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Last-ditch digs make new finds at endangered and collapsing South Carolina coastal shell mound

April 13, 2017 GMT

At Edisto Island, an irreplaceable past is about to vanish.

Tides are sweeping away the prehistoric shell mound on Scott Creek faster than ever seen before in its 4,000 years of existence. It might last only a few more months.

The Native American artifact stood more than 15 feet high a hundred years ago and covered a half acre. Today, it’s barely 3 feet high and covers little more than a tenth of an acre.

State archaeologists are making last-ditch digs before the site disappears. It is the most imperiled among more than a dozen mounds along the South Carolina coast from the Georgia border to the Grand Strand, although each one is threatened by sea rise and erosion exacerbated by coastal development.

During the last Edisto dig in March, archaeologists found something they haven’t seen before: a pit dug in the earliest years of the mound. Filled with the shells and other discards, the pit is a mystery at the heart of the mysterious mounds themselves. Why dig a pit when you are piling shells?

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“Maybe (the mound) started out as a trash pit and they continued to dump,” said Karen Smith, applied research division director at the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology and dig leader.

The shell mound — popularly called the Spanish Mount — sits on a bank along Scott Creek in the Edisto Beach State Park. It’s one of more than a hundred found along the Southeast and Gulf coasts. They are remnants of nomadic tribes that date back 12,000 years — the first known people in the Carolinas. Their descendants live here today.

During the time of the earliest Egyptian pyramids, the mound-builders began piling the shells of oysters and other food, apparently after they ate it.

The mounds hold a singular cultural history that researchers are still discovering. They were built in patterns that suggest ceremonial feasting or village sites. Shards of pins made out of bones and ornately designed pottery have been found in them.

Erosion at the Edisto site has worsened in recent years. Tides have undermined a wall placed to shore up the site after collapses in the 1990s. The bank has been severely gouged by swamp tides from a 2015 flood, followed by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and passing tropical storms.

Smith refers to the recent Edisto excavation as “salvage archaeology.”

“It’s more rapid erosion now than we’ve ever seen. With every major storm it’s carved out a little more,” she said.

“We’re probably looking at a handful of months (before it’s gone),” said David Jones, the S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism archaeologist.

Among other finds at the site is a large whelk with two holes cut into it, suggesting it was used as a tool. The whelk — as big as two hands together — was among a concentration of whelks found at the earliest layer of the predominantly oyster shell mound. The meaty shellfish might have been the opening round of feasting at the Edisto site and others.

The archaeologists hope to dig more but know they realistically are out of time.

“We’ve gotten as much as we could out of it before we lost it,” Jones said.

“I feel we have done the best we could under the circumstances,” Smith said. “We’re learning new things.”