Archaeology Team Really Digs Shells
By Harry G. Lee
[Click on the images for a more detailed version.]

     One recent Sunday afternoon, Vicki Rolland, a zooarchaelogist working with the State of Florida, contacted me by email and revealed some interesting discoveries she and her team had made on Big Talbot Island. Since the principal stuff of the excavation was the remains of marine and estuarine shells, she had paid a visit to this website and had hopes club member(s) could give her a little advice on the taxonomy and life history of the species she was excavating.

    Two days later, on July 11, webmaster Bill Frank and I drove out to Big Talbot Island. After a pre-arranged car-horn summons, Vicki emerged from the woods and escorted us along a narrow path though the magnificent mesic hammock, rich oystershell-sprinkled soil below and live-oak canopy above, to the dig. Here we met another archaeologist, Dr. Keith Ashley, who is the group's leader, and a well-informed volunteer associate, Phil Gulliford, who commutes daily from St. Augustine. The ring and a nearby burial mound were constructed within 50 m. of a still very vibrant Simpson's Creek.

Big Talbot Island Live Oak Canopy Harry, Vicki, Keith And Phil
Big Talbot Island Live Oak Canopy Harry, Vicki, Keith And Phil

    The group was working alongside a carefully-excavated 16 meter-long, 1 meter-wide trench, the perfectly horizontal base of which had maximum depth of about 1.5 meters near its middle. This trench was in fact a radial transect of a subtle donut-shaped mound about forty-five meters in outer diameter - like the outer quarter of the spoke on a dirt-bike wheel, and extending beyond the tire an equal distance. This feature is quite unusual in a landscape that is monotonously flat, and this topographic disturbance is due to the systematic deposit of the shells of mollusks by prehistoric peoples. The group had made their cut through a "Grand Shell Ring" as archaeologists call such a structure, and had taken out many cubic meters of seashells. They had gotten almost through the deposit by the time of our visit, having reached "sterile" dirt (no shell) as Vicki put it, near the mid-point of the trench. Thus the excavation phase of the study is nearing completion.

    According to Dr. Ashley, shell rings dating to the Archaic period (3000-500 BC) are unique to coastal South Carolina, Georgia and, Florida although evidence of such constructions in southwestern or the Gulf coastal areas may have been inundated after the glaciers melted. However, The Grand Shell Ring dates to the St. Johns II (see below) and is an absolutely unique structure to that later era. Based on combined radiocarbon (often from oyster shell, but also material adhering to pot sherds) analyses and archaeological (pottery etc.) diagnosis, the unit appears to have been deposited by aboriginal people of the St. Johns II cultural period from as early as 900 AD and quite likely over a substantial period of time thereafter. The shells were mostly Crassostrea virginica, Eastern Oyster, with substantial numbers of Mercenaria mercenaria, Northern Quahog, and these two were followed in frequency (varying significantly by stratum) by Geukensia demissa, Ribbed-mussel, and Tagelus plebeius, Stout Tagelus. Found sparingly (in roughly decreasing abundance) were Dosinia discus, Neverita duplicata, Ilyanassa obsoleta, Lunarca ovalis, Donax variabilis, Busycon carica, Littoraria irrorata, Dinocardium robustum, Eupleura caudata, and even the landsnail Polygyra cereolus. The relative absence of Donax (Coquina) is noteworthy since it is a common component of shell rings and other St. Johns II middens.

Vicki Sifts Material From The Trench The  Trench Viewed Outward From Its Nadir
Vicki Sifts Material From The Trench The Trench Viewed Outward From Its Nadir

    Vicki was particularly interested in the use of Geukensia and Tagelus as they do not have much of a "track-record" in the archaeology literature. After due homage to the gustatory virtues of Quahogs and Eastern Oysters, we addressed the culinary value those two lesser-known clams. I gave personal testimony in support of the Ribbed-mussel, and I recounted the report by late JSC member Dora Chauvin of the traditional Minorcan dish "longironi" produced in St. Augustine kitchens from Tagelus. Later, as we walked along the edge of a nearby saltmarsh along Simpson's Creek, we were able to see fairly dense beds of Geukensia all-but-completely buried in the dark muck, but Tagelus, which burrows fairly deeply into the substrate, was not apparent. Bill and I knew from experience that Oysters and Quahogs could be had in abundance not far from that point.

    We listened while the researchers discussed various aspects of this Grand Shell Ring including its purpose, which appears to have been in no small part ceremonial. Because of the relative paucity of artifacts, land vertebrate remains, and trade items (i.e., stone points or non-local pottery), the consensus was that these peoples subsisted almost entirely on shellfish and thousands of very small (less than 0.5 lb) bony fish
they gathered near this site. The group is still challenged by many questions such as how the settlement began and ended, what role the ring played in the daily life of the people, and the reasons for periodic shifts in what appear to be their main courses. To that Vicki, Bill, and I can add: how and why did the inhabitants ever harvest so many Tagelus, a clam which is hard to find and almost as difficult to extract from the substrate - even with modern implements! Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the Minorcan folklore of St. Augustine?

The author thanks Vicki Rolland for critical review of the manuscript and Bill Frank for the excellent photographs which accompany this report.

Terrestrial Species List For Big Talbot Island Including Those Present At The Archeological Excavation Site

Read more about the archaeology; click on any of the following: (then click the Collections box, then archaeology or ceramics lab.)