A river flowed a hundred yards away and sunlight seeped through the dense stand of trees, perhaps giving a glimpse of what life was like for Native Americans living in the area more than four centuries ago.
“I could live here,” said one of the workers at the dig, pausing to breathe in the North Georgia mountain air.
People are believed to have lived and toiled in the remote but tranquil valley in the heart of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, where a group of volunteers and Forest Service workers dug into the cool, soft earth.
The group participated last week in an archeological study of the area, where officials believe a house burned at a family farmstead around 1600.
Top layers of dirt were revealing pottery pieces and charcoal, the remnants of cooking fires or perhaps the larger, house-consuming blaze.
Overall, the hope was artifacts would tell the story of a native people in a time of tumultuous regional history.
“There is a dynamic human story here just waiting to be told,” said Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests archeologist James Wettstaed.
“Through this spring’s excavations, we hope to uncover enough of the remains of the house to determine how it was used, its size and shape, and to understand why it was abandoned.”
The Forest Service was delving into history with volunteers from Passport in Time, a New Mexico-based group that seeks to preserve and understand history, and Southern Research Historic Preservation Consultants near Columbus.
During previous excavations, workers have uncovered pottery, stone tools and the central hearth of a house.
Much remains unknown in regional history between 1550 and 1650, making the find particularly significant, says the Forest Service. The agency doesn’t want the location revealed for fear of potential threats, such as looting.
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto ventured through the Southeast in the mid-1500s, “then there were several Spanish explorations up from the coast,” Wettstaed said.
“They just devastated the native societies ... and populations moved elsewhere, in some cases disappeared. We believe these people (at the dig site) may have been refugees, moving away from that.
“It’s that time period after the Spanish and before the English — where everything was totally in flux,” Wettstaed said.
He said officials had long suspected the area had historic ties, so there was a rush to investigate before off-road vehicle activity would destroy the site.
Two years ago, a few tests were done at the site, and that’s when evidence of what could have been the collapsed wall of a house was found.
That stopped Wettstaed in his tracks. He remembers thinking, “Whoa, this is something significant.”
“And with the location, it makes a good public excavation. It’s easy access, people don’t have to hike up and down mountains.”
The dig itself is noteworthy, as “no one has set out to systematically excavate a house in Northeast Georgia since the 1930s.
The excavation was confined mostly to an L-shaped plot, where workers were carefully shoveling away small amounts of dirt. Stations were set up around the site where others were sifting dirt through a screen, similar to how one might pan for gold. In this case, the nuggets were frequently pieces of pottery or charcoal.
Volunteers helping with the effort were chosen through a selection process.
One of them was Vanessa Waid of Helen, who was participating in her first dig with Passport in Time. She was enjoying the interaction with people and learning about history.
“If you like being out in nature, this is the perfect opportunity,” she said. “The deeper you get (in the soil), the cooler it gets.”
Deeper excavations could reveal habitation during much earlier centuries — perhaps, it’s believed, as far back as 100 B.C.
At one point, workers unearthed what appeared to be “hopefully a good portion of a jar or bowl of some sort,” said Gretchen Eggiman of Southern Research.
“It’s probably one of the larger (pieces) we’ve seen,” she said. “It’s broken into a few pieces ... but we may mend it back together in the lab.”
Also at the dig was an aspiring archeologist, Cheyenne Welborn, a White County High School junior, who was drawn to the project “because we get to get a glimpse of what life was like way back in the day.
“We can learn from it,” said the 17-year-old fan of all things old, including music.
“We take so many things for granted, and these people were just fighting to survive the winter,” Welborn said. “Life was hard ... and I think it’s really important we learn from this.”