Entries from The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Indian Mounds & Earthworks

by Dr. Greg Little

Schematic of 4 shell rings at Coosaw Shell Ring site—From the National Park Service.

Coosaw Island Shell Rings, South Carolina • Shell Mound Earthwork • Archaic

Located on Coosaw Island near Wilkins, SC.

South Carolina has at least 27 shell ring sites that have been investigated. Shell rings are large donut-shaped rings comprised of shell and other midden materials. They have been described as “elevated stands surrounding level arenas” by Russo and Heide. Some of them are huge with diameters over 750-feet. The oldest rings date to the Archaic Period, circa 3000 B.C., while the most recent ones are dated to approximately 950 B.C. They are somewhat enigmatic in that the shell rings found in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida are unique and seeingly unrelated to better-known mound builder cultures. Gregory Heide and Michael Russo of the SEAC branch of the National Park Service have extensively investigated many of these shell ring sites.

The Coosaw Island Shell Ring was discovered in 2000. The site is actually three and possibly four large elevated earthwork rings comprised of oyster shell, periwinkle shell, bones, and ceramic sherds. Radiocarbon dates obtained from three of the rings at Coosaw provided consistent ages. The Coosaw site was constructed around 1860 B.C. The three rings vary in diameter from about 200-feet to 170-feet and are about 5-feet in height.

Three major theories about the shell rings have been suggested by archaeologists. The first theory is that the shell rings were formed gradually as people living in the space discarded used shell and waste materials into an ever-increasing mound of debris that served as eleveated housing platforms. In general, this theory has been discarded. The second theory is that the shell rings were constructed as ceremonial mounds, made intentionally into circular elevated rings. It is asserted that rather than living on the elevated rings, the people inhabiting the site lived around the ring and that the construction of the rings was done in a community-wide celebration every 10 to 20-years or so. The most recent theory supports the ceremonial theory of the shell rings suggesting that periodic feasts were held during which a layer of shell and other material was placed on the mounds.