The “Father of American Historical Archaeology,” who helped to rediscover and interpret the foundation remains of Brunswick Town and the adjacent Civil War fortification, passed away Sunday.
Dr. Stanley South, who spent 10 years conducting archaeological investigations of the then-overgrown colonial town between 1958 to 1968, died in Columbia, South Carolina. He was 88.
South is being remembered this week for his pioneering work in the field of archaeology, and for the important role he played at numerous sites in both North Carolina and South Carolina, in addition to a distinguished academic career, all of which spanned 60 years.
His early work at Brunswick Town helped pave the way for it to eventually become a state historic site, and much of what is known about the daily history there, can be attributed to his work.
A North Carolina native, South was the first archaeologist hired by the state after excavating Town Creek Indian Mound at Mount Gilead in 1956.
He came to Brunswick Town two years later at the invitation of Lawrence Lee, who had been working to bring the site back to the public eye after decades as a secluded ghost town.
South and his small team unearthed approximately 15-percent of the original town’s location, which included several significant 18th century homesites, and accidentally rediscovered the earthen mounds of Fort Anderson in 1963 after a wind-aided fire cleared overgrowth. Another famous story he told of his Brunswick Town days was when he was excavating Judge Maurice Moore’s well, he fell to the bottom, and avoided death-by-impalement by inches.
“With a few notable exceptions, the trail and layout of the town is pretty much the same as it was when Dr. South left,” site manager Jim McKee said. “During his decade here, he found hundreds of thousands of artifacts, which still compromise the largest such collection in the state. Without Dr. South’s work, we would not have the site as we know it today.”
During his 10-year stint at the site, South developed a “mean ceramic date” technique that used the statistic method of central tendency to determine the age of a historic occupation based on the average date of all the ceramic shards in an excavated area.
Another technique developed by South was the “Brunswick Pattern of Refuse Disposal” that used the pattern analysis in an excavated area, and divided the artifact assemblage into meaningful subsets.
“He literally ‘broke ground,’ pun intended, for everyone who has come since, and influenced generations of archaeologists,” McKee said.
McKee said that much of the information that is known about St. Philip’s Church is due to the work South did, and that the museum is filled with artifacts discovered under his watch.
“He was instrumental in ‘rediscovering’ and promoting many of North Carolina’s prehistoric and historic period sites, including several that form the core of the state historic sites program,” N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz said. “These sites include Town Creek Indian Mound, Brunswick Town, Historic Halifax and Ft. Dobbs. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.”
South also made notable archaeological contributions to the Arsenal in Fayetteville, at historic locations in Edenton, Bath and Bethabara Park, and at Charles Towne Landing in South Carolina.
South’s body of work, which includes dozens of published books and hundreds of research papers, in addition to the establishment of a regional colonial archaeological conference, spanned more than 60 years, starting with his student days at UNC-Chapel Hill.
He spent the past couple decades as a research professor at the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, retiring in 2011 but maintaining an office and presence on campus until last year.
South, who was a World War II Navy veteran, is survived by two sons and a daughter, all successful in their own chosen fields.
“I can state unequivocally that he helped develop in me a keen interest in the history of the Lower Cape Fear,” said Chris Fonvielle, professor of history at UNC-Wilmington. “On occasion I would tag along with my mother Jane, who had a talk show on WWAY from 1965 to 1971, to Brunswick Town. I vividly recall Dr. South handing me a trowel and putting me into the ruins of a house under excavation. I fell in love with historical archaeology right then and there. As he was uncovering the history of Brunswick and the Lower Cape Fear, he was also nurturing and teaching future archaeologists and historians.”
South would return to Brunswick Town frequently, notably to speak to archaeological field schools in 2009 and 2011 and again in June 2013, when Brunswick Town would honor him and Lawrence Lee on “Stanley South Day.”
“When I started in the 1960s, most archaeologists were doing pre-historic Native American archaeology only,” he said then. “So to take on the subject I was interested in, that being British Colonial, was unheard of and frowned upon at the time.”
While South was known most for his work in archaeology, he was less known—but no less prolific—as a poet, publishing several volumes in the 1970s and ’80s that often focused on the environment, particularly animals, death and the spiritual world as subjects.
“All nature sleeps in heavenly peace, and the silent world goes by,” he wrote in 1971’s “The Ninth Hour,” which was published in his collection Silver Strands. “The brothers and the son of man are gone, and the flowing cup is dry.”