The Sapelo Shell Ring Complex: Shallow Geophysics on a Georgia Sea Island

Article excerpt

The Sapelo Shell Ring complex, located on Sapelo Island, Georgia, consists of three large circular shell mounds and numerous smaller amorphous shell middens. Today, one of the rings is highly visible; however, the two other rings and the nonring middens have little surface relief and are virtually invisible. In fact, the location and very existence of the two other rings has been debated for some time. Recent geophysical survey, however, has located the subsurface remains of the two less obvious rings, as well as some of the amorphous middens. Geophysical survey data are being used to investigate the spatial distribution of the site's archaeological deposits and to evaluate appropriate geophysical techniques to use on shell-bearing sites.

The Sapelo Shell Ring complex (9MC23) is located on Sapelo Island in Mclntosh County, Georgia (Figure 1). The main occupation of the rings dates to the Late Archaic period (ca. 4200-3000 BP); however, later groups also occupied this area, including a substantial Mississippian occupation on the island's northern end (Simpkins 1975:18; Waring and Larson 1968:268; Williams 1968:329; Elliott and Sassaman 1995:122). Beginning in the 1950s, Lewis Larson, along with Antonio J. Waring, conducted excavations at the Sapelo Shell Ring complex, which represents some of the first scientific excavations of a shell ring site in the southeastern United States. Larson continued to return to Sapelo in the intervening decades. Over fifty years later, the excavations of Larson and colleagues at Sapelo are still providing clues to function and form of shell ring sites. While there is a renewed interest in these sites, we are still grappling with some of the same problems and questions posed by these earlier researchers. Whatever the case may be, Larson's work on this site illustrated that Archaic peoples possessed a degree of complexity previously unrecognized by Southeastern archaeologists.

Interpretations of how many rings were actually present on the site have varied over the past 130 years; this paper provides evidence that the site is composed of at least three large ring-shaped shell mounds and numerous smaller amorphous shell middens. We present the results of a preliminary shallow geophysical survey of the Sapelo Shell Ring complex; although we applied twenty-first-century technology in our research, we followed in the footsteps of Lewis Larson.

History of Research at the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex

In his 1872 letter to the Smithsonian Institution, William McKinley of Milledgeville, Georgia, gave the first description of the Sapelo Shell Ring complex (McKinley 1873:422-423). He reported three shell rings and hundreds of amorphous, nonring shell middens composed primarily of oyster in the same vicinity. C. B. Moore was to visit the site next, and although the exact location of his excavations remains uncertain, his preliminary findings indicated that the ring complex was of aboriginal construction (Moore 1897:71-73). Over the next few decades, the site became synonymous with the largest, most visible ring, hereafter referred to as Ring I. The locations of the other two rings and shell middens became uncertain, and the accuracy of McKinley's description of the site was questioned (Larson 1998:30; see also Simpkins 1975:23-25). In the 1950s, Antonio J. Waring, Jr. and Lewis H. Larson, Jr. (1968) conducted the first scientific investigations of Sapelo Shell Ring I, excavating a trench from the exterior of the ring, through the ring and into a portion of the interior. They concluded that the ring was composed primarily of occupation midden resulting from habitation at the site (Waring and Larson 1968:273).

The early excavations at the site focused on the largest of the three rings. Agricultural plowing and borrowing of shell for road fill had reduced the other two rings and the amorphous shell middens to the point that they were no longer visible (Simpkins 1975:24-25). In the 1960s, Hemmings visited the site and sketched it, once again showing it as composed of three rings. …