Piles of clamshells (Schvin/CC BY 2.0), background: men in a Curragh, a skin boat (WilliamMurphy/CC BY-SA 2.0);Deriv.

Seafarers and Shell Rings: Strange Formations on the American Coast a Hallmark of Faraway Visitors?

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Just south of Awendaw, South Carolina, in the Francis Marion National Forest, is an example of a type of architectural artifact that still baffles archaeologists.  For every explanation someone offers up, there are many more that refute it.  Here's the story:

5,000 years ago, there lived a people by the sea who, in various locations along America's southeastern seaboard, piled up millions upon millions of clam and oyster shells in either a circle or U-shaped formation measuring, in some cases, more than 200 feet (61 meters) across and 10 to 12 feet (three to 3.5 meters) high.  The usual place of construction was on estuaries, rich in resources. 

Sewee Shell Ring, located south of Awendaw, South Carolina in Francis Marion National Forest, USA.

Sewee Shell Ring, located south of Awendaw, South Carolina in Francis Marion National Forest, USA. ( Public Domain )

Sewee Shell Ring. ( Public Domain )

Piling up shells in a mound was common throughout ancient times. Such remains are called middens and are quite abundant. Basically, they are garbage dumps. People would feast on clams, mussels or oysters and throw the shells on a pile; nothing special there. But from the Sewee Shell Ring in South Carolina, and running down around the tip of Florida, the people didn't just make mounds of shells—they shaped these mounds very carefully into doughnut shapes. The question is, why?

A shell midden in a mound formation, Argentina.

A shell midden in a mound formation, Argentina. (Mikelzubi/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

They continued the practice for a few thousand years and then stopped. No one knows the reason. As you can see from the map (below), it seems to be a custom practiced by a particular people who lived at a particular time in a rather small geographical area, most of which is in the coastal plain of South Carolina and Georgia, spilling down into Florida.

A map of the southeastern United States indicating locations of shell rings along the coast. (Via author Jim Willis)

A map of the southeastern United States indicating locations of shell rings along the coast. (Via author Jim Willis)

Why Go to the Trouble of Shells in Rings?

Currently, there are three interpretations: 

  • The first is that these rings represent early settled communities or villages.  Because the people stayed in one place for a long time, their refuse piles got bigger and bigger each year. Some archeologists believe that the people lived in the center and were forced to move out and away as the circle threatened to close out their village sites. 
  • The second explanation says that shell rings are seasonal ceremonial sites where people gathered to feast, gossip, share experiences, marry off their new crop of youngsters, perhaps play games, and generally keep connected.  This might explain the circular aspect of the rings.  Maybe people danced or otherwise communed in a ring.
  • The third explanation combines the first two and adds a twist.  This theory holds that the rings are actually memorial in nature. The Mound Building cultures later constructed such projects with dirt and clay. Maybe these folks used what was convenient for them—shells. In other words, this theory is held by those who want to cover all the bases. Buried within the mounds are the remains of animals such as deer and other four-footed critters, acorns from the numerous live oaks that grow in profusion in the area, and fish species from both salt and fresh water.  But there is little evidence of human burials.

Sewee Shell Ring, detail of southeast side, showing shells of which ring is made.

Sewee Shell Ring, detail of southeast side, showing shells of which ring is made. ( Public Domain )

Questions Abound

Parts of all these theories may be true, but something seems to be missing.  For one thing, why are the rings found only at seashore sites?  Inland middens from the same time period abound.  But those are not piled in such careful circles…

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Jim Willis is author of nine books on religion and spirituality, he has been an ordained minister for over forty years while working part-time as a carpenter, the host of his own drive-time radio show, an arts council director and adjunct college professor in the fields of World Religions and Instrumental Music. He is author of Ancient Gods: Lost Histories, Hidden Truths, and the Conspiracy of Silence

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Sculpture of a head from 950-1150 AD found at Building Y in the Tajin Chico section. On display at the Tajin site museum, Veracruz state, Mexico
El Tajin is a Mesoamerican archaeological site located in the North of the state of Veracruz, near the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The city, one of the most flourishing of the Classic and early Post-classic period, was only rediscovered in 1785, immediately capturing the imagination of European travelers with its imposing jungle-covered ruins and unusual architecture.

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