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24 April 2005
The ancient shell rings of South Carolina

Fig Island looks like any of the thousands of tidal hummocks along the South Carolina coast (USA). But much of Fig Island was built by man, not nature. Three of the four separate pieces of high ground that make up the 40-acre island were constructed about 4,000 years ago. Oyster shells - with some conch-type shells, broken pottery and a few animal bones mixed in - were crafted into stadium-like rings and crescents for reasons that remain a mystery.
     State officials aim to draw attention to the cultural treasures by applying for National Historic Landmark recognition and, eventually, a spot on the exclusive list of World Heritage sites. "Shell rings are found in only a few countries worldwide," said Mike Russo, an archaeologist with the National Park Service. "The Southeastern U.S. rings are among the largest and best preserved." Similar, smaller rings in Peru were mined for their shells in recent years. Japanese rings are much older, shorter and less symmetrical.
     About two dozen shell mounds have been found in South Carolina. Another two dozen rings are in Georgia, and a handful of others have been located in Florida and Mississippi. The Fig Island complex features one ring with the largest open interior plaza (slightly more than an acre), another ring with the smallest plaza (about the area of a basketball court) and the largest mound by volume of any of the known shell enclosures. The oyster shells brought to Fig Island to build the mounds would fill 12 Olympic-size swimming pools.
     Russo and Rebecca Saunders mapped mounds ranging from 5 to 20 feet high and, using carbon dating, they found shells from 3,800 to 4,200 years old. Some experts speculate that the mounds formed as refuse piles when natives built temporary homes along the coast. Others see them as ceremonial structures for special occasions, not everyday living. Russo leans toward the latter, pointing to the large shell pieces found throughout many rings. If the mounds had served as daily refuse piles, they would have been built slowly and shells would have been broken more often. But if they were built during large ceremonial gatherings, shells would have been piled on quickly, causing less breakage.
     The Fig Island complex has three identifiable rings and a crescent.
One theory is that the larger mound (called Fig 1) was built for the tribal leaders. The mound is the largest in width and height, but it has the smallest interior plaza. The slow-sloping mound rises nearly 20 feet above the surface, forming an exclusive amphitheater in the center. The shorter, circular mound (Fig 2) rises about five feet and has a 1-acre central plaza that could have held larger groups. Maybe Fig 2 was built first, and the leaders built Fig 1 to get away from the masses. Fig 1 also includes a second, less defined ring and attached crescents on each end that resemble the claws of a crab. The entire structure stretches 985 feet by 900 feet. Researchers hit sand under a few feet of shell at a mound on one end of Fig 1, a strange departure from the norm that could indicate it's a burial mound, Russo said.

Source: Associated Press, Myrtle Beach Online (17 April 2005)

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