Inside the Ring: Recent excavations at the St. Catherines Island shell ring

Submitted by Matthew C. Sanger (sanger@amnh.org)

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has been lucky enough to work on St. Catherines Island, Georgia for the last 30+ years. Since 2006, the museum has focused its attention on the Late Archaic Period (3000-1000 B.C.) on the island—specifically, we have been working on the St. Catherines Island Shell Ring. Shell rings are large, some say monumental, sites that occur only in the Late Archaic Period. Because of both their size, and the apparent planned nature of the sites, the function of shell rings has been a very contested issue. Likewise, to many archaeologists, the complexity found in shell rings brings up questions of sedentism, power, control over labor, and hierarchy to a period of time that just twenty years ago was considered populated by roving bands of egalitarian hunter-gatherers.

AMNH has carried out a variety of field methods on the shell ring including detailed topographical mapping, remote sensing surveys (including magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and resistivity), and small-scale excavations. During May 2007, the museum decided to conduct a large block excavation within the interior of the ring. Historically, the interiors of shell rings have often been ignored, or only lightly tested, as most archaeologists focused on the areas of high shell deposit, which make up the ring itself. Based on earlier remote sensing results, along with the findings from a trench excavation, the museum decided that the interior of the ring held information that was key to understanding the function and usage of the ring. To uncover this information, the museum decided to open up a relatively large block excavation (roughly 24 square meters). The plan paid off and the field crew was excited to uncover over 20 large features in the center of the ring.

shell_ring_topo_map

Figure 1. Topographical map of St. Catherines Island Shell Ring.

These features are all very similar in shape, color, and contents. All of them are circular, have straight walls, and flat bottoms. Their dark color appears to be caused less by burning (very little charcoal was recovered) and more by organic deposits. Not only was very little charcoal found in the features, but little cultural material of any type was found. However, several of the features did have a small amount of bone and fiber-tempered pottery, but over-all most were nearly devoid of artifacts. A single feature had a significant amount of shell in it while all the rest were empty of shell save for a single piece on occasion. The main attribute that distinguished the features was how deep they went. Some of the features were shallow—only 20-30 cm—while others went very deep; several went over a meter deep. The museum has 15 C14 dates from the features and is currently analyzing the artifacts found within them. Numerous flotation samples were gathered from each feature and they will also be analyzed as soon as possible.

shell_ring_features

The Museum looks forward to returning to the island this fall and continuing our work on the Late Archaic Period. This much-studied, but poorly understood time period holds the answers about why the Native Americans of the southeast decided to construct a series of monumental shell rings throughout the coastal regions and what those rings mean to larger questions of complexity, power, and sedentism in the region. The museum is grateful for the continued patronage of the St. Catherines Island and Edward John Noble Foundations as well as the support from the staff on the island, especially Royce Hayes. None of this work would be possible without their backing.