It's impossible to sort out how many of the more than 1,500 school children who will visit the Georgia Southern University Museum in tour groups this month are coming just because of the Camp Lawton exhibit. If trends hold, another 1,000 to 1,500 people of all ages will file through as "walk-ins" in November alone, and their reasons would be even harder to pin down.
The continuing exhibit on Georgia's Amphibians and Reptiles occupies a larger space and packs lots of kid friendly gross-out factor, with snakes coiled in jars of preservative and skeletal remains of other creatures. The Bubbles exhibit, offering the opportunity to stand inside a giant bubble and other soapy fun, has been pulling them in since July. And the iconic Mosasaur remains the star of the permanent exhibit on the natural history of the Coastal Plain.
While their finds were grabbing national attention, the museum made special arrangements to showcase a selection of the first specimens, converting its in-house classroom to exhibition space. The museum's director, Dr. Brent Tharp, is certain that the exhibit, which opened Oct. 10, is contributing to the museum's current popularity.
"Yes, the schools have had a great response to this," Tharp said, "and from the general public we've seen an increase. We've had quite a few people for whom this is their first time visiting since we've been here, and this is what attracted them. It's been a very successful first month for an exhibit."
Booked for school and university tours every available morning in November, the exhibit had brought in 411 visitors in organized groups through the first week of November and projected 1,128 scheduled for the rest of the month. Meanwhile, according to Tharp, a count from the start of the reporting year on July 1 to mid-November shows about 500 more walk-in visitors than for the same period a year earlier, or about 6,000 so far.
The school groups touring in November range from pre-K through middle school. They hail from Richmond Hill, the Bacon County and Bryan County schools, Savannah Country Day School, Jenkins County (home of Camp Lawton), Emanuel County, Burke Academy and Metter Middle School, Burke said, naming part of the list. Some high school groups are scheduled for December.
Setting up the exhibit
What they see is an exhibit designed by the same GSU archaeology students who did the field work and supporting research.
"We had to work everything around our class schedules, but the museum exhibit was totally student curated," said Matt Newberry, a graduate student who serves as spokesperson for the group. "We all had our individual roles that we worked on and pulled it together. We're very proud of it."
Newberry, who received his bachelor's degree from Georgia Southern in May, said the ongoing Camp Lawton project played a big part in his decision to remain at GSU for his master's. He has wanted to be an archaeologist since he was probably 4 or 5 years old, he said, and hopes the exhibit inspires kids and creates "the opportunity for people to come see what archeology can tell us."
The small collection of artifacts already publicized form the heart of the exhibit. The clay smoking pipe with the replacement bowl crudely made of lead is there. So is the tourniquet buckle, with a few shreds of bandage cloth still attached to its metal teeth, suggesting the gory service it may have given to a wounded soldier. Other objects included a bronze star that probably marked a prisoner as "paroled," with the status of a jail trusty, as well as bullets, buttons, spoons and coins.
The archeological dig
These are some, but not all, of what has been found, and hint at the possibility of much more to come. Moore and others suggest that the archeology work could go on for a decade at the site of the 42-acre Confederate prison camp. On what is now federal land at the Bo Ginn National Fish Hatchery and state property at the adjoining Magnolia Springs State Park, the camp held more than 10,000 Union prisoners, but only for about six weeks in the fall of 1864.
Many of the POW's had been evacuated from the more notorious Andersonville camp in southwestern Georgia, and the Confederates soon had to abandon Camp Lawton, on Nov. 22, 1864, in retreat from Gen. William T. Sherman's historic March to the Sea.
In addition to the recovered artifacts, the compact exhibit showcases borrowed heirlooms, written explanations, and few reproductions, such as of a soldier's uniform and the staples of a prisoner of war's meager rations, designed to put it all in context.
The harsh reality of existence at Camp Lawton is one of the impressions Moore hopes visitors will take home from the exhibit.
"I want them to see the reality of what it was like not just for prisoners but also for the guards ... that this was a really difficult period in American history and not a pleasant experience," she said.
Another idea that Moore hopes museum visitors will carry home is the importance of archaeology's careful, scientific approach, as opposed to just digging up artifacts. Then there's simply the impression of Camp Lawton's value.
"It's a big deal to us because we want people to realize this needs to be protected and preserved, that this really is a very special and unique resource that we have," Moore said.
Future of the exhibit
The exhibit, as currently set up, is not permanent. The artifacts are officially on loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which controls the fish hatchery, until May 1. Before then, officials will discuss whether the artifacts will be rotated out and replaced with other discoveries from the site, Moore said.
There is interest, especially in Millen and Jenkins County, for creating a museum at the site. There is also interest from state officials, Tharp said, in creating multiple exhibits in the area. Meanwhile, he and Moore say that the GSU Museum is fulfilling a wish expressed by people in the area, including some who visited the dig, that the artifacts remain available for them to see.
Tharp acknowledged that a long-term Camp Lawton exhibit could point to a need for more space at the museum.
"We converted our classroom and educational space for this exhibit, so we are running a little tight on space here at the museum for all of our activities, but this was too important not to develop a space for it," he said.