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Research in a Ton of Shells

Contact: Ralph Derickson

Photo of researchers exploring seashells found in "shell rings" on Sapelo Island, Ga.
Researchers explore seashells found in "shell rings" on Sapelo Island, Ga.

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Dick Jefferies, an associate professor of anthropology at UK, said one of the obstacles the study team encountered was the lack of transportation to – and on – Sapelo Island. The team used a barge provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to ferry a van to the island for transportation. The team hired residents of the island to cook their meals four days a week and cooked for themselves during the weekends.

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 25, 2003) -- Unlike summer vacationers who bring back a modest cache of seashells from the beach, University of Kentucky anthropology doctoral student Victor Thompson had to rent a 14-foot truck for a ton of shells and artifacts a team of archaeology field school students collected this summer.

Thompson, a Georgia native, led a group of UK and Transylvania University undergraduate students on a six-week mission in June and July to explore the mysteries of “shell rings” on Sapelo Island, Ga. The island, about 10 miles long with only 80 permanent residents, is near St. Simon’s Island, south of Savannah.

Dick Jefferies, an associate professor of anthropology who has taught at UK since 1991, provided faculty supervision on the project. The work was also performed under the authority of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR).

Jefferies said one of the obstacles the study team encountered was the lack of transportation to – and on – Sapelo Island. The team used a barge provided by the GDNR to ferry a van to the island for transportation. The team hired residents of the island to cook their meals four days a week and cooked for themselves during the weekends.

“The Sapelo Island shell ring is what’s called a ‘shell-midden site,’” Jefferies noted. Early Native American settlers on the island, perhaps as long ago as 2300 B.C., enjoyed a steady seafood diet and deposited the shells of the ocean creatures in huge, circular layers around their residential sites.

Jefferies said the prehistoric archaeological site also contains some of the earliest pottery in North America used by the early hunter-gatherer groups who populated the island.

He noted that the rings on the island – both those the UK team excavated and others – were described in a letter by William McKinley to the Smithsonian in the 1870s.

Thompson said the huge quantities of shells, pieces of pottery, bones of fish and animals, and a few stone and bone tools will be scientifically examined for any clues they might provide as to why the mysterious shell rings occur on the island.

At least one of the shell rings on Sapelo is visible on the surface, but the other two are only discernable through the use of remote sensing techniques. Instruments such as ground penetrating radar and resistance survey allowed the team to work at Sapelo to find the other two buried rings.

Thompson said shell rings are fairly common along the southeastern United States coast from South Carolina southward to the tip of Florida and around the Gulf Coast as well as in Colombia, Peru and Japan. His doctoral dissertation will look at some of the reasons shell rings occur as they do.

Among the other UK students involved in the research performed as part of the academic curriculum of the UK Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences were Chris Martin, Owensboro; Amanda Lawrence, Lexington; John Urton, Louisville, Sandy McDaniel, Paducah; Cindi Gardner, Lexington; Ed Henry, Frankfort, Matt Byron, Louisville, Susan Linsley, Nicholasville, and Jay Mueller, Lexington.


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