“An amazing book, representing years of work and dozens of excavations and presenting a continuous chronology of a colonial city from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. No other city in America has this kind of archaeological record.”–Nan A. Rothschild, coauthor of The Archaeology of American Cities

“A must-read for those interested in food and foodways, urbanization, and the untold history of one of America’s oldest cities.”–Russell K. Skowronek, coeditor of Pieces of Eight: More Archaeology of Piracy

“Provides a unique guided tour of the city’s vibrant legacy, skillfully weaving a complex tapestry of archaeological and historical discoveries. Charleston is not to be missed.”–Jerald T. Milanich, author of Laboring in the Fields of the Lord: Spanish Missions and Southeastern Indians

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.

In Charleston: An Archaeology of Life in a Coastal Community, 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.

We also talked to Charleston co-authors Martha Zierden and Elizabeth Reitz about why they think it is important to learn the archaeology of a city, as well as the challenges they faced during their excavations.

Why is it important to learn the archaeology of a city instead of just the city’s narrative history?

Archaeology expands the history of a city by telling us details that might not make it into the history books. Archaeology also provides immediacy to history because we can see and hold the actual objects. The facets of city life that we explore, such as the use of local wild resources in the diet, are much more obvious in the archaeological record.

How different do you believe the archaeology of Charleston is from other coastal cities in the South?

Charleston is one of the nation’s most historic cities, exceeding three centuries, and one where the colonial past has not been overwhelmed by later developments. Life in Charleston was not shaped simply by an English heritage, but by Native Americans, Spaniards, Africans, French Huguenots, and people from the British Caribbean, brought together by global geopolitical events. This global reach is reflected in artifacts we recover from the ground.

What challenges did you face during your excavations and how did you tackle them?

One of the most rewarding aspects of Charleston is also the most challenging: the sites are deep and loaded with artifacts. A single unit takes days to excavate and produces thousands of artifacts to process, identify, and curate. These sites are complex, and it is often not possible to link them with individual people or events. This book presents our working solution: to step back and consider the entire city as the site, and focus on the generalities of urban life.

You didn’t set out to look so closely at cattle and other food sources in Charleston. Why did you decide they were such a crucial focus for the book?

Food sources are fundamental to life in Charleston and are strongly represented in the archaeological record. We decided to look at cattle for two reasons. One is that we found a lot of them; the quantity ran counter to the prevailing notion that the southern diet was dominated by pork. That is not the case in Charleston. Second, cattle were critical to the early colonial economy, and cattle ranching contributed to significant landscape modifications. Every aspect of the past we explore in this book can be related to cattle.

How do you think the city’s culinary scene today compares to its past culinary scene as revealed by your excavations?

Certainly the emphasis on seafood has a long tradition in the city, as does the prominence of French cuisine. Many of the choices made in the past, such as using local wild resources, persist today. Our work complements other sources of information on the city’s culinary history.

What new appreciation for Charleston do you hope readers will gain after learning about the city’s past?

We hope that readers will appreciate the diversity of Charleston’s past, drawing as it did from many different traditions and merging them into a unique heritage. Readers should recognize that the nation has always been diverse. We also hope that readers will find archaeology a source of information that complements our collective knowledge. We are grateful to everyone who takes an interest in the city’s buried heritage. Urban archaeology in Charleston draws strength from cooperation and collaboration, from fellow archaeologists to administrators to neighbors, and we hope this comes across in the book.

What are you working on next?

We plan to expand our study of cattle in the colonial economy with new approaches, using genetics and stable isotopes to trace cattle sources and lineages. This will strengthen our knowledge of links between the changing environment and the economy. We also hope to learn more about the two ends of Charleston’s history: the first few decades and the end of the 19th century.


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.

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