As researchers wrap up their third excavation of the Sea Pines Indian Shell Ring, they’re hopeful they’ve made a first-of-its-kind discovery — a house built 3,500 years ago.
The roughly 4,000-year-old ring is buried in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. Shell rings, circular mounds formed by shellfish shells deposited by Native Americans, have long stumped archaeologists because no one knows what the rings were used for.
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Matt Sanger, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the public archeology program at Binghamton University in New York, has led a group of students and volunteers for the last few weeks as they try to find answers.
At the end of last year’s dig, the group uncovered gray, curved lines on the ground forming half a rectangle. At the time, Sanger said it could be the remains of a subterranean house wall, likely made of mud and reeds.
With only two days left in this year’s dig, Sanger said it’s “very, very likely” that they’ve found the remains of a house, which would be the strongest known evidence suggesting that Native Americans lived within the shell rings. That would answer the question of what the rings were used for.
Researchers discovered post holes within a shell ring in southern Florida, Sanger said, but they did not have strong evidence that they found the remains of a house.
Sanger said the group will perform tests on the Sea Pines remnants and should know within six to eight months if what they found was, in fact, a home.
The house would have been about 12 feet across, he said.
Last year, the group also uncovered a concrete-like, circular stump made of bone, shell and ash. This year, they found a similar — but less circular — structure.
Sanger believes these structures were fire pits. One sits within the walls of the possible house.
Sanger said it’s unclear if this will be their last excavation of the Sea Pines shell ring, but it’s likely.
He said previously that once a group has gathered all the data they need, it’s important to stop digging to preserve what’s left.
“We could keep digging and keep finding things,” he said. “But if we dug them all and a new technology came up that would allow new data to be drawn from them, and we’d taken them all, we’d never be able to answer some questions.”
Sanger said he plans to continue excavating other Hilton Head sites.
Skull Creek is home to two connected shell rings that have not been excavated since the 1960s and he hopes to begin working there, he said.
The group is also currently working at Mitchelville, a Civil War-era town founded by freed slaves, and the Zion Cemetery.