After Hurricane Matthew, a satellite survey of the South Carolina coast picked up something new, and very old, on a remote beach south of Charleston, according to South Carolina Wildlife Magazine.
Archaeologists perked up at the discovery of ancient Native American shell rings off Edisto Island, but they had a problem: “the Pockoy Island shell rings were in imminent danger of being swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean,” SC Wildlife reports.
There are two shell rings on the island, called Pockoy 1 and Pockoy 2, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. “Pockoy 1 will be gone by 2024. Rapid archaeological investigation of this site is critical as our shared cultural heritage is at risk of being lost,” DNR said in a recent press release.
“Pockoy 1 is the oldest known shell ring in South Carolina – dating to the Late Archaic period, approximately 4,300 years ago. That’s the same time period as the construction of the first Egyptian pyramids,” DNR said.
Archeology teams are working quickly to document and preserve what they can from the shell rings, with teams from Mississippi State University and the National Parks Service helping DNR with study and excavations this summer.
DNR is looking for volunteers to come help sift through the site with the archeology team.
“The public is invited to join the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Archaeology team as they conduct excavations at Pockoy Island, located on Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve. Archaeological excavation will take place from Monday, May 6, 2019 through Friday, May 24, 2019,” DNR said in the invitation.
DNR will also give tours of the shell ring site to the public in May.
The shell rings
“Pockoy 1 is in the shape of a donut, and measures about 60 meters across and 60 centimeters at its thickest point. The center of this donut-shape is void of shell and is called the plaza,” DNR said, describing the threatened site.
DNR archaeologist Karen Smith said the ring site was likely a place for people, according to an article by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.
“They consumed what they processed and maybe dried and saved food, but we are also finding animal bone pins and shell beads. They appear to have been making things, as well as eating here. All this was happening about 4,400 years ago,” Smith told the organization.
The Pockoy 1 shell ring was built and used for 20 to 100 years, “a relatively short period of time,” according to samples dated by DNR.
Archeologists have found more than 50 shell rings around the Southeast, “and more than two dozen of them are right here in South Carolina,” according to SC Wildlife.
“In South Carolina, the rings range in size from one to five meters tall and can be as wide as 160 meters across. The average is sixty-four meters in diameter,” the magazine reports.
The biggest concentration of shell ring sites is along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, according to the National Parks Service.
“Shell rings are circular to horseshoe-shaped piles of shell (primarily oyster) ranging in size from 50 to up to 250 meters across and located along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi. Hunter-gatherer societies became increasingly complex during the Late Archaic in the southeastern United States,” the NPS said.
“Monument construction, such as shell rings, and new technologies like pottery are evidence of this complexity. Evidence of the first permanent settlements, the first inter-coastal exchange patterns, the development of founding new coastal cultural traditions and the increase in social complexity can all be studied through examination of shell ring sites,” the Parks Service said, describing the importance of studying the shell rings.
Last year archeologists wrapped up excavations at a similar ring site on Sea Pines Island in Hilton Head, according to the Island Packet.
Archeologists say there are big questions they hope to answer in the short time they have left before the ocean destroys the site, according to DNR: “Why were the Pockoy Island Shell Rings constructed? Are they connected to a larger network of shell ring communities across the Southeastern United States? Were they created for a ceremonial purpose, or the result of subsistence activities?”