James Moore: Our next speaker is Matthew Sanger. Matthew is the director of public archeology programs at Binghamton University, and conducts research on hunter-gatherer sites across the eastern woodlands. His primary research area is in Georgia and South Carolina, where he studies Native American adaptations to coastal landscapes that first formed during the Archaic Period. He focuses on employing new technologies to better understand the past through material studies.
Matthew Sanger: Well, I’m very thankful that Jeff just spoke quite a bit about shell rings, because that’s actually what I’ll be speaking about as well. Well, I can always go over with my talking about shell rings. I get quite excited about them, so I’m going to focus on what I have here to read instead. Although lines between oceanic waters and coastal landmasses are subject to tidal fluctuations, and storm surges, and other intermittent changes, we often take the division between land and sea as stable and intractable. Modern sea level rises challenge these preconceived notions of shoreline stability and may soon require a reworking of how we speak of coastal landscapes. We may need to develop a new vocabulary to talk about new, and old, and future coastlines, talk about inundated cities and ever-encroaching sea levels.
While this is a terrifying reality, this is not the first time humankind has been faced with a volatile and dynamic oceanic coastline. Archeological and geological studies have uncovered numerous sea level rises and drops over prior millennia. This paper investigates one such point of dynamic change coming to light through research in the American Southeast. Geologic studies show that sea levels stabilize at or near modern levels roughly 4,700 years ago. Prior to this time, levels were significantly lower, and the coast was more than 50 kilometers away. For a variety of reasons, sea levels began to rise roughly 5,000 years ago, plateauing around 4,700 to 4,300 BP, at which point modern islands, and coastlands, and marshlands formed.
We know little about how these sea levels impacted native peoples, but it’s very likely that families were displaced, homelands were inundated, and residents of earlier coasts found themselves retreating from ever-encroaching coastlines. Likewise, people who once lived kilometers away from the oceans found the waters coming closer every year, as well as perhaps peoples displaced from those coastlines. Arising at the same time as sea level stabilization is a novel human construction, categorized by archeologists as shell rings, which we’ve already heard a bit about. Generally, these mounded deposits are made of oyster shells, with smaller numbers of clams, mussels, and periwinkles. Mounded deposits encircle open areas often described as plazas, which contain little or no shell.
Shell rings vary in size and morphology based on where they are located on the coast. Smaller circular rings, often occurring in multiples and near one another, dominate the coasts of Georgia and South Caroline. These rings generally measure between 50 and 100 meters wide, and deposits range from half a meter to a meter and a half in height. In contrast, larger single rings typically formed as open arcs are more common in Florida. Florida rings often measure several hundred meters in length, and can reach heights of more than four meters.
The function of shell rings has been much-debated. Earlier researchers saw them as fish traps or defensive structures. Although still contentious, recent research, such as what we just heard, discredit these earlier theories, and instead suggest that shell rings were places of residence, and perhaps also areas for communal gatherings. The creation of shell rings is of broader anthropological interest, as they were constructed by non-agricultural peoples. Ring builders were fishers, and hunters, and gatherers, who fed themselves without reliance on domesticated foods or animals. The fact that these non-agriculturalists invested significant efforts in creating such massive rings upsets traditional anthropological notions that assume hunter-gatherers lived hand to mouth and had no time, ability, or inclination for the creation of large-scale constructions.
My current research focuses on two rings on St. Catherines Island, Georgia. St. Catherines Island is one of the many sea islands that populate the southeastern seaboard. Sea islands are barrier islands, meaning they are long, narrow deposits of sand running parallel to the coastline. Separated from the mainland by shallow bays and intracoastal waterways, and from one another by narrow tidal inlets, barrier islands protect vast marshlands from the open sea, and form a critical part of the coastal ecozone. Prior to sea level stabilization, St. Catherines Island was a high dune ridge, but as sea levels rose and the lower elevations behind the island filled, it became an island, and was quickly populated by people.
The earliest sites that we have on St. Catherines Island are these two shell rings located on opposite sides of the island. Almost 50 radiometric dates have been drawn from the rings and show they are largely contemporaneous. The St. Catherines Shell Rings are moderate in size. Each is roughly about 70 meters wide, and shell deposits range between half to a meter a half in height. Almost a decade of research shows that these were homes to small resident communities who held festivals and feasts that brought together people from across the region. A key finding from this research, and one that I want to focus on in this presentation, is how St. Catherines Island Shell Rings were implicated in larger social networks, and likely served as a critical locus of trade, interaction, and communality.
These findings run counter to traditional narratives that assume ancient hunter-gatherers lived in small groups that rarely interacted with one another. Instead, traditional narratives prefer to see the creation of large communities of deeply interrelated peoples as arising alongside agriculture and societal complexity. Instead, findings from the St. Catherines Island shell rings clearly show that pre-agricultural peoples engaged in exchange and communication at a variety of scales, many far beyond the presumed norm. These findings are important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they show coastal peoples have long been involved in expansive social networks, and likely conceived of their landscape as extending well beyond their immediate environments.
