University of Georgia
August 2015
Natural Resources

The wonders of Wormsloe

Investigating environmental history at Wormsloe through its soils.

Hidden under the spreading oaks and Spanish moss of Wormsloe State Historic Park on the Isle of Hope near Savannah lies a story—a story about human and environmental history.

Once used extensively by Native Americans for hunting and fishing, Wormsloe still has remnants of their activity evident in shell piles and pottery shards buried along the marsh edge.

In 1736, the property was granted to a British colonist named Noble Jones to start a farm as well as establish a tabby fort against Spanish incursions into the young Georgia colony. Since those early years, nine generations of Noble Jones’ descendants have resided at Wormsloe. For nearly three centuries they have used the 1,200-acre property for a variety of land-use activities, including extensive agriculture, forestry and residence.

Today, the site’s forest cover masks its diverse land use history, yet the past continues to influence the present day landscape. Investigating the legacy of land use history at Wormsloe requires digging below the surface, in the soil.

The Warnell School has teamed with the Wormsloe Institute of Environmental History and the UGA Center for Research and Education at Wormsloe to research the site’s history through its soils. Master’s student Holly Campbell and Larry Morris, a professor of forest soils, have been investigating how almost 280 years of land use changed soil properties at Wormsloe by combining traditional soil investigation techniques with cutting-edge technology.

What they learn about soil change on this coastal landscape not only provides a glimpse of human history, but also provides a glimpse of the future.

“Certain types of land use, like agriculture, lead to long-term changes in chemical and physical soil properties that can persist for decades to millennia and influence other aspects of the landscape like vegetation, hydrology and soil biology,” Campbell said. “Understanding these changes provides information on ecosystem resiliency to disturbance and how best to manage our natural resources considering this disturbance.”

Using Wormsloe maps and historical records, Campbell was able to identify areas that have had little disturbance since being settled, as well as noting which areas were farmed or used as pasture. She and Morris then went high-tech with their investigation: They used GIS to establish random points within the high and low disturbance areas to obtain soil samples for testing chemical and physical soil properties, then used electromagnetic induction and resistivity to noninvasively evaluate soil conditions over a large area that would be disruptive and time consuming to evaluate with soil samples alone.

These instruments note changes in soil properties on a three-dimensional scale and provide a below-ground “map” of the soil that can be used to locate artifacts, metal, changes in soil type and moisture.

“In areas of greater human land use,” Morris said, “the ‘maps’ noted abrupt changes in the soil that revealed buried shells, pottery, charcoal and other soil disturbances.”

Preliminary results from their research are available here.