Lowcountry archaeology: a race against erosion

A Moment of Science

EDISTO ISLAND, S.C. (WCBD) – Storms, rising sea levels, and the erosion that accompany them will threaten and destroy at least 19,000 archaeological sites in the southeast in the near future, including this one at Pockoy Island on Edisto.

“It’s a 4,000-year-old site that will probably be gone in 4 years.”

Karen Smith is one of the many archaeologists from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources who are working this month of the site which includes two massive shell rings, nearly 200 feet in diameter. These were found several years ago by studying high-resolution maps of the area- surveyed from a plane using a cousin of radar, lidar, using lasers instead of radio waves.

The bulk of the shell ring, as you might have guessed, is shells – deposited by Native Americans who lived here thousands of years ago. They illustrate their shellfish-heavy diet, but other items have been found; tools made from shell and bone, pottery decorated with small indentations made by shells or with grooves that were used to sharpen and shape tools. All fill in holes that explain how they might have lived. Archeologists dig, shift, sort, and identify artifacts while crashing waves act as not so gentle reminder that they’re working against the clock.

The waves were not this close in the past, even a year ago, as the site and the land itself is being lost to the approaching sea at a rate of roughly 25 feet per year. Trees now in the water, part of the same forest we traveled through on the way in, are a sign of the inevitable creep of the ocean.

“When we lose these sites, we lose stories about people. And that’s what’s going on here”

We could learn from the past – how they dealt with changes in their environment as we face the same- but tragically we’re losing that information. Archeologists from SC DNR Heritage Trust, partnering with National Park Service and numerous volunteers, are working tirelessly to save the items found here, as unfortunately, “There’s no way to save all these sites,” said Jeffrey Shanks, an archeologist from the National Park Service,

“..and we’re talking about archaeology. You know people think about it as artifacts and items and objects. But really what it’s about is using the items we find to tell the stories about people- and when we lose these sites, we lose stories about people. And that’s what’s going on here- we are trying to recover those stories in the limited time we have to do it and the limited resources we have to do it.”

Tours of the excavation site are free and open to the public until May 24th, you can sign up for a tour online at hertiagetrust.dnr.sc.gov. You don’t want to miss it – as the area’s days are numbered.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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