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The 4,000 year old Fig Island shell rings in South Carolina, a National Historic Landmark

You have probably never heard of these amazing vestiges from the ancient past . . . and you will probably never see them either.  Their location is kept a “top secret” . . . at least in regard to the general public.  We can give you a peek from a satellite above, but can’t tell you the specific location or the “recon” techniques used to find them!  

Remote sensing with satellites is making possible amazing discoveries throughout the Americas.  That’s how it was possible to find this “secret archaeological site” without being provided a specific location or GIS latitude-longitude coordinates.

Shell rings on the South Atlantic Coast are man-made structures constructed of oyster shells or a variety of shells mixed with refuse.  At several sites along rivers of the Southeastern United States, amorphous piles of freshwater mussel shells are located. They are called shell middens.  Most of the freshwater shell middens and coastal shell rings are from the same era . . .  generally 2100 BC to 1400 BC.  However, some coastal shell structures were built much later.

The Fig Island shell rings have been known by a handful of people for quite awhile, but their age was only determined in 2002 by archaeologists Michael Russo of the National Park Service and Rebeca Saunders of the Louisiana State Museum of Natural Science.Their study of Fig Island was part of a much larger project that surveyed hundreds of shell rings along the Atlantic Coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

The oldest radiocarbon date in Ring Complex 1 was 3950 +/- 50 years BP (before the present.)  There were older radiocarbon dates in Shell Ring 2 . . . 4010+/-55 years BP and  4110+/-50 years BP.   Three radiocarbon dates were obtained for Shell Ring 3:  3990+/-50 years  BP,   4030+/-50 years BP and  4070+/-50 years BP.

Fig Island Shell Ring Complex One is most complex shell-ring structure known. It consists of a large shell ring about 20 feet in height above the surrounding marsh, four or more lower-lying attached rings, including a concentric configuration containing a ring within a ring, and a mound with a shell causeway linking it to the primary ring.  Two of the larger rings have ramps leading to the top.

Several of these sites were recommended for special protection, either as National Historic Landmarks or listing on the National Register of Historic Places.  As recommended, the Fig Island shell structures site was designated a National Historic Landmark.

From an architect’s perspective, these structures were far more significant than even the archaeologists discerned.  The current orthodoxy concerning shell rings is that they were created by indigenous peoples throwing their garbage out in back of their huts.

No way.  This is architecture.  Note that the gap in Shell Ring 2 and the ramp in Shell Ring 3 (actually a semi-circle) point toward the sunset on the Summer Solstice.

Shell Ring Complex 1 includes a large C-shape shell berm facing east with a shell mound in the center.  It is about 300 feet in diameter.  A ramp connects Shell Mound B with the C-form.  These details strongly suggest an astronomical and ceremonial function for the complex.   This is real architecture . . . 4000 year old architecture . . . older than anything in Mexico.

Shell Ring 2 is a free standing structure like those seen on Sapelo Island, GA.  It is about 250 feet in diameter.

Click image to enlarge to full size.

Site Plan based on drawing in "Archaic Shell Rings" by Michael Russo and Rebecca Saunders

Site Plan based on drawing in “Archaic Shell Rings” by Michael Russo and Rebecca Saunders



Here is a closerview of the archaeological zone from the satellite. The image has been enhanced by special software.

Here is an even closer view from the satellite. The graphic scale is in the lower right hand corner.

Here is an even closer view from the satellite with software enhancement.  Even at this scale the complexity of Shell Ring Complex One is not visible.  LIDAR imagery would be required to make out the ramps and sophisticated relationships between structures.


Who built these shell rings?

The oldest and greatest concentration of shell rings in North America is between  Georgetown, SC and the mouth of the St. Marys River between Georgia and Florida.  The shell rings are particularly numerous in Charleston County, SC, Beaufort County, SC and at the mouth of the Savannah and Altamaha Rivers in Georgia.  Many of these shell rings and shell middens within the interior contain the the oldest pottery styles in North America – Stallings Island and Thoms Creek.

Nothing has been found by archaeologists in the shell rings that can link them to a modern Native American people.  However, we do have an explanation from late 17th century ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort.  He stated that the shell rings on the South Atlantic Coast were built by ancestors of the Carib People, who after their abandonment migrated southward as far as South America and then perhaps a century or so before the Columbus voyages, began migrating northward again.  He stated that at one time many Caribs lived in the Southern Appalachians, but there were still some there (in 1653.)

By Caribs, De Rochefort may have meant Arawaks.  In fact,  there were some towns in extreme Eastern Tennessee up until the early 1700s, whose name ended with the Arawak suffix for people – koa.  Many of these Arawaks were absorbed into the Cherokee Alliance and their word for “people” (koa) is now written as “qua”.   The capital of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, Tallequah, is named after a town in extreme eastern Tennessee, name Talikoa.


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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    HI Richard,
    I just received about 70 posts from you–looks like a lot of 2012-2014 older posts (which is great–I wasn’t active then) but I am wondering if there is a reason why? I do save them all in a desktop file

    • Most of our older articles were deleted by a hacker this past weekend. I reloaded the articles this morning from the “deleted” bin . . . not realizing that people would get notices from WordPress. I didn’t send them. Sorry.


    Hi Richard
    It’s Barbara again…I didn’t press the notify piece of follow up comments, so doing that now…


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