Site Introduction: The Shell Rings of Hilton Head Island


Today we have a guest blog entry from Rita Kiernan about the ongoing work with Shell Rings on Hilton Head Island.

Everyone loves a good mystery and  Hilton Head Island is in the hub of one of the biggest archaeology mysteries in the world.  Our 14-mile long island is the epicenter of historic shell rings along the East Coast from Florida to North Carolina. 

Dr. Matthew Sanger, now with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, has discovered a dozen more shell rings on the island using LIDAR (light detection and ranging), a technology  that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distances to a target and is used to generate high-resolution maps.

These Native American shell structures are drawing the attention of archaeologists who desire to crack the code of why they were constructed. A popular theory is that these structures were built for ceremonial purposes.

Unlike shell mounds found in coastal zones all over the world, these were purposely planned to be circular. All of them date back between 3,000 and 5,000 years.  “You don’t see this in other time periods,” Sanger said. “They were constructed for a very limited time along the coastline of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.”

Sea Pines Shell Ring (38BU7)

(Archaeological sites in the U.S. are identified by the code assigned to it, its nomenclature. The first number, 38, represents South Carolina, the 38th state in alphabetical order; BU stands for Beaufort County; and the last number, 7, indicates it was the 7th recognized archaeological site in Beaufort County.)

Located in the center of the 605-acre Sea Pines Forest Preserve, a 4,000-year shell ring built of discarded oyster shells and fish bones collected for over a millennium was excavated in 1963 by Alan Calmes. Years later, in 2016, Dr. Sanger, who was then with Binghamton University’s Public Archaeology Program, re-excavated the shell ring in using newer technologies such as ground penetrating radar. 

Composed of hundreds of thousands of discarded oysters, clams, mussels and animal bones, the Sea Pines Shell Ring once stood two to three feet tall, stretching 150 feet across. Most of it is now covered in soil, making it barely distinguishable from the surrounding ground.

If it weren’t for some interpretive signs, most visitors to Sea Pines Forest Preserve would walk past the raised circle of ground between Lake Joe and Lake Thomas unaware it’s an archaeological site.

Why did the Native Americans build these shell rings and what purposes did they serve?

A number of theories have been debated over the years. Some believe the rings were circular villages inhabited by Native Americans, who simply discarded the waste from their daily meals. Others think they were gathering spots for religious ceremonies, and the piles of shellfish the remains of large feasts.

A dig of the shell arc has revealed valuable information about the inhabitants’ diet and lifestyle.

“We have found food remains from all four seasons, indicating that people lived at the site year-round,” explained Dr. Sanger.  “We also found evidence of religious ceremonies. We believe they may have hosted gatherings in the village on occasion.”

The interior of the circle or “plaza” was kept remarkably clean. A team of graduate students led by Sanger found evidence of what appeared to be the corner of a house. Artifacts extracted and Dr. Sanger’s final report will be available to the public at the Coastal Discovery Museum, curator of all archaeological artifacts extracted from Hilton Head Island.  

The Hilton Head Chapter of the Archaeological Society of South Carolina (ASSC) has been instrumental in promoting the study and preservation of the archaeological sites in the area and encouraging a constructive public attitude toward those remains. Chapter President Dave Gordon, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, George Stubbs, a retired U.S. Navy Captain who once commanded a nuclear submarine, and Rita Kernan, a retired analyst for the Department of Defense, actively volunteer their time and expertise to these projects and are keen on having others do likewise. 

Other Avocational Archaeologists from the Chapter, including Carol Dembowski, Trudy Baucus, Rosemary Kratz, Renea Hushour, Caleb Kelly, Kieran Kelly, and others have contributed to the research by excavating, keeping records, serving as docents, bringing food to the work crew, and other supporting work. Sea Pines residents, Mr. and Mrs. Tom Sharp, opened their home to provide food and shelter for the young doctoral candidates interning at the sites.

Ford’s Shell Rings 1 & 2 

Named for the site’s last private owner, Henry Ford, the 6.8 acre heavily wooded waterfront lot was purchased by the Town of Hilton Head, the Heritage Trust, and Beaufort County in 2003 to preempt development under Beaufort County’s Rural and Critical Land Preservation Project for the purpose of protecting the two approximately 4,000-year old shell rings resting there.  

The two rings form a figure eight. The smaller ring was constructed approximately 300 years earlier than the larger ring, which is partially superimposed over the older ring. This older ring is approximately the same age as the Sea Pines Shell Ring, and there is no doubt that both sites’ occupants socialized and traded with contemporaries.  Last November, the Beaufort County Council voted unanimously to approve the construction of a passive park around the rings to protect them and also, allow the public to see them. 

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