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Career Day

Career Day: The Private Archaeologist

By Alix Strauss

Mary Socci, Ph.D., an archaeologist and historian, has spent 14 years working for Palmetto Bluff, a 20,000-acre residential community, resort, and ecological preserve in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, between Charleston and Savannah. 

Is it unusual to have an archaeologist on a private development?
I haven’t heard of any other development hiring an archaeologist, but I do think it is something others should consider. I’ve been surprised and delighted by the level of interest people have in our history. 

How did you get this job?
I happened to meet the director of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy and she said she was looking for an archaeologist to join her team. I still can’t believe my good fortune. The history of the Lowcountry of South Carolina is fascinating. 

What are your responsibilities?
To ensure that Palmetto Bluff complies with all federal and state regulations regarding archaeological and historic sites, but I’m also here to share the history with the residents and guests.  

What’s a typical day like for you?
I could be leading a walk to a plantation’s cemetery, analyzing a tiny fragment of pottery or bone, writing a description of an excavation, or sifting through the sand at one of our sites. 

Why did you become an archaeologist
I took a class on the Aztecs and the Mayans when I was an undergraduate and I was captivated by the archaeological work that was uncovering these civilizations.  

What qualities do you need to do the job well?
You have to be extremely detail-oriented and patient. Every find requires meticulous records and analysis.  

Unearthing tales of timber camps, storms, lost love, and séances

How many excavations have you done on the property, and what do they entail? 
More than 30. We don’t just go out and dig wherever an artifact has been found. Sites that are excavated must have the potential to yield new information about South Carolina’s past. 

Tell me something exciting you’ve unearthed.
One of the most extraordinary finds involves documents rather than artifacts. A local family came to me with pages of an autobiography by their great-grandfather, who lived in the area from 1873 to 1929. It’s a remarkable tale of timber camps, storms, a lost love, and most surprisingly, séances!  

In your talks with hotel guests, how do you discuss the property’s history as a plantation?
It’s not something that I shy away from — on the contrary, I believe it’s important that we talk about it, and so I do. A complicated and often brutal past is not only acknowledged but also part of the modern community. From the cemeteries of enslaved people to the corporate boardroom named for a freed man who became a business owner, places and names have been preserved in ways that honor the men, women, and children who were once enslaved here, and that invite discussion of the plantation era and its aftermath.

What are some of the most interesting historical tidbits you’ve discovered? 
The first octagonal home built in the United States may be the eight-sided house that gave Palmetto Bluff’s Octagon Plantation its name. A letter written in 1796 describes the house and a later historic map, and our excavations confirm its existence.  

What’s the oldest artifact you’ve ever found?
A Paleoindian projectile point dating back to the end of the Ice Age. 

What questions do hotel guests always ask you?  
How many cemeteries are there at Palmetto Bluff? (Twelve. They are all preserved. None has been excavated.) And: Are there any ghost stories relating to the property? (Yes, but I’ve just heard the tales and haven’t encountered any spirits…yet.) 

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Alix Strauss is a writer based in New York.


Illustration by Verónica Grech

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