By Catherine Garcia
I began working for the Heritage Trust at SCDNR over two and a half years ago, while I was a sophomore at the University of South Carolina. On my very first day in the laboratory, I was handed a bag of artifacts from the Pockoy Island shell rings – a 4,300-year-old archaeological site consisting of two large rings built primarily out of shell – and instructed to sort and label them. From that day on, that particular site became an essential part of my professional and academic career.
During my junior year, I had to decide on a research topic for my undergraduate thesis. Having worked with artifacts from Pockoy for over a year at that point, I had no doubt that I wanted to develop a research project using those materials: something that would allow me to do more in-depth analysis and contribute new information to the body of knowledge about Pockoy and about shell rings in general. I have always been especially interested in ceramic artifacts, or sherds, and what they can tell us about the people who made them. Therefore, after discussing potential research projects with my employer and advisor, Dr. Karen Smith, I decided that my thesis project would be an attempt to reconstruct the ceramic vessels that were made and used at Pockoy as they would have looked in their complete forms.
Ceramic artifacts are highly valued by archaeologists because they can tell us a great deal about past peoples. Of course, on a practical level they provide information about the types of food that people were eating and how they prepared it, but pottery can also give us clues about more nebulous things, such as group identity and ceremonial practices. This is especially important in the case of the Pockoy Island shell rings, as shell rings are a somewhat mysterious type of archaeological site: archaeologists are still not entirely sure why people built shell rings or what activities they did there. In order to get at this information, we need to be able to identify the basic properties of a ceramic vessel: its shape and size. This is often very difficult when ceramic artifacts are found not as complete vessels, but as small, fragmentary sherds. Unfortunