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Apr 01 2020

Can You Dig It?

From the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for The Island Connection

The public is invited to join the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources archaeology team as they conduct excavations at Pockoy Island, located on Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve.

Archaeological excavation will take place from May 1 through May 23. 

“The Ring People,” a documentary produced in 2019, takes viewers to remote archaeological sites, including Pockoy Island, as scientists discover more about monumental rings of shell constructed during the Late Archaic period by American Indians. “The Ring People” and other SCDNR archaeology documentaries can be found at heritagetrust.dnr.sc.gov/films.html.

The Pockoy Island Shell Ring Complex is the latest archaeological discovery on Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve, a SCDNR-managed area on Edisto Island. The rings were found in 2017. Pockoy 1 is the oldest known shell ring in South Carolina, dating to the Late Archaic period, approximately 4,300 years ago – the same time period as the construction of the first Egyptian pyramids.

While the two shell rings are considered one archaeological site, recent excavations have focused on Pockoy 1 since it is experiencing a rapid rate of erosion – about 9.5 meters per year.

The Pockoy Island Shell Ring Complex is among thousands of coastal archaeological sites threatened by the rising sea level. Because of this threat, Pockoy is considered an example of heritage at risk – a global term used to define cultural resources impacted by natural and human threats.

For nearly 70 years, Botany Bay Plantation has experienced one of the highest rates of erosion in coastal South Carolina. The shoreline has moved as much as three quarters of a mile inland in some locations. Rapid archaeological investigation of Pockoy 1 is critical because the site will be gone by 2024. In fact, a 1-meter rise in sea level will submerge 19,000 recorded archaeological sites in the Southeastern United States by the end of the century.

Pockoy 1 is one of the most intensely investigated shell rings in the world.

Excavations there began in July 2017 with shovel testing and probing of the site. Shovel test pits, each of them 30 centimeters in diameter and 1 meter deep, were excavated by hand every 10 meters across the site. The STPs helped SCDNR archaeologists determine where larger excavation units and trenches should be located for future field seasons.

Probing through the shell used to construct Pockoy 1 more than 4,000 years ago helped SCDNR archaeologists determine the thickness and diameter of the shell ring. Pockoy 1 is the shape of a donut and measures about 60 meters across and 60 centimeters at its thickest point. The center of this donut shape – the plaza – is void of shell. Excavations in May 2018 focused on the west side of the shell ring into the plaza, while excavations in December 2018 focused on the plaza itself.

During the May 2019 field season, while SCDNR archaeologists expanded their excavations of the Pockoy 1 plaza, they were joined by more than 400 volunteers and nearly 1,400 visitors. They were also joined by other teams of archaeologists who assisted in laying the groundwork for future archaeological investigations of the island. Mississippi State University archaeology staff and students conducted an STP survey of Pockoy Island to determine artifact patterns across the island. Meanwhile, archaeologists from the National Park Service Southeastern Archaeological Center probed Pockoy 2 to determine the shell ring’s diameter and thickness. Also in the shape of a donut, Pockoy 2 measures approximately 80 meters across and 45 centimeters at its thickest point.

During the May 2020 field season, SCDNR archaeologists will focus on expanding their investigations of the Pockoy 1 plaza and northern portions of the shell ring. They will be joined by Indiana University of Pennsylvania staff and students who will conduct an archaeological field school on Pockoy Island.

Information carefully collected from Pockoy 1 suggests that it was constructed and occupied over a relatively short period of time, between 20 and 100 years. However, there are many questions still to answer: Why were the Pockoy Island Shell Rings constructed? Are they connected to a larger network of shell ring communities across the Southeastern United States? Were they created for a ceremonial purpose?

Time is running out to gather information to answer these and many other questions.

People can volunteer to help at: eventbrite.com/e/volunteer-atthe-pockoy-island-archaeologicalexcavation-tickets-85202957339. Groups of 10 or more who wish to visit the site may register at: surveymonkey.com/r/TV68NHF. For more information about the May 2020 field season: scwildlife. com/articles/septoct2018/ TheShellRingsofPockoy.html. For more information about the SCDNR Heritage Trust Program: heritagetrust.dnr.sc.gov. Directions to the preserve: www2.dnr.sc.gov/ ManagedLands/ManagedLand/ ManagedLand/57.

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