The last year has been spent identifying items found in the May 2019 archaeology dig
at Pockoy Island Shell Ring at Botany Bay.
The Heritage Trust archaeologists and volunteers of South Carolina Department of Natural Resource’s Land, Water and Conservation Division are approaching the 200,000 mark.
That 200,000 figure is the approximate number of artifacts cleaned and cataloged since last May’s excavation of the Pockoy Island Shell Ring at the Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve. There are thousands more to go.
That lab work to uncover the secrets of a 4,300-year-old mystery before it is lost to time and tide has continued at the Heritage Trust headquarters in Columbia. Meg Gaillard, the Heritage Trust archaeologist heading the project explained that “Pockoy Island is what we call a Heritage At-Risk site, one of the archeological sites that is in imminent danger of loss, through natural or human reasons,” Gaillard said. “In South Carolina, we deal with natural issues.”
Gaillard explained that “our goal is to have the archeological work done by 2024. Volunteer assistance is critical in that because our team is only so large.” Last May, 400 volunteers aided the excavation of the Native American shell ring. This May’s excavation has been canceled because of the pandemic.
Last year’s volunteers ranged in age from three years old to those in their 90’s. The toddler, standing on a step stool, helped pull artifacts from the shaker screen.
The volunteers were assigned to one-hour shifts at the shaker screens. “We teach them how to identify artifacts and they help us put them in bags,” she said.
“Typically, we have all our volunteers at the screens,” Gaillard said. “That is where they are going to have the most fun.”
While volunteers are pouring over bags full of excavated soil searching for the artifacts, “our professional archeologists are in the units doing the actual excavation,” Gaillard explained. “We excavate the soil down centimeter-by-centimeter — it is very delicate work. We are very strategic on how we use a shovel.”
The location where every shovel-full of soil comes from is carefully documented. Each location is a one-meter by one-meter square, every very 10-centimeter layer of soil has its own designation. The Pockoy Island shell ring has hundreds of units.
“Map is the term we use for that,” Gaillard said. “The places at which artifacts are found are essential for the scientific integrity of an archeological site.”
Gaillard said, “At the screens is where the artifacts are coming up. We have identification sheets at each screen that detail out the most commonly found artifacts on Pockoy Island.”
The most commonly found artifacts are oyster shells, cockles, arks, hard clams, periwinkles, knobbed whelks, pottery, bone pins and shell beads.
Periwinkles, she explained, “are incredibly small shells found on marsh grass. The snails found in the periwinkles were used to make soup.”
The largest shells are the whelks that were turned into tools, used to make an adz, a type of axe used to take down a tree or make a canoe.
One archaeologist is assigned the task of examining each bone pin through a microscope. The pins are made from the bones of deer or large birds. some contain intricate carvings.
They also find broken shards of low-fired earthenware — native prehistoric pottery identified as Stalling Inland and Thom’s Creek pottery, native prehistoric pottery. Some of the earthenware has indentations made with periwinkle shells, as well as people’s thumbnails and fingernails. “It is pretty cool to hold something from 4,300 years ago that you can actually see the human imprint on,” she said.
In late February, a tally of the artifacts catalogued stood at 146,000. Bits of pottery accounted for approximately 14,000 of the artifacts cleaned and catalogued and a total of about 81,000 periwinkles were included in that tally. The accumulation of shells on Pockoy Island changed the pH of the soil, allowing for the preservation of organic material. “We don’t find things like this in other places in South Carolina,” Gaillard said.
“We excavate oyster shells and other types of shells at Pockoy because we are analyzing what people ate and the aggregate that built the shell ring itself,” Gaillard said. The unidentified tribe that called Pockoy Island home is estimated to have lived there anywhere from 200 to 1,000 years, the late archaic period in South Carolina.
“A shell ring’s purpose is still under debate,” Gaillard said. “We are finding on Pockoy that the shell ring probably was the place where the shellfish were processed.” The patio in the center of the 60-meter, doughnut-shaped shell ring might also have been where deer pins were manufactured, where the adz were manufactured.
“Those questions are still very prevalent in our mind and the reason we need to continue the excavation of the shell ring,” Gaillard said.
The patio, she added, “has stains in the soil that we call features. They indicate past occupation or past structures. The Native Americans on Pockoy Island probably had their residences on another as yet undiscovered portion of the island.
Gaillard isn’t sure how close to the shell rings the homes would have been. “You have to think that place must have been incredibly smelly,” she suggested.