On Wednesday, Binghamton University researchers were measuring lines in the dirt, mapping the ground, and scraping away the earth one millimeter at a time in a small section of a pit inside the Sea Pines Forest Preserve’s Indian Shell Ring.
Matt Sanger, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the public archaeology program at the New York university, said the group, which has been at the site the last four weeks, had to stop excavation of the approximately 4,000-year-old ring within the last few days. That’s because, he said, they found a few thick, gray lines in the sand forming what appears to be half of a rectangle with curved edges.
This slight change of color in the earth could be the answer to the “million-dollar question” the group set out to answer: What were the shell rings — lumpy mounds of deposited shellfish shells forming a circle — used for?
Sanger said the gray lines in the sand could be leftover from decomposed subterranean house walls, likely made of mud and reeds. If he is correct, the group has stumbled upon the first piece of evidence that could prove ancient Native Americans lived within these rings.
Only half of a rectangle is exposed, but Sanger believes if the group were to dig farther out, they would expose the other half.
“The question about shell rings has always been ‘What was their function overall?’ and one of the big questions is whether or not people lived here year-round,” Sanger said. “So archaeologists have been looking for evidence of houses for a very long time, and this would be the first evidence that there was actually a structure here.”
Next to the possible house foundation sits a a circular stump made of bone, shell and ash. Sanger said it’s as hard as concrete, and it was likely a “processing pit,” although the group is unsure about the purpose of this mound buried a few feet underground.
The Sea Pines shell ring is one of 50 such rings in the southeastern United States, Sanger said. It’s small compared to others, at about 120 feet in diameter and 3 feet high. It cannot be traced to a specific Native American tribe but was likely used by those native to this area, such as the Cherokee or Creek tribes, he said previously.
Hilton Head has one other shell ring, called Green’ Shell Enclosure, located on Squire Pope Road.
Although it’s unknown when the Sea Pines shell ring was discovered, Sanger said before his group began their work last summer, the ring had been excavated once before in the 1960s or 1970s. While digging this year, the group found more discolored sand forming a large, solid-colored rectangle, which Sanger said is the site of the first archaeological dig. That site is only inches away from this year’s biggest discoveries.
“If they would have come out another 12 inches, they would have destroyed it,” Sanger said of the potential house remains.
Sanger said his group has found thousands of “features,” or remnants of past activity, during this year’s dig. Most of the items are fragments of pottery, according to Katie Seeber, the site field director and a doctoral student of Sanger. The group so far has found one arrow point this year, Sanger said.
Caleb Kelly, a Bluffton High School student volunteering for the second time to help excavate the site, said the group also found several carved, pointed bones, likely used as hair pins. They found a similarly carved bone last year.
Sanger said the group must keep an open mind about their discoveries, pointing out it’s possible they are wrong about the lines in the earth being the remains of a house. On Friday the group will finish their dig but plan to return next year to resume the process and unearth the other half of what could be the first discovery of its kind.
“We have to guess whether people lived within it, or maybe it was used for something else,” Sanger said. “But it’s just the very fact that we have what looks like it is a human-made structure strongly suggests that people were not just periodically gathering here but were here for long periods of time, perhaps living here throughout their lives.
“This is shocking and unprecedented in the finds we usually have.”