by Kiersten Weber
photos courtesy SCDNR Heritage Trust Program
“Ah!” Exclaimed Dr. Karen Smith who was working uphill from me on the Spanish Mount shell mound. I was sifting through oyster shells by the saltmarsh on a sunny, hot day in June. The archaeologists working nearby, struck by the excitement quickly rushed over to see what had happened. An outstretched hand held a striking decorated bone pin, the first one discovered during this excavation on Edisto Island. The fellow archaeologists were a buzz with excitement over the uncovered item. I looked upon the artifact amazed by the level of craftsmanship needed to create the intricate designs, but I knew nothing about the specimen before me.
Several more bone pins were recovered from the Spanish Mount shell mound on Edisto Island. The shell mound dates between 4,200 and 3,800 years ago, which is considered the Archaic period. I was a University of South Carolina student accompanying archaeologists as they excavated the Spanish Mount shell mound in 2016. That was my first archaeological dig, and my first time sleeping in a tent! When summer was over, and I had returned to school, I decided to conduct research on the bone pins to satisfy my own curiosity as well as push myself academically. I began to read books, articles, and publications pertaining to archaic bone pins. One article would lead me to several others, and more. Then I created a template and guide for a consistent way I could analyze the bone pins to answer some of my questions and organize my thoughts about the item I once knew nothing about.
After gathering data from Spanish Mount pins, I branched out to other sites from South Carolina’s coast and a few sites from shell middens located in Georgia. Conducting this research has also led me to meet and work with many great professionals throughout South Carolina and Georgia! The aim of my research is to map the frequency of reoccurring styles of decorations. I hope to establish possible social links between the various groups of people that inhabited South Carolina and Georgia thousands of years ago.
Each site collection I examined contained interesting and seemingly unique engraved patterns on the pins. Bone pins from Pockoy Island shell rings on Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve, exhibited some interesting designs. A few unique patterns that adorn the bone pins from Pockoy, include a pin that has four, complex cross-hatching bands and another pin that has a distinct spiraling design. Circular shapes appear less frequently than designs consisting of straight lines within the collections viewed. Bone pins from the Fig Island shell ring complex, another Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve site, seem to exhibit a repeating design of triangles and diamond shapes, which I have not seen in other collections studied thus far.
An interesting decorative style that has reoccurred in several different locations is a design characterized as “Zoned Branching.” This is a complex design consisting of a branching shape that is encompassed by an intricate series of lateral, thin horizontal lines. There are many variations, but the basic form has been represented on examples from a few different sites in South Carolina and Georgia. Perhaps, it feels more interesting to me, because the zoned branching design was on the first bone pin I had ever seen.
Over the coming months, I will be continuing my research, studying the designs on bone pins, and analyzing the data I have gathered from the various sites within South Carolina and Georgia at SCDNR’s Parker Annex Archaeology Center. I hope to include a few collections from sites within Georgia to expand the data set and then to determine if there are similarities between bone pins from the various sites included in my research. I am excited to discover what is revealed by the data on the mysterious decorated bone pins!
For more information about the SCDNR Heritage Trust Program and the Parker Annex Archaeology Center, check out heritagetrust.dnr.sc.gov.
Acknowledgments: Several curators have provided access to collections described and imaged above, including:
Dr. Matthew Compton, Georgia Southern University and Dr. Brent Tharp, Georgia southern University museum who assisted with research on collections from Georgia, and Sharon L. Pekrul, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and anthropology who assisted with research on collections from Spanish Mount, SC.