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Ancient Inland RIce FIelds

A Monumental Legacy Documenting South Carolinas Inland Rice Fields


Presented by Joshua N. Fletcher, Charles F. Philips, Carol J. Poplin, and John Cason Brockington and Associates, Inc.
In 2008, Charleston County Government began work to extend Palmetto Commerce Parkway from Ladson Road to Ashley Phosphate Road. Before road construction began, Charleston County sponsored an archaeological survey of the project corridor to locate important cultural resources associated with the historical development of the county.
archaeologists from brockington and associates found remnants of 18th century inland rice fields, now archaeological site 38CH2159. Rice drove the economy of Charleston and much of the Lowcountry from 1700 until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Nearly 300 years after the first rice fields were constructed, we can still see nearly intact embankments and canals in the wooded swamps and marshes of the Lowcountry. The project archaeologist recommended the site eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The inland rice field study sponsored by Charleston County is the largest research project ever conducted to gather information about inland rice field construction.
Charleston County worked with the South Carolina Department of Archives and History to develop a plan to document and protect this important site. Here are the seven elements of our non-traditional mitigative plan.
Inland rice field contextual study Wayside sign installed on a bridge overlooking the former rice fields Historical marker placed alongside the road Documentary video about inland rice agriculture Comprehensive inland rice website hosted by Charleston County Professional photographic documentation of the field features, and Lecture series and photographic exhibition presented at several local venues

The former inland rice fields at Palmetto Commerce Parkway were once part of two early 18th century plantations: Windsor Hill Plantation and Woodlands Plantation. Archaeologists used a global positioning system (GPS) device to record the locations of the canals, embankments, and ditches that made up the old rice fields. The recorded canals and embankments are highlighted on this 2009 aerial photograph. Rice production was established in the Charleston area around 1695. From that time until approximately 1790, rice planters and enslaved Africans grew rice in inland fields that did not rely on the tides for flood waters. Instead of using tidal action, enslaved Africans dammed creeks to create water reservoirs. These reserves of water were fed by springs or replenished by rainwater. An elaborate system of dams, canals, and floodgates moved water to and from the rice fields.

Boundary of Historic Plantation Mapped Inland Rice Field Feature

A Protocol for Assessing Inland Rice Fields


unfortunately there are few historical descriptions of inland rice fields and how they were constructed. Since researchers have a limited understanding of the technological development of inland rice fields, it is difficult for them to explain why they are important and could be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. We hoped to use our study to establish a set of standard terms for describing inland fields and to provide information researchers can use to assess and manage these important resources. We collected old plats and maps from 11 former rice plantations. We acquired modern aerial photographs that showed the old plantation lands. We visited each former plantation to ground-truth the information in the documents and record the location and condition of the fields. We compared the historical information to the site visit data. Our inland field study shows that researchers should NOT rely on historical plats, maps, and accounts alone. Historical documents often do not include all of the interior features of a rice field. Only through an on-site visit can we positively establish the existence of the fields, assess their present condition, and learn about how they were constructed and operated.
We compiled a set of standardized functional names and definitions that researchers can use when discussing and describing the features that make up an inland rice field system. Having one set of standard terms is an important step to creating guidelines that researchers can use to recommend the inclusion of these important and disappearing resources on the NRHP. These are some of the key inland rice field terms.
Dams Facing ditches Facing embankments Quarter ditches Rice trunks Reservoirs Canal/drains
An old rice field canal at Palmetto Commerce Parkway.