Fall excavations on St. Catherines Island

Submitted by Anna M. Semon (asemon@amnh.org)


Jennifer Salinas and Elizabeth Drolet screening soil during the Back Creek Village shovel test pit survey.

This past October, the American Museum of Natural History returned to St. Catherines Island for three weeks of fieldwork, tackling a range of interrelated projects. We monitored on-going construction projects occurring on the island, launched a largescale shovel test pit survey at Back Creek Village (a late prehistoric site, occupied A.D. 1300–1580), and another at the St. Catherines Shell Ring (a Late Archaic site constructed 2200–1800 B.C.). We also excavated several shell-heavy units at McQueen Shell Ring (also occupied during the Late Archaic).

Back Creek Village consists of at least seven discrete shell middens perched around a very large depression, which seems to have been dug out during precontact times to enhance the flow of an artesian spring. We undertook the recent shovel-testing program to delineate the northern, southern and western site margins. Excavating 231 shovel test pits, spaced at 20-m intervals, we recovered mostly prehistoric and historic ceramics, a couple of lithics, and some faunal remains. Overall, we discovered 28 subsurface shell deposits. The artifacts are currently being processed and we can’t wait to interpret the information.

The St. Catherines Island Shell Ring is a perfect circle, a dense deposit of marine shell roughly 70 m in diameter, defining an interior plaza, which is virtually shell-free. In the fall survey, we were looking for Late Archaic components located outside of the shell ring. We dug 458 shovel tests pits along a 20-m grid. Surprisingly, most of the artifacts recovered were ceramics dating to the Late Prehistoric (Irene) period. Only on the last day did we recover any fiber- tempered ceramics, suggesting that the shell ring might not have significant outliers. But we won’t really understand the Late Archaic landscape until we work through these new data in more detail.


Matt Sanger excavating shell-heavy unit at McQueen Shell Ring.

Toward the end of the dig, we excavated six units in the shell-heavy portion of the McQueen Shell Ring. We were primarily interested in shell deposition and comparisons with different sections of the ring. We found that the shell deposits are not as deep as expected (only 30–50 cm). Although all shell deposits consist primarily of oyster, clam, mussel, and periwinkles, each unit seems to have a different combination of these taxa. Do these variable results indicate that the ring was being utilized in different ways or during different seasons? Decorated and undecorated fiber-tempered ceramics were recovered, as well as pieces of bone pins, possible whelk tools, and large quantities of fauna.

This fall trip ends the 2008 field season. There is plenty of lab work to keep us busy until the spring field season.