Life in the Round: Shell Rings of the Georgia Bight
Matthew Clair Sanger
This dissertation examines two Late Archaic (5800-3200 cal B.P.) shell rings located on St. Catherines Island, Georgia. Employing novel methods, including CT-scanning and visual analyses using computer vision, as well as traditional techniques, the histories of each ring are explored and put into a broader context of social changes occurring across the American Southeast.
All along the southeastern coastline, the Late Archaic is a time of remarkable social transformations. Populated by hunter-gatherers, sea levels stabilized at or near modern levels during the Late Archaic, which allowed the development of rich estuarine ecozones. Human communities adopted less mobile strategies than their forebears and began living in centralized locales during the Late Archaic and increasingly formalized and distinct divisions between sub-regional populations also become more prevalent. Technological innovations (including pottery) became widespread, along with shifts in subsistence strategies as shellfish and plant foods, particularly tree nuts, became dietary staples for many coastal peoples. All of these transformations helped to create a social landscape in which communal affinity, access to resources, and connection between people and place were brought to the forefront as population levels and densities grew and diverse communities came in contact—and perhaps competition—with one another. I also argue that these material, ecological, and demographic changes required social and perhaps cosmological transformations.
Many of these transformations occurred at shell rings – circular or arced deposits of bivalve shells that surround broad, shell-free plazas. Investigating two such rings on St. Catherines Island, this dissertation first details excavations and the depositional character of each ring before turning to the radiometric and seasonality data drawn from both. In concert with a study of storage facilities found in the interiors of the rings, the temporal data suggests an ebb and flow of people into and out of rings, likely influenced by the maturation of hickory nuts and perhaps acorns. Analyses then shift toward pottery production and use, which show each ring was occupied by a distinct potting community. The precise nature of these communities and their relation to one another is unclear, but based on excavations in the direct centers of the rings, peoples at each were engaged in a similar set of ritual or religious acts, perhaps inspired by similar cosmological outlooks. An important aspect of these acts was the deposit of cremated corporeal remains in the ring centers, including, at least at McQueen, the placement of cremated human remains alongside a worked copper object. The meaning(s) of these deposits are unclear, but they are unique within the American Southeast. Although antecedents are lacking in the surrounding region, similar acts and objects can be found in the Great Lakes, perhaps suggesting a connection between the two regions. The dissertation closes with an attempt to provide narrative structure and explanatory models for the wide-ranging data now brought to light. Depending on Native American philosophers and writers, a novel understanding of shell rings is offered. This understanding revolves around an ontological world view in which landscapes are populated by powerful forces; forces with whom humankind can, and indeed, needs to be in communication with in order to lead a proper life. Based on this world view, I suggest that a dramatic reworking of the landscape, such as what would occur during sea level fluctuations, would require a refashioning of relationships with non-human forces, and it was at and through shell rings that such refashioning occurred.