Coastal Shell Rings
Located along the barrier islands and coasts of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, shell rings, or middens, are
Shell Rings and Questions of Complexity
The debate continues over exactly what the shell rings represent. There are three competing interpretations. The first interpretation views the shell rings as permanent villages of egalitarian groups. If this hypothesis is correct, then shell-ring populations would represent one of the earliest examples of year-round occupation in North America. The second interpretation holds that shell rings are the remains of seasonally occupied camps, where different groups came to hold ceremonies and feasts. Researchers view feasts as opportunities for some individuals to gain status and power, which eventually led to greater social differences. According to this model, shell rings developed because of the intentional mounding or piling up of feasting remains. The third interpretation suggests that shell rings represent both the locations of ceremonies and feasts and the sites of year-round villages.
Shell Ring Research in Georgia
Recent work on Sapelo Island suggests that shell rings may be more numerous than previously thought. Most known shell rings in the Southeast are large and rise several feet above the surrounding lowlands. By using new technologies that allow archaeologists to see beneath the ground without digging, such as ground-penetrating radar, researchers have located the remains of much smaller shell rings now buried beneath the modern ground surface. These discoveries raise the possibility that many more smaller and/or buried shell rings exist.
Excavations of smaller shell rings, like the smallest of the three known at the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex, suggest that at least some middens are the result of shell, bone, and artifact buildup beside households and are not the result of intentional mounding for ceremonial purposes. Despite these observations, it is still possible that some rings were formed through the process of ceremonial mounding. It is also possible that shell rings began as the household debris of people living in a circular village and were later intentionally mounded during ceremonies. Regardless of how shell rings formed, it is evident from the remains within the deposits that the rings served both as places of daily life and as sites for sacred ceremonies.
Shell-ring research provides insight into previously undocumented social behaviors of Native American groups, as well as into the increasing efficiency with which these groups extracted natural resources. New developments during the Late Archaic Period laid the foundations for the later, increasingly complex cultures of prehistory. Shell rings also provide important information about the adaptations of people to coastal environments as well as about the nature of those environments in the past. Such information is important not only for understanding how cultures change but also for predicting the future of such environments.
Michael Russo, "Measuring Shell Rings for Social Inequality," in Signs of Power: The Rise of Cultural Complexity in the Southeast, ed. Jon L. Gibson and Philip J. Carr (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 26-70.
Michael Russo, "Southeastern Mid-Holocene Coastal Settlements," in Archaeology of the Mid-Holocene Southeast, ed. Kenneth E. Sassaman and David G. Anderson (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), 177-99.
Michael Russo and Greg Heide, "Shell Rings of the Southeast US," Antiquity 75, no. 289 (2001): 491-92.
Kenneth E. Sassaman, Early Pottery in the Southeast: Tradition and Innovation in Cooking Technology (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993).
Victor D. Thompson, Matthew D. Reynolds, Bryan Haley, Richard Jefferies, Jay K. Johnson, and Laura Humphries, "The Sapelo Shell Ring Complex: Shallow Geophysics on a Georgia Sea Island, Southeastern Archaeology 23 (winter 2004): 192-201.
Victor Thompson, University of West Florida, Pensacola
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