SOUTH CAROLINA: A surprisingly intimate collection of artifacts linked to enslaved people has been pulled from mud in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, according to researchers with the University of North Georgia.

Among the “organic remains” were shoe soles, belt leather and remnants of meals. The discoveries hint at a treasure trove of artifacts buried at the 19th century “labor camp” between the North Santee River and South Santee River, according to Dr. Kendy Altizer, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Georgia.

Tenants of the “remote” settlement northwest of Charleston included entire families who worked rice fields starting around 1840.

“Because no one has ever conducted archaeological investigations here, we really did not know what we would find. We were hoping for some ceramics, bricks and mortar, but having more organic evidence is really a boon to our research and will help us understand what slaves and newly freed people were eating and wearing during this time period,” Altizer told McClatchy News in an email.

“This kind of data helps us understand daily life on these types of sites where there is little direct archival evidence describing this aspect of slavery.” The finds were made as students with the university’s Archaeological Field School conducted an exploratory ”shovel test survey.” Boats were needed to reach the site, where students on hands and knees dug 40 holes over five days.

As expected, they found “European ceramics, nails, brick and mortar.” But mingled with those artifacts were unexpected leather products, cypress shake roof shingles, wooden flooring, peach pits, squash seeds, peanut shells and animal remains.

Such “organic remains” typically rot away in acidic soil, but Altizer says “the marsh ecosystem” slowed the process. That means more surprising things may remain buried in the mud.

“The marsh gasses and underlying mud effectively seal deposits in a waterlogged anaerobic environment so no oxygen gets in to assist in decomposition,” she said. “The effect is preservation of organic material such as leather, and the remnants of some food items such as seeds and shells.”

Students dug the holes around nine chimney pads that can still be seen above ground. It’s believed they represent two-room cabins that rose 6 to 8 feet above the marsh, researchers said. As many as 100 people may have lived at the site from 1840 to 1885, officials said.

“Archival research indicates these were houses for enslaved people and, after emancipation, some people remained,” Altizer said.

“The material culture that we have recovered thus far supports these documents — but also provides an intimate connection between vague mention of slaves between the rivers and actual people that were living and working under fierce conditions between these rivers.”

It has become common for coastal historic sites to face threats from development, but much of the site is protected by South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, Altizer said. (The state issued a permit allowing the shovel survey to be conducted.)

However, the camp faces a different type of threat from climate change. Sea level is predicted to rise 3 to 4 feet in the next 25 years, Altizer said.

“This means many of the archaeological sites between the rivers will be under water within our lifetime. Part of the larger Santee Delta Project is to document cultural resources to the best of our ability before we lose them to rising waters,” she said. “

We know nothing about the majority of the people who were living and working in one of the most challenging environments with no pay — against their will. They deserve recognition and if we can help to tell those stories, then we should.”