The South Carolina Archaeological Archive Flood Recovery Project

by Meg Gaillard
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Heritage Trust Program

Nearly six years ago, a catastrophic flood event affected the Carolinas from October 1 – 5, 2015. During this event, a large portion of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) archaeological archive was inundated. Following initial recovery efforts to remove and relocate all archives to a secure long-term triage facility, I lead an eight-month stabilization and re-curation of the materials – The South Carolina Archaeological Archive Flood Recovery Project – with the assistance of many volunteers and other professionals.

The 2015 flood was the catalyst for the development of a more robust disaster plan for our team, and lead to the acquisition of SCDNR’s Parker Annex Archaeology Center located in Columbia, SC in April 2017. Within this blog I will share portions of our recovery methodology, lesson learned from our experience, and recommendations for additional information and training opportunities in hopes of helping others in the event you are faced with a similar situation in the future.

During the Flood of 2015, rain totals across the Carolinas ranged from 10 – 26 inches. Emergency responders, including the SCDNR, conducted over 1,500 water rescues. Over 500 roads and bridges throughout the state of South Carolina were closed and 47 dams failed. Over 20,000 residents were displaced, drinking water was disrupted for 40,000, and 19 people lost their lives. A detailed story map of the flood produced by the SCDNR can be found here: South Carolina Flooding 2015 Story Map.

Figure 2 – 2015 Flood Triage Center 2 – located at the SCDNR Styx Receiving Compound in West Columbia, SC. This location was only used for a couple days due to additional incoming thunderstorms. All items were moved to Triage 3 (old Lexington Two Fine Arts Center in West Columbia, SC) and Triage 4 (SCIAA Curation Facility in Columbia, SC).

Figure 3 SC Flood

On October 7, 2015, when waters receded, the recovery of archived SCDNR archaeological materials began. The South Carolina Archaeological Archive Flood Recovery Project lasted for eight months and consisted in the recovery of approximately 1,500 boxes of previously curated artifacts, 100 cubic feet of documents, and 15,000 photographs, negatives and slides (Figure 1). An initial triage facility for the archive was located at the SCDNR Fish Hatchery in West Columbia, SC (Figure 2). Within two days, the recovered items, which were coming into the SCDNR facility in truckloads (Figure 3), exceeded the available space. This, compounded by the threat of another wave of severe weather, hastened the acquisition of a new facility for long-term recovery efforts to take place.

Figure 4 – 2015 Flood Triage Center

Lexington School District Two donated the use of their old Fine Arts Center in West Columbia, SC (Figure 4) to the SCDNR for the duration of the flood recovery project. This facility was located to the west of downtown Columbia, SC where the archived material was inundated. The flood recovery project took place at this facility from October 2015 to May 2016 with the help of 135 volunteers and six temporary part-time staff, in addition to full and part-time SCDNR staff (Figure 5). All available space in the facility was utilized, and although quite large at approximately 5,000 square feet, the layout of the recovery effort had to be transformed every few weeks to keep up with the changing focus of the work.

Figure 5

The flood recovery project was organized into a phased approach. The recovery and restoration of the entire archive at one time was impossible due to its size and complexity of material culture. The recovery and stabilization of documents took first priority. Documents were sorted and approximately 100 cubic feet were sent to five SCDNR freezers. The freezing of documents stopped the growth of mold, and essentially stopped time until the restoration of those documents could take place at a later date.

Figure 6

The second priority was the cleaning and drying of photographs, negatives, and slides (Figure 6). Ideally, all of these items would have been laid flat to dry, on well ventilated surfaces; however, due to space and time constraints, the method of hanging photographs and negatives, while laying slides to dry flat was chosen. Approximately 3,000 images were cleaned, dried and stabilized each day over the course of five days. These images were scanned into a digital archive during the summer of 2016 by an SCDNR archaeology intern.

Figure 7. Inundation of flood water into sealed curation bags.

Figure 08

The third priority of the flood recovery project was the washing, drying, labeling, bagging and boxing of artifacts. Nearly every bag of artifacts was inundated with water due to the buildup of water pressure during the flood (Figure 7). In order to ensure that all artifacts were properly re-curated, every artifact went through the full curation process again. Diagnostic metal objects were stabilized through metal conservation by SCDNR archaeologist Tariq Ghaffar (Figure 8), while all other artifacts were washed with clean water and dried.

Figure 09

Figure 10

One recommendation I would like to make regarding boxes of artifacts is in the way they should be transported from an impacted facility. Cardboard curation boxes are not going to maintain their structural integrity following impacts from water related disasters (Figure 9). To ensure that all objects within those boxes maintain their provenience information, and to provide a safer method for staff to transport those objects from the impacted facility, I would recommend transferring boxed objects into sandbags (Figure 10). One box of objects to one sandbag. All associated labels should be placed within the bags, and a duplicate set of label information should be written on flagging tape that is tied to the outside of the bags.

Safety of personnel during all phases of the project was a top priority. Volunteers and staff were required to wear gloves at all times. Depending on the task, protective masks, long 18 mil aprons, and protective eyewear were also available. Although the temperature was controlled, ventilation was aided using large industrial box fans and humidity was controlled using dehumidifiers.

Figure 11

There were numerous supplies purchased for and donated to the project. One of the most unique was the purchase of thousands of paper food trays – the same type that might hold a burger and fries. Since all the artifacts washed during the flood recovery project had already been curated and contained paper labels and/or information on their bags, the best way to keep the artifacts and associated information organized was to place cleaned artifacts in food trays and place the information (bag and/or tag) that was impacted by flood waters below the tray on drying racks (Figure 11). Once the artifacts dried, new tags and bags replaced the old, and the artifacts were stored in new boxes.

Another unique object was an outdoor washing station constructed by SCDNR archaeologist Sean Taylor. Made from a table screen typically used for volunteers to screen dirt in the field, this table served as a station for washing large pieces of pottery after industrial kitchen sprayers, foot pedals and plumbing were installed (Figure 12). The repurposing of materials and supplies we had available was essential throughout the recovery process in addition to the purchase of new recovery supplies.

The overall recovery plan for the South Carolina Archaeological Archive Flood Recovery Project was based on information I had received in two one-day disaster preparedness and recovery workshops hosted by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in 2010. In hindsight there are many things I wish I had done differently, but it was through the experience of the 2015 flood recovery effort that I learned better ways to approach disaster recovery in the future. The unfortunate reality is that workshops and lectures, however detailed, cannot fully prepare you for every disaster. Even one’s experience preparing for and recovering from prior disasters might not be enough. In the end, it all comes down to preparing yourself, your staff, and your facilities as best you can for potential disasters like what we experienced in 2015, asking for help when you need it, and assisting others when you can.

This blog is based on a one-hour lecture I provide for free to my interns, university classes and cultural resources institutions in hopes of providing information to assist others during future disasters. If you are interested in this lecture, please contact me at

Written by Mark Freeman

Website Editor