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Photo (c) William C. Judge

As lots are cleared and new homes rise on our island, it's hard to imagine that others were here long before us, leaving behind one of the oldest and largest archeological ruins in North America, just across the North Edisto River. The Fig Island shell ring seen above - an ancient site built up of hundreds of years' worth of clam, oyster and other shells along with fish bones, pottery and primitive tools - is one of thirty such sites along the southeast coast between South Carolina and northern Florida. It was first excavated in the late 1960's, although the entire complex wasn't fully identified until 2002. Nearby is the smaller Pockoy Island ring, still under excavation in Botany Bay.

Aerial view of Fig Island 1 (courtesy National Park Service)

Fig Island occupies a narrow peninsula jutting from Edisto Island into the river and, dated to about 4000 years ago, is the largest and one of the oldest of the southeast's rings. Besides a main, circular shell ring, two smaller, connected structures surround it, making it the most complex of known rings. The main ring, Fig Island 1, had steep midden walls rising as high as twenty feet surrounding a 470-foot-wide open central area; Fig Island 2 and 3 (which is actually C-shaped, rather than fully circular) featured ramps leading up from their central areas to a shell path connecting the two. Excavations of all three rings have never revealed evidence that they were permanently occupied.

Courtesy South Carolina Humanvitae

So what were these mysterious structures used for, and who built them? Although theories are many, pottery shards obtained from all three Fig Island rings indicate the site was regularly visited by Late Archaic-era inhabitants who traveled seasonally between forested uplands and coastal sites, at a time when sea levels were some three feet lower than today. The lack of evidence of permanent structures leads some archeologists to consider shell rings as monumental or ceremonial sites for social or spiritual purposes. Radiocarbon dating on Fig Island indicates that more than 750,000 cubic feet of material was deposited in a relatively short time span, indicating deliberate intent rather than the accumulated detritus of household middens.

Although the meaning of Fig Island remains elusive, its archeological importance has led to its designation as both a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Site, with limited access overseen by the National Park Service, mostly for research teams. But you can enjoy an armchair visit to Fig Island here.

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