Science Digs Into Civil War Sites

Associated Press + More


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ATLANTA—Just north of I-20 on Moreland Avenue in Atlanta sits an intersection on a low hill. There's a gas station and a liquor store and some other businesses, but not much else.

Though you would never know it from the unremarkable view, thousands of men died here 145 years ago in one of the fiercest fights of the Civil War.

Confederate Private Sam Watkins, wounded in the battle that July day in 1864, recalled bodies, horses, wagons and cannon "piled indiscriminately everywhere" and "streams of blood."

"'Twas a picture of carnage and death," he wrote. It was a day and a place he would never forget.

But Atlanta did forget. Since the war, the city has sprawled out in every direction with buildings, roads and traffic, paving over this battleground and others.

Today most people assume any archaeological record of the clash of two enormous armies more than 160,000 men has been obliterated by modernity.

Not so fast.

A small but growing number of Georgia archaeologists and history buffs are starting to use high-tech gear, ground-penetrating radar, metal detectors, new software programs and detective-style techniques to detail with amazing precision what happened when U.S. Gen. William T. Sherman made good on his promise to "make Georgia howl."

Decades ago, archaeology was about spades, notebooks and educated guesses. You found a field where you thought something might have been, and you dug pits. Trying to piece together what happened on a battlefield for several hours of one day more than a century ago seemed preposterous.

This was especially true in metro Atlanta, where bulldozers have been working overtime for decades. But now this loose group of experts call them Civil War CSI are on the case. They still use historical records and spades, but they also use a whole lot more.

Garrett Silliman, a 35-year-old archaeologist at an environmental consulting firm, has started giving talks to experts in the area and in other states on new approaches that are helping find new Civil War sites and new information in this megalopolis of drywall and asphalt.

"A lot of this technology has been around for years, but now it's a lot cheaper and easier to use," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "For some of us, it's becoming standard operating procedure."

The technology includes:

GIS: geographic information systems technology detailed mapping software that can give a three-dimensional view of an area, and impose old Civil War maps on modern maps.

GPS: global positioning system, which uses satellite to pinpoint the location of a found object or entrenchment.

Ground-penetrating radar. Developed by the U.S. Army to find enemy tunnels during the Vietnam War, the technology used to require a truck and many people to operate it. Today, one person can carry it on his back. The radar can find disturbances many feet underground, revealing Civil War earthworks or battles.

Soil and relic testing. Lab testing can give detailed reports on everything from the age of an item to traces of blood.

Metal detectors that are far more precise than the clunky ones popular with Civil War relic hunters.

Several Georgians are embracing these new tools.

William Drummond, a professor at Georgia Tech's College of Architecture, has spent years promoting GIS technology for use in identifying, analyzing and preserving battlefields.

Dan Elliott, an archaeologist who has been doing Revolutionary War research and some Civil War research in coastal and central Georgia, was trained to use ground-penetrating radar about eight years ago. At the time, only four people in the state knew how to use it — and almost no one was using it for archaeology. Today, more than 20 people in the state are trained and it is a common tool for archaeologists.

"Basically we're stealing ideas that medical technology had 20 years ago," he said. "It gives you Superman eyes to see under the ground."

Lu Ann De Cunzo, president of the Society for Historical Archaeology and a professor at the University of Delaware, said these technological advances have given archaeologists an exactitude no one could have imagined only a few years ago.