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20 December 2008
Prehistoric cremation pit found on US island

The recent excavation of a prehistoric American Indian burial site on Ossabaw Island (Georgia, USA) revealed cremated remains, an unexpected find that offers a glimpse into ancient Indian culture. State archaeologist David Crass of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said prehistoric cremations were rare, particularly during the early time in which preliminary evidence suggests this one occurred, possibly 1000 BCE to 350 CE. The remains also mark the first cremation uncovered on Ossabaw, a state-owned Heritage Preserve about 20 miles south of Savannah.
     "This interment broadens our knowledge about the kinds of belief (involving) death within the Woodland Period," Crass said. "Similar cremations on St. Catherine's Island may point to this practice being more widespread than we have believed up to now." Crass said during this time American Indians in Georgia moved to the coast in the winter for shellfish, then inland in the spring for deer hunting and into uplands in the fall for gathering nuts. "This site may have been a winter season camp," he said.
     Erosion from natural causes exposed the burial on an Ossabaw bluff earlier this year. Scientists from the DNR Office of the State Archaeologist, the nonprofit Lamar Institute and the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns worked under the council's direction to excavate the roughly 6- by 6-foot pit. The work revealed a cremation pit that had been lined with wood and oyster shells. The body had been placed on top of the wood and the contents of the pit burned. The human remains recovered were primarily from extremities, indicating that the deceased had been disinterred after cremation, possibly to be reburied elsewhere.
     The charcoal will be submitted for carbon 14 dating, but preliminary analysis of the pottery recovered from the pit suggests the cremation may date to the Refuge-Deptford Phases in the Woodland Period, c.a. 1000 BCE to 350 CE. A ground-penetrating radar survey showed many prehistoric American Indian features in the general area, Crass said. The bluff apparently had long been a focal point of prehistoric Indian life.
     "It's a special sort of burial," said Tom Gresham, an Athens archaeologist who worked on the excavation and serves on Georgia's Council on American Indian Concerns. "The way Indian tribes over time buried their dead varied tremendously. But cremations are fairly rare."
     After analysis, the remains will be reinterred in a secure location under the auspices of the Council on American Indian Concerns. Crass expects the carbon 14 dating results and details on the radar survey by early next year. Access to Ossabaw is limited to approved research projects and hunts managed by the DNR's Georgia Wildlife Resources Division. Details at www.georgiawildlife.com.

Sources: The Daily Citizen (17 December 2008), International Herald Tribune (19 December 2008)

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