Sea Pines Shell Ring

The Sea Pines Shell Ring

Uncover the history of Hilton Head Island


The Sea Pines Shell Ring

Written by: Matthew C. Sanger
Assistant Professor, Dept. of Anthropology
Co-Director of MA Program in Public Archaeology
Binghamton University

Dating back almost 4,000 years, the Sea Pines Shell Ring is the oldest known archaeological site on Hilton Head Island. Made up of hundreds of thousands of oysters, clams and mussels, it is a circular shell deposit roughly 150 feet across, surrounding a wide, shell-free "plaza." Part of a broader tradition of ring-building, the Sea Pines Shell Ring is one of some 50 known shell rings found along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, all of dating back 3,000 to 5,000 years.

Archaeologists have long debated the use of shell rings. Originally, some thought the rings were used as fish traps or for defense, but these theories have largely been discredited. Instead, most archaeologists now see rings either as locations where Native Americans came together for large religious gatherings - the piles of shellfish being the remains of large feasts-or as circular villages and the shells as the remains of daily meals consumed over decades. Ongoing research at the Sea Pines Shell Ring is designed to test these theories and better understand the function of the shell rings and how they were built.

The Sea Pines Shell Ring is unique in that it is remarkably well-preserved and easily accessible. While most rings have been damaged by development, rising sea levels or erosion, the Sea Pines Shell Ring is pristine, in large part because it is located within the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, protected land set aside by the residents of the community. The few shell rings that have escaped destruction are usually found on remote islands and are very difficult to reach. As such, the Sea Pines Shell Ring is a rare combination of both preservation and accessibility, making it a must-see attraction for residents and island visitors alike.

Facts about Shell Rings:

  1. Measuring 150 feet across and one- to two-feet tall, the Sea Pines Shell Ring is a relatively small shell ring. Some rings can reach almost 15 feet tall and 500 feet across.

  2. The Native Americans who created the shell rings also invented pottery. The oldest pottery in the United States comes from Georgia and South Carolina and was made by the same people who made the shell rings.

  3. There are no burial sites at shell rings. Archaeologists do not know how ring-builders disposed of their dead, but they did not bury them at the rings. Some think they put the bodies out to sea or perhaps cremated and scattered their ashes in the woods or marsh.

  4. Dating back more than 3,000 years, it is difficult to link shell-ring builders with specific Native American tribes. A number of current and historic cultures, including the Catawba, Sewee, Edisto, Guale and Timucua, are likely descendants of the ring-builders.

Read more about the Sea Pines Shell Ring here.