by Julie Gyselinck
The Spanish Mount in Edisto Beach State Park will soon be taken by the creek and will be no more. Before Mother Nature has her way with it, a group of archeologists from South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology are spending four weeks excavating the Archaic (8,000 B.C.–1,000 B.C.) site to learn and document as much as possible from the ancient trash heap.
Dr. Karen Smith is leading the team of archeologists and students from the University of South Carolina on the excavation of the mound. She explained to us that they have been brought in for “mitigation,” or one last good look at a site before it is lost to natural or man-made causes. The Spanish Mount on Edisto has been eroding into the river for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. In the 1990s the state park tried to protect it by building up a seawall to block the river’s intrusion to the site. The seawall is failing and the river is determined to take its prize.
Dr. Smith’s Karen’s team is the first to inspect and excavate the site since 1975. They hope to discover pottery, animal bones and artistic items the native people would have used in their day-to-day lives.
Documented by Spanish explorers in the mid 1500s, the mound was described as 20 feet tall and over 40 feet wide. Dr. Karen explains that grand description might be the result of the perspective the Spaniards would have had looking up at it from their boats, and the fact that the shell mound was created on top of a natural sandy hill. The nature of the raised geography the shell mound is on, along with the bank erosion that allowed shells to cascade down the side covering the sand face, made for an appearance of a massive mound of solid shell.
Major rains and more erosion during the first week of the excavation washed out the face even more, revealing the actual baseline of the shell mound. Far from the Spaniards’ estimate of 20 feet high, what is left—that is the actual shell—is only about three feet deep.
So what does a team of archeologists find when looking through a prehistoric trash dump? What can garbage help them surmise day-to-day life was like? Quite a lot actually.
Much of what is learned about these early people, from sites such as these, is done by comparing the finds to similar sites up and down the Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts. Dr. Karen and her team know what to expect, but the excitement of finding the unexpected is also there.
The people who left the Edisto mound and shell ring were nomadic within a localized region. Dr. Karen reveals the fascinating fact that shell rings appear every ten miles or so down the East Coast from South Carolina to Florida. The shell mounds were simply a community trash pile used every time the nomads were here. Their trash was mostly food scraps, some broken pottery pieces, and bone objects or shell tools. The shell rings are still a bit of a mystery, with many ideas and theories about their use. The typical portrayal of a prehistoric hunter-gatherer is of them using arrowheads, spears and stone tools. The lack of stone in the coastal area called for a substitution of seashells and bone. Also these Archaic peoples would not have had the technology of the bow and arrow yet. They would have been using an atlatl for launching an arrow or a small spear while hunting, and the tips would have been made of wood or shell. The atlatl is a flat board with a hole or divot at the top to place the end of an arrow in, and then with a fling of the arm (like throwing a ball) the projectile could travel upward of 150 yards. That’s the distance the medieval long bow was accomplishing around the time the mound was first discovered.
What was their life like?
Not miserable. While decoding every detail of their Archaic day-to-day life is impossible, Dr. Karen and her crew know some pretty interesting things about these early people from just the small amount of garbage left behind. They clearly were connected with other groups and migrated in regional areas. They lived in small family groups through the warm seasons and came together in large groups during the fall and winter. They must have followed a seasonal or celestial calendar for meetings and trading.
The unearthing of soapstone fragment in the Edisto mound was exciting and unexpected for Dr. Karen’s crew. Soapstone is not local to Edisto and provides proof of trade routes and contact with groups far outside of their home region. In addition to trading with distant groups, they were creating pottery for heating and storing food. The art work on the pottery is detailed and highly skilled. The amount of effort it took to execute the patterns on the pottery, as well as the “bone pins” (long slim pieces of carved bone used to hold or decorate hair possibly), shows they had free time to be artistic and express themselves through their craft.
Mosquitoes and bugs were repelled in the community areas through the use of “smudge pits,” shallow holes dug and filled with Spanish moss that was lit on fire to smolder. The ensuing smoke would prove undesirable for the bugs, and everyone could function throughout the day and night in a bug-free zone.
They were a very accomplished group of people with an economy and evolving culture. The plentiful abundance of protein from the shellfish is without a doubt the reason for their cultural advancement. Easily harvested food available in massive and self-renewing quantities allowed for free time to innovate and create. They were very healthy and had a significant life span of 35 to 50 years, although they did have syphilis, a disease that could have promoted monogamy as a way to prevent spreading the illness. Interesting fact about the syphilis is that this is the one disease the Native Americans gave the Europeans!
At the end of their four-week excavation, Dr. Karen and her group were pleased with their findings: extensive amounts of pottery shards, as well as an almost full vessel that seems to have only broken during its encapsulation in the mound, bone-pin fragments with detailed designs carved into them and soapstone that was possibly used for indirect heating of food and water. The evidence of their protein-rich diet showed a prolific consumption of oysters, crabs, shellfish, deer and, oddly enough, the tiny marsh snails known as periwinkles. The quantity of snails was particularly fascinating to the group, given the exceptionally small size of these individual snails. How many would they have had to eat to get nourishment? Were they actually eating them or using them for another purpose and discarding them after? The discoveries, as fascinating and exciting as they are, often lead to questions that cannot be answered immediately. With all of their findings documented and stored away, the biggest part of the study has just begun for the team. Now they must go back to the university and write up their findings, classify and piece together the pottery and prepare it all for display. This work could take weeks, months or even years, depending on the scope of the project.
Soon the state park service will remove the seawall. The fragile shell mount, already eroding away, will fall into the waters below—nature’s version of pressing the delete button. What else could have been out there on our island? Without the support of our state parks and dedicated teams like the USC archeologists, we might never know. Keep exploring; you might be surprised at what you find.
-Today’s Archeologists do not dig up or disturb native burials if they discover them. Should human bones be found, a Native American Tribe is notified immediately, and they take over the proper reburial process. A big thank you to Karen Smith, Johann Sawyer, Brandy Joy, and Tamara Wilson, for letting us into their fascinating world of history and archeology.