Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Articulating Activity Areas and Formation Processes at the Sapelo Island Shell Ring Complex

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Articulating Activity Areas and Formation Processes at the Sapelo Island Shell Ring Complex

Article excerpt

Archaeological signatures associated with Holocene-age shell-bearing sites in coastal settings reveal evidence of early sociopolitical complexity and lend themselves to a methodological approach focused on activity areas and formation processes. Due to their complex spatial structure, the ringed shell-bearing sites of the Georgia coast fall into this category and provide the unique opportunity to study circular village organization and monument construction among hunter-gatherers. Using geophysical survey, archaeological testing, and ethnographic and archaeological parallels, this paper will examine the use and formation of shell rings during the Late Archaic at the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex on the Georgia coast, United States.

Circular village organization as well as the construction of circular monuments is well documented among horticultural and agricultural societies (e.g., Clay 1987; Fraser 1968; Heckenberger 2005; Henderson 1998). Recent work by Joe Saunders (Saunders et al. 2005), Michael Russo (1994a, 1994b, 2004), Jon Gibson (2001), and Rebecca Saunders (2002, 2004a, 2004b) among others has brought these issues to the forefront of Southeastern archaeology. Like other areas of the world, such as Japan, Peru, and Colombia, some of the shell-bearing sites1 associated with prehistoric hunter-gatherers in the southeastern United States take on a circular ring or arcuate shape (e.g., Aikens and Higuchi 1982; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1965, 1971; Russo and Heide 2001; Sandweiss et al. 1989; Sassaman 1993).

This paper examines the formation and changing use of circular shell-bearing sites (i.e., shell rings) in the southeastern United States to provide information on the role of circular village organization and monument construction among hunter-gatherer groups. First, I discuss the different models and evidence for shell ring formation and function. Next, I present geophysical and excavation data from the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex to speak to the issues raised by the various models of shell rings. Finally, I present a summary of the research and make suggestions for future inquiry.

Anthropological interpretations for the function of Southeastern shell rings fall into three categories. One model, the "gradual accumulation" model, states that shell rings represent permanent (i.e., year-round occupation) or semipermanent habitation sites that were formed through the gradual accumulation of habitation debris and food remains as a result of egalitarian households living directly on top of the ring (e.g., DePratter 1976; Trinkley 1980:313, 1985:118, 1997; Waring and Larson 1968:273). A second "ceremonial" model argues that rings were formed through either short-term seasonal feasting episodes and/or intentional mounding (i.e., monument construction) (e.g., Cable 1997) by transegalitarian groups during specific times of the year (Saunders 2002:158, 2004a:42, 2004b:265). A third model suggests that rings are both habitation and ceremonial constructions and evidence early markers of increasing social inequalities between individuals and/or groups (e.g., Russo 2004:28; Russo and Heide 2003:44-45). For all of these models, the central "plaza" or space of the ring is viewed as communal and usually kept clean of debris (Waring 1968:246). However, some researchers note midden deposits in the center of rings (e.g., Flannery 1943:150-151; see also Sassaman and Ledbetter 1996:80).

The proponents of the competing models listed above present different evidence or different interpretations of the same evidence to support their views. For advocates of the "gradual accumulation" model, the ceramics, shell tools, large pits filled with shell refuse indicate that shell rings are places of daily habitation and not ceremonial constructions (Trinkley 1980:313, 338-339, 1985:117; see Russo 2004:27). In this model, shell rings develop as a result of shell and other subsistence remains accumulating under habitation locales on the ring through time (Trinkley 1985:117). …

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