Archaeologists discover antebellum Southern tannery in central Georgia

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Along the wooded slopes of a small creek in central Georgia, archaeologists have discovered a rare site that they hope will help them understand everyday life and industry from the state's frontier days through the Civil War.

There's little glamour to the crumbling ruins of a 200-year-old tannery -- where raw hides from deer, cattle and other animals were turned into leather for everything from shoes to holsters and saddles.

But archaeologists say that learning how it operated from its establishment in 1811 through the Civil War will give them insight into commerce and labor of a long-gone era.

"Up to the time of the Civil War, it is estimated that there were over 8,000 tanneries in existence in the United States, and yet we know little about them," said Daphne Owens Battle, an archaeologist with Cypress Cultural Consultants, the Beaufort, S.C., firm that is overseeing the excavation. "Only a handful of these sites have survived, and this is the only one we know of from this period in the South."

Until its demise in 1864 after Gen. Sherman's troops torched the area, the large Clinton Tannery and Bark Mill served locals and soldiers in the War of 1812, the Indian Wars and finally the Civil War.

Because of the stench from tanning hides, tanneries were built on the outskirts of settlements and most have been destroyed as towns grew outward. But Clinton "really died with the Civil War," said archaeologist Dan Battle. So the site is so undisturbed that excavations last month turned up a Union Army uniform button dropped there in 1864.

The structures are easy to spot despite overgrowing vegetation. There are seven vats where hides were cured in chemical solutions, a dam in the creek and a 9-foot stone grinding wheel that was used to turn tree bark into fine powder for tanning. Tannin, a natural plant chemical, helps make leather softer yet more resistant and each tannery jealously guarded the formula of its custom mix of tree bark.

The excavation of the site, now owned by the Old Clinton Historical Society, will take years.

Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,

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