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FLORENCE COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — A team of archaeologists digging along the Great Pee Dee River in South Carolina are finding out more about the Native Americans who once lived there.

Chris Judge, secretary of the Archaeological Society of the Pee Dee and the assistant director of Native American studies at USC Lancaster, said rivers like the Great Pee Dee were the interstates of the pre-colonial era, serving as hubs for settlements and commerce. He said the team has found evidence of groups living in the area over the span of thousands of years.

By Friday, the team was about halfway done with its dig. Archaeologists and volunteers dug out excavation blocks, then sifted through the dirt in the hopes of finding artifacts.

He said the oldest artifact the team has uncovered so far dated back 2,500 years. Many of the artifacts found originated in the Mississippian Era, when Native American communities covered much of what is now the United States.

“It’s the final stage of Native American development before the European invasion,” Judge said.

He believes the people who lived in what is now Florence County, South Carolina, were on that society’s frontier.

“They were probably somewhere between a chiefdom level society and a state level society. We don’t want to take anything away from them — they were complex,” Judge said. “The Mississippians were aware of one another at a great distance, traveling, trading and in contact with them.”

Judge said over the millennia, many different groups settled in the region, leaving small traces behind that lasted through the ages. Some of those traces included evidence of posts, which archaeologist Tariq Ghaffar of SCDNR believes could have been part of a house.

“It’s always interesting to try and reconstruct in your mind what the environment was like and what the culture was like 3,000 years ago,” Ghaffar said.

Ben Zeigler, chairman of the Archaeological Institute of the Pee Dee’s board, said this is the group’s second dig. The first uncovered the Cashaway Baptist Church in Darlington County, which originated in the 1700s. He said their next project will aim to find Revolutionary War General Francis Marion’s camp on Snow Island.

“Mississippian sites in the Pee Dee are relatively rare,” Zeigler said. “We don’t know a lot about the Mississippian period in the Pee Dee, so we feel like this is a great opportunity to learn.”

Some of the volunteers aimed to learn about a more personal history, like Cheryl Cail, the vice chief of the Waccamaw Indian People.

“Our ancestors were here,” Cail said. “It’s really spiritual, I guess is the best way to say it. Being here, where I know they may have done their hunting, cooking, catching fish in the river and surviving.”

The dig was funded by the Florence County Council on land owned by Santee Cooper. The team hopes to display the artifacts at the Florence County Museum.