The Fig Island Mounds (Shell Middens; South Carolina)


Gone But Not Forgotten
Aug 18, 2002
Posted on Sun, Apr. 17, 2005

Fig Island's mysterious mounds draw interest

By Joey Holleman

Knight Ridder

Fig Island looks like any of the thousands of tidal hummocks along the S.C. coast.

Craggy cedar trees and palms with every other crown blown off rise over the surrounding tidal creeks. Prickly-pear cactus and bush palmetto carpet the surface.

The vegetation disguises one of the most important, and least appreciated, cultural history sites in the country.

Much of Fig Island was built by man, not nature.

Three of the four separate pieces of high ground that make up the 40-acre island were constructed around 4,000 years ago. Oyster shells - with some conch-type shells, broken pottery and a few animal bones mixed it - were crafted into stadiumlike rings and crescents for reasons that remain a mystery.

Fig Island is to the Southeast what the cliff dwellings are to the desert Southwest. It's twice as old as Rome's Colosseum and, like that facility, might have been used for public spectacles by the natives who lived here in the Late Archaic period.

State officials aim to draw attention to the cultural treasures by applying for National Historic Landmark recognition and, eventually, a spot on the exclusive list of World Heritage sites. The 20 U.S. entries on the World Heritage list, include the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon and the Everglades.

Many experts think Fig Island is that special.

"Shell rings are found in only a few countries worldwide," said Mike Russo, an archaeologist with the National Park Service. "The Southeastern U.S. rings are among the largest and best preserved."

Similar smaller rings in Peru were mined for their shells in recent years. Japanese rings are much older, shorter and less symmetrical. The U.S. rings are the most impressive specimens, and Fig Island has the most impressive of those.

About two dozen shell mounds have been found in South Carolina.

The Fig Island complex features one ring with the largest open interior plaza (slightly more than an acre), another ring with the smallest plaza (about the area of a basketball court) and the largest mound by volume of any of the known shell enclosures.

The oyster shells brought to Fig Island to build the mounds would fill 12 Olympic-size swimming pools. (Even serious archaeologists can't resist jokes about how many Saltines were consumed, or wonder why they never find any Tabasco bottles buried in the rings.)

The existence of shell rings has been recognized for years, but little in-depth study of the structures and their part in history has been done.

"The importance of the Fig Island site as a research laboratory into coastal adaptations of the past cannot be overstated," wrote Russo and Rebecca Saunders in a research paper after two months of study on the island in the summer of 2000.

The researchers braved waves of humidity and swarms of mosquitoes while driving metal probes into the mounds. They mapped mounds ranging from 5 feet to 20 feet high, and they found shells carbon-dated from 3,800 to 4,200 years old.

After the hard work came the fun - hypothesizing about the mounds.

Some experts think the mounds formed as refuse piles when natives built temporary homes along the coast. Others see them as ceremonial structures for special occasions, not everyday living.

One theory is that the larger mound (called Fig 1) was built for the tribal leaders. The mound is the largest in width and height, but it has the smallest interior plaza. The slow-sloping mound rises nearly 20 feet above the surface, forming an amphitheater in the center.

The shorter circular mound (Fig 2) rises about 5 feet and has a 1-acre central plaza that could hold larger groups. Maybe Fig 2 was built first, and the leaders built Fig 1 to get away from the masses.

Fig 1 also includes a second, less defined ring and attached crescents on each end that resemble the claws of a crab. The entire structure stretches 985 feet by 900 feet.

Pity the accompanying figures aren't reporduced but you get the idea.......
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