Now, he is interested in finding out what the ground says about the people buried there.
After their research this semester, Brooks and the museum will offer a program to share the class's findings with the public.
Though historians and archaeologists want to know more about the cemetery, they also want to prevent it from being harmed. The best way to protect it is avoid identifying its exact location, museum leaders and Brooks said.
The students understand that concept.
"At some point, you want to find (the graves), identify them, find out the who, what, when, where and why," Ayers said, "and then protect them."