Charleston is, on its surface, a gorgeous city full of preserved historical beauty. But what lies beneath? For more than three decades, it has been Martha Zierden’s job to find out. As curator of historical archaeology at The Charleston Museum, Zierden digs deeply (and very carefully) to discover, resurrect, preserve, and analyze the secrets of our soil—after all, finding buried remnants is only half the battle; making sense of the artifacts is an ongoing quest.
CM: What was your first local dig?
MZ: In 1982, the museum was called upon to excavate the ground beneath what is now McCrady’s Restaurant. The realtors jokingly asked me to search for George Washington’s teeth, which we of course did not find (despite an urban legend that he lost some dentures here), but we did find 920 bone fragments of fish and animals consumed there since the 1780s.
CM: Do the sewerage or water crews call if they come across something?
MZ: Charleston Water System is a wonderful group with big power equipment, and they helped us via the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force to locate a section of the original city wall at the corner of East Bay and South Adgers Wharf (there’s an exhibit you can check out on the sidewalk there). Whenever they hit a brick, they call us.
CM: Any other dirt allies?
MZ: Another big protector of sites is Historic Charleston Foundation, which requires archaeology on many old easements. They helped trigger the garden excavation at 14 Legare Street [the “Pineapple Gates House”], and the property owners went above and beyond to help.
CM: You unearthed an ornamental garden there, which the owners restored. Some people complained about the disruption of the existing green space they had come to know so well.
MZ: That’s a fine line to tread. For example, the Nathaniel Russell and Joseph Manigault houses have beautiful gardens that were expensive to install and maintain but are likely second-generation gardens. Do you rip that all out and have dirt and dust for three years on the chance you’ll find a different garden beneath?
CM: Tell us about some objects the earth coughs up.
MZ: Civil War buttons, the skeletons of pet parrots, private- label family wine bottles, 17th-century Chinese porcelain, musket balls…
CM: Over decades of excavations, what’s most surprised you?
MZ: For me, it’s not one object in particular, but the cumulative knowledge we’ve gained. We consider the entire city as our site, and each project adds to our understanding of it.
Education: Master of Arts in anthropology from Florida State University
Family: “My forestry husband and I raised our two sons in McClellanville, where we still live with our dogs and backyard chickens. I commute.”
Favorite locally made product: Smoked sea salt by local Bulls Bay Saltworks