By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - Archaeologists in Charleston, South Carolina, believe they have found the wooden remnants of an 18th century wharf where an estimated 100,000 enslaved Africans arrived in America during the peak of the international slave trade.
Traces of Gadsden's Wharf were located during an exploratory dig this fall at the waterfront site of the city's planned $75 million International African American Museum, said Eric Poplin, senior archaeologist at Brockington and Associates.
City and cultural leaders said the discovery will allow an important piece of history to be preserved. Some 100,000 West African slaves were taken to the wharf, located on the Cooper River near Charleston Harbor, between 1783 and 1808.
“It is the place of arrival for a huge percentage of the early ancestors of people of African descent who live in America," Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said.
The city commissioned the dig ahead of the new museum's construction, which is expected to begin in late 2016, Riley said.
Using maps, plats, historic records of timber orders and ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists uncovered the pine timbers of wooden cribs that held oyster shells and other fill used to build the wharf, Poplin said.
They also found timbers and the brick floor from a ricestorehouse that was used as a barracks to house African captivesbefore they were sold.
Riley said the museum wants to place above-ground markers of the wharf to tell its story to visitors, and a future excavation could remove some of the actual remnants for exhibit.
Historians say an estimated 40 percent of all enslaved Africans brought to North America came through Charleston, more than any other port.
The museum will help preserve a "sacred space," said Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is slated to open in Washington in 2016.
"Gadsden's Wharf is an Ellis Island for African Americans," Bunch said on Tuesday. "It becomes one of the few places where African Americans can really go to pay homage to those ancestors."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Mohammad Zargham)