More than fifty shell rings – large circular deposits of shellfish, artifacts, and other food remains surrounding broad, open plazas – can be found along the southeastern U.S. coast. Dating to the Late Archaic (circa 5,000 – 3,500 cal B.P.), these sites appear across roughly 2,500 km of shoreline between South Carolina and Mississippi and contain exceptionally well-preserved evidence of the first large-scale settlements in the region, though they are now gravely threatened by rising sea levels. With support from the National Science Foundation, Drs. Matt Sanger of Binghamton University, Victor Thompson of the University of Georgia, and Thad Bissett of Northern Kentucky University will investigate these sites by focusing on how previously mobile Late Archaic peoples adapted to a changing landscape (e.g., fluctuating sea levels) and built larger, more complex, and increasingly diverse societies. In seeking to settle long-standing disagreements over the function of shell rings, this project will generate new data and new models that will be of interest a broad range of archaeologists, anthropologists, and other researchers studying the earliest stages of large-scale human settlement, both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. Comparative analysis across the thirteen sites selected for this study will help resolve a decades-long debate over whether shell rings were ritual gathering points, year-round villages, or a mix of the two. Likewise, this work will also look at factors behind the development of such large Late Archaic communities – namely, whether they were driven by incipient sedentism, religious communality, expansive exchange systems, localized adaptations, or shared encounters on a daily or intermittent basis.
Few shell rings have been studied systematically using comparable standards and methods, which has made it impossible to create dependable models for how or why the Late Archaic ring builders developed larger and more expansive societies in these places. This project seeks to create a robust, dependable corpus of data on shell rings by establishing shared standards of fieldwork and laboratory analysis that will be applied across all shell ring sites. The collaborative team will conduct geophysical surveys, excavations, and radiometric and isotopic analyses at thirteen key sites along the Georgia Bight. In addition to testing, refining, and disseminating best practices for current and future archaeologists interested in studying shell rings, this work will create a comparative dataset capable of answering critical questions about how the function of these sites may have varied over time and across space.