This is particularly important for the study of island peoples, as archeologists are often content to study single island landmasses and assume the boundary between themselves and the mainland was an important boundary for past peoples as well. The findings offered in this paper clearly repudiate this limited view, and instead show that ancient Native American communities had an expansive understanding of their social landscape that did not stop at the water’s edge. As such, terms like Maritime Cultural Landscapes are vitally important, as they blur lines between aquatic and terrestrial spaces, as human actions and practices commonly involve both realms.
To develop an appreciation of the scale of movement, exchange, and communication occurring at the shell rings, we can first turn to the most common object found at them, the shells themselves. As already noted, oysters are the most common component of shell rings. For a long time, archeologists assumed that these were being gathered from nearby local environments. To our surprise, research on St. Catherines Island show that oysters were collected from relatively distant waterways more often than not. Using the shape of the shells as proxy for their home ecozone, a large portion of oysters did not originate in the small intertidal creeks and marshlands abutting the rings, but rather came from high-velocity or more sandy conditions. We can’t definitively say exactly where these shellfish originated, but they most likely came from areas closer to the mainland, from marshes more distant, and from intertidal coastways.
Our findings are replicated on nearby Sapelo Island, where research using isotopic data also showed that shellfish built in shell rings were commonly gathered from locales several kilometers distant. Traditional interpretations assume that more distant shellfish were collected because local sources were over-harvested, yet our data from St. Catherines Island repudiates this idea, as we have no evidence of over-harvesting. Specifically, size and age of shellfish, which are our two best indicators of over-harvesting remain the same throughout the deposits of both rings. In other words, residents of both rings were collecting shellfish from relatively far away and bringing them back home, even though their local sources seem to be unaffected.
The fact that shells were brought back at all strongly suggests that boats were being used, because if boats were not used, native peoples most likely would not have been bringing back the bulky shells with them. They probably would have shucked them where they collected them. Even if we assume boats were being used, we still need to address why shell ring residents chose to gather shellfish from relatively distant locales.
There are several possible answers to this question. Perhaps shellfish were being collected alongside other tasks taking place around the islands. Perhaps communities or families owned shellfish beds that were more distant from their homes. Now, I can’t disprove any of these theories, but I’d like to propose an alternative hypothesis that ties this data to the rest of the data that I’ll provide in this paper. That is that shell ring residents were very conscious of spacial and ecological diversity, and strove to bring objects and animals from these different locales together within the rings themselves.
To reinforce this theory, we can turn to the excavations conducted in direct centers of the rings. At the St. Catherines Shell Ring located on the western edge of the island, the ring’s center was marked by at least six, maybe nine, maybe even 10 different pits that all overlap each other. These are large pits, measuring about a meter to a meter a half in width, most of them being more than a meter, sometimes two meters deep, and reaching the water table below. Their placement … They were isolated from any other features around them. These were places just in the direct center of the ring with no other features in their vicinity.
Their placement, isolation, remarkable depth, and multiplicity in such a small space suggests that these pits were meaningful, although we struggle with what that exact meaning is. They seem to lack any clear utilitarian purpose, however, as they are too large to be post holes. They show no signs of being used to haul trash or hearths. They may have been used for storage, but since they reach this water table, they would have been a wet environment, something not very amenable to storage.
The contents of the pits are somewhat equivocal about what they were used for, yet they suggest they were invested with cosmological meaning. Specifically, the most striking object found in the pit was a discoidal stone, worked and polished to form a smooth face. This is the only ground stone found at either ring, and has no clear utilitarian purpose. It certainly originated off the island, as there are no natural stone sources either on the island or nearby mainlands. Instead, a likely source is roughly midway up the Savannah River, where similar discoidal stones have been found in contemporaneous sites such as Stallings Island.
We have other evidence for connections between people living along the Savannah River and the residents of the St. Catherines Shell Ring, including stone tools made from materials found along the Savannah River and pottery that is remarkably similar between Savannah River peoples and peoples living on St. Catherines Island. Now, at Stallings Island, discoidal stones were often found alongside human burials, and were thought to have some sort of ritual purpose. It is possible that the center pits at St. Catherines Shell Ring were also used for human burial, because we have found a number of heavily-fragmented and calcine bones. Now, to date, none of these bones have been identified as human, but rather appear to be nonhumans, including deer and birds. This data is incomplete, however, as the bones were so burned and so broken that only a handful have been identified.
A more complete picture is available from the second shell ring on St. Catherines Island, McQueens Shell Ring, where, in consultation with the Georgia Indian Council, a mixture of human and nonhuman bones were recovered from a single, central pit. Analyzes revealed the presence of at least six human individuals within this pit, as well as an unusual conglomeration of nonhuman bodies. Human and nonhuman bodies were treated in much the same manner, as both were burned and crushed into small fragments. Human and nonhuman remains were then mixed together, either prior to or while being placed in the pits in the center of McQueen.
The nonhuman remains found in the center of McQueen were almost certainly not the remains of food consumption, or, if they were, these were not normal foods. I make this assentation based on the animals found in the ring center, including skeletal remains from a sperm whale. To my knowledge, this is the only whale found in an Archaic site from the American Southeast. Based on morphometrics drawn from a vertebrae, this whale was a fully-grown adult, and based on its condition, was drawn from a complete body rather than being a random element perhaps washed up on shore.
