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​ Historic Indian Shell Rings on Hilton Head Island

Vicki Shivers - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

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 We have all heard of the great monuments left by ancient cultures all over the world such as the Easter Island Statues, the Pyramids of the Mayans and of course one of the most popular cultural mysteries – Stonehenge.What you may not know is that Hilton Head Island is also home to some of the mysteries left by a prehistoric civilization: Circular mounds of shells and bone, some as large as 240 feet in diameter and nine feet high, known as Shell Rings, date back to around 1450 B.C.

 

Located in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve and Hilton Head Plantation, the Shell Rings have a long and colorful history. The Low Country landscape made up of sand ridges and long wetlands was sculpted by changing sea levels over the past 15,000 years. The first inhabitants, 4000 years ago, were semi-nomadic Native Indians who hunted and gathered shells in salt marshes that are freshwater wetlands today. They constructed a 150-foot diameter ring during their annual Fall migration. The ring or midden, is refuse from food sources that were thrown outside of their circular encampment. The ring is comprised of oyster, mussels and clam shells with fragments of animal bones and deer antlers as well.


Constructed of every type of sea shell and animal bone imaginable, and native to the area, no one really knows exactly why the shell rings were built.The most plausible theory is that the ancients, for lack of a better idea, simply piled their garbage around their homes and camps; creating a circular trash heap, around a common area; thus recycling their refuse into a fence and boundary marker that could have also served as protection from wild animals, strong winds and other tribes.Today the remains of only twenty shell rings still exist. These ancient rings are protected by law and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There were originally believed to have been four of these mysterious rings on Hilton Head; however two of them were destroyed years ago, when material was harvested from them to make “tabby”. Some of the remnants of the remaining two rings are still visible in the Stoney-Baynard ruins in Sea Pines Plantation near the east entrance to the Sea Pines Forest Preserve and the at the “Green Shell Enclosure”, on the north end of the island near Hilton Head Plantation.