Charleston: An Archaeology of Life in a Coastal Community

Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the most storied cities of the American South. Widely recognized for its historic buildings, its thriving maritime culture, and its role in the Civil War, Charleston is also considered the birthplace of historic preservation. Martha Zierden and Elizabeth Reitz–whose archaeological fieldwork in the city spans more than three decades–explore the evolution of the urban environment, the intricacies of provisioning such a robust city, and the urban foodways that continue to inspire Charleston’s culture. They relied on The Charleston Museum’s extensive collections to illustrate the story.

In Charleston, Zierden and Reitz weave archaeology and history to illuminate this vibrant, densely packed Atlantic port city. They detail the residential, commercial, and public life of the city, the ruins of taverns, markets, and townhouses, including those of Thomas Heyward, shipping merchant Nathaniel Russell, and William Aiken. The authors shed light on the dynamics of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services that linked the city with rural neighbors and global markets. They also trace fish and game from the woods and waters to the kitchens where the food was prepared and the tables where it was served. Connecting how global trade goods were combined with indigenous flavors, Zierden and Reitz reveal a cuisine that was uniquely Charleston.

The artifacts unearthed show how Charleston continued to grow and develop as it contended with public health initiatives necessitated by post–Civil War changes, the fire of 1861, and the earthquake of 1886. They also testify to the city’s arts and finery and to the challenges experienced by laboring slaves, house servants, and other underprivileged citizens. By reminding us that urban areas shape and are shaped by their inhabitants, Charleston evokes the essence of the deeply complex city whose influence was felt throughout the Atlantic World.

About the Authors:

Martha A. Zierden is curator of historical archaeology at The Charleston Museum and has been involved in every major excavation in Charleston since 1980. Elizabeth J. Reitz, professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia, is coauthor of Zooarchaeology, second edition. She has worked with Zierden and collections from The Charleston Museum since 1982.


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