Beyond the unusual, even unheard-of presence of a whale bone, the nonhuman remains included other rare animals, including birds. The remains of birds are rarely found anywhere else at the ring, yet make up a sizeable proportion of the finds from the center. The birds found in the center of McQueen are even more notable, in that birds recovered elsewhere include, ducks, sparrows, and ground-nesting species, while the vast majority of birds found at burial pit were birds of prey, including falcons and eagles. Numerous alligators and dog remains were also found in the burial pit, along with an eagle ray, all animals rarely or never encountered elsewhere in the ring. Finally, deer bones were quite common, but unlike elsewhere in the ring, where deer legs, ribs, and vertebrae were typically recovered, almost all the deer bones from the ring center were cranial elements.
How do we understand this odd conglomeration of human and nonhuman bodies? Traditional archeological interpretations would assume some level of ritual imports to these animals, and likely leave it at that. Perhaps this is all we can say, although zooarcheologists Elizabeth Reitz and Carol Colaninno suggest that we can get more out of these finds, as they posit these animals form a powerful conglomeration of creatures that reference a tripartite to understanding the world as divided between above, middle, and below worlds, divisions that translate into elemental divisions between air, earth, and water. In Colaninno and Reitz’s interpretation, each animal is chosen for internment because they reside in particular elemental spheres, and likely reflect or symbolize the power of those locales.
Now, it’s possible that Elizabeth Reitz and Colaninno are correct, yet this is quite difficult to test empirically. Something that we can say with more certainty is that these animals that were drawn together, all originate in different spacial and ecological locales. Specifically, whales live in deep oceanic waters. Rays are found in the serf. Deer live in maritime forests, birds of prey, in meadows and along waterways, and dogs among human villages. Thinking back to the shells that make up the ring, which were drawn from multiple locales, I suggest a theme of collection is occurring, a particular type of collection in which spacial and ecological diversity is being referenced even as it is being collapsed to form these interesting conglomerations of objects, and animals, and peoples.
Although this theory is clearly speculative, material remains from McQueen echo this interest in drawing together objects from diverse locales. In contrast to the stones found in the center of the St. Catherines Shell Ring, which were largely sourced in the nearby Savannah River and local waterways, stones found in McQueen often originated in far more distant locales. These include Dark Church in the Appalachian Mountains and associate valleys, as well as pieces of petrified wood whose origin points are unknown but are not local. Pottery from McQueen is also decorated in manners unlike those from St. Catherines Shell Ring, and are more similar to vessels found in Florida. These finds suggest significant networks of communication spanning much of the Southeastern United States.
Although impressive, the distance incurred in the movement of pottery and stone pales in comparison to the most surprising find found from McQueens Shell Ring, a piece of worked copper from the ring’s center. This object may be an armband or similar piece of personal adornment, as it has been hammered flat and is exceedingly well-made. Copper use is extraordinarily rare in the American Southeast, particularly during the Archaic Period. A few copper beads have been reported from Florida and South Carolina that may be Archaic in age, and small items have been recovered from Poverty Point, located in Louisiana.
These items are not locally made, however, and instead, originate much farther to our north. They originate from here. They originate from the Great Lakes region, where copper working was relatively common at the time. Preliminary compositional studies show that copper from St. Catherines also originated from the Great Lakes, some 1,500 kilometers distant. At this time, we can only speculate about how this copper object traveled from the Great Lakes to St. Catherines Island.
On their own, each piece of evidence for exchange and communication is somewhat precarious. Yet when taken together, a pattern emerges. At a variety of scale, beginning at the local level, animals from diverse ecological zones are brought together, either to form the arc of shell, or to be cremated and buried alongside human remains in the center of the ring. Moving beyond the local level, we find a slight divergence between the two rings, where people at the St. Catherines Shell Ring drawing together stones and pottery styles from the supra-local level, while people at McQueen extend to the regional level. Finally, the extent of interactions reaches a subcontinental level at McQueen, where the copper object ties together people living along the Great Lakes with those from the Southern Atlantic seaboard.
Taken together, the finds from St. Catherines Shell Rings challenge traditional notions of simple hunter-gatherers living along the coastline, and instead, suggest an expansive network of social ties spanning half the continent, including the coast as an important node. These finds are important to our current discussion regarding Marine Coastal Landscapes because it highlights the usefulness of thinking about expansive social networks and conception of space going back to the very formation of our current coastline, if not before.
Certainly, the adoption of agriculture and the invention of more powerful modes of transportation allowed the creation of new types of maritime landscapes, but this does not preclude the consideration of hunter-gatherers that engaged in similar life-ways that cross traditional boundaries between land and water. Because of modern sea level changes, places like St. Catherines Island are threatened by erosion and inundation. Current estimates suggest vast portions of the island will be lost in the next few decades, and with this destruction will come an irreversible loss of the archeological record, including sites like shell rings, which hold valuable information that humankind has adapted to and lived along the water’s edge for millennia. Thank you.