Shell Ring dig uncovers Hilton Head’s ancient past

The Shell Ring excavation currently underway in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve puts Hilton Head Island at the epicenter of research into how Native Americans lived thousands of years ago.

While there are many shell rings along the southeast coast, a team of archaeologists from Binghamton University, lead by Dr. Matt Sanger, chose the Hilton Head site because of the unspoiled condition of the Forest Preserve. It is in the most pristine condition and best suited for finding undisturbed artifacts, Sanger said.

Sanger and his group of graduate students are in the middle of a six-week dig, unearthing 4,000-year-old pottery shards and early hand tools made from conch shells, among other discoveries.

Surrounding the main dig, is the Shell Ring itself, a circular mound 35 meters in diameter and one meter high. It is comprised of layer upon layer of shells — predominantly mollusks — animal bones, acorns and periwinkles (tiny snails).

Thanks to the acidic nature of the island’s soil, fully preserved fish skeletons are also built into the Shell Ring. Local volunteers and docents from the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn are helping the archaeologists sift dirt collected from several excavation pits inside the ring.

What they find could lead to a better understanding of why the rings were built, why they were abandoned and if there are similarities to the development of civilizations in the Americas and those who were building Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids during the same period, known as the Late Archaic period.

It is significant, for example, that agriculture and pottery did not exist prior to the development of the shell rings. Before these structures, Native Americans were essentially hunter/gatherers who moved from place to place as families or small groups who simply went where food could be found.

Shell rings are the first signs of larger communities gathering in one place.

Since excavation began, one theory has been dispelled — the Shell Ring is not an ancient Indian burial ground. Researchers do not expect to find buried treasure or the Holy Grail a la Indiana Jones.

Sanger, who began a career appreciation for shell rings while working for the American Museum of Natural History on a similar dig on St. Catherine’s Island, Ga., is fascinated by the “larger anthropological issues” demonstrated by shell ring studies.

“Shell ring digs reveal a tipping point in human existence and behavior with regards to societal transitions, cosmological, and technological innovations, as well as the beginnings of villages and group ritual practices,” he said.

Thanks to LiDAR, a remote sensing technology that captures aerial topographical differences, researchers know that the one in Sea Pines is considered to be located at the epicenter of Native American sites.

One of several theories being explored is whether the development and subsequent abandonment of shell rings located predominantly in coastal regions had to do with changing sea levels.

According to research literature, and Sanger’s recent presentation at the Sea Pines Community Center, sea levels rose to the current level 5,000 years ago. That created the barrier islands, marshes, and easy access to shellfish for indigenous peoples. Then, 3,000 years ago, sea levels dropped, reconnecting the islands to the mainland, and the access to seafood was limited. Native peoples would have moved someplace else for sustenance.

Civic engagement is important to Sanger. There was a Public Day on June 16, and there will be another — from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 1 — the last day of the dig.

Sanger’s team will return in December and again next summer for another six weeks. The project is expected to take several years to complete. Many artifacts will be donated to the Coastal Discovery Museum after they are carbon-dated and fully researched.

Ken Boynton, a museum docent who is at the Shell Ring daily describing the dig to visitors, is curious about the results. “What happened to the shell ring societies?” he asked as he escorted a reporter around the site.

“I believe it’s significant for the island, that we have this going on here because of its protected condition,” he said.

Those who want to get involved in future digs can volunteer through the Hilton Head Chapter of the Archeology Society of South Carolina. Visit www.assc.net/chapters/hilton-head-chapter.

The most important need for the team, however, is housing.

The project is funded through grants, but a place to stay while researchers are working is key. The team needs three to four weeks in December-January, and then another six weeks next summer. Email Sanger at msanger@binghamton.edu if you can help with housing.

For more information on the Shell Ring at the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, go to seapinesliving.com/visiting-sea- pines/amenities/forest-preserve/.

Carmen Hawkins De Cecco lives on Hilton Head Island. She blogs at hiltonheadblogangel.me. Email her at carmenhawk@hargray.com.