Abundant food and leisure time: Site tells story of what Hilton Head Island was like 4,000 years ago

April 5, 2010 

As volunteers work to renovate a house on Hilton Head Island's north end to serve as the focal point of a planned Gullah museum, a much older treasure sits undisturbed nearby -- a 4,000-year-old Indian camp.

The camp was discovered 27 years ago, when Jerre Weckhorst happened upon a fragment of a prehistoric clay bowl as he dug a water main in 1983.

Though the fragment was small, he knew what he'd found and what it meant.

He stopped the water main work immediately.

Weckhorst handed off the fragment -- and others he subsequently found-- to Mike Taylor, then executive director of the Museum of Hilton Head Island. Taylor recognized the clay piece as an example of millenia-old, fiber-tempered pottery, the first kind of pottery made in North America.

Taylor then alerted Michael Trinkley, an archeologist from the nonprofit Chicora Foundation.

Trinkley suspected he'd come upon one of the few nearly intact archaeological sites of prehistoric coastal island Indian life. The find dated from the period known as Stallings, between 3500 and 1000 B.C.

By 1986, a team of archaeologists had extracted more than 25,000 prehistoric artifacts from the site. Trinkley estimates there are still thousands more buried in Fish Haul Creek Park, which the town now owns and protects from artifact scavengers and development.

The find was significant enough to secure the site a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

"It was incredibly exciting," Trinkley said.

ANCIENT LIVES

The site helped archaeologists learn what life had been like for the American Indians who lived in the Lowcountry as they made the transition from wandering hunter-gatherers to a more settled lifestyle.

The Stallings-era Indians in coastal Georgia and South Carolina were the first in North America to learn to make pottery. As they were creating these objects, across the Atlantic, early Britons were cobbling together Stonehenge and the first Latins were settling in Rome.

The Indians, who probably traveled to Hilton Head in the winter and camped along Fish Haul Creek, used Spanish moss to temper their pottery so it would hold together during the firing process.

Pieces of the pottery, which Weckhorst keeps in a case in his home on the creek, show indentations where the Indians used their fingernails and tiny sticks to decorate their work.

Their days on the island were largely focused on looking for food, Trinkley said.

Their choices were abundant. Archaeologists have found mounds of discarded oyster and turtle shells, deer and bird bones, and hickory nut shells, a source of protein.

Though the Indians spent long hours foraging each day, Trinkley says they had a lot in common with the vacationers who visit the island seasonally now.

"Food was so plentiful that they probably had a great deal of leisure time," he said. "They probably loafed around."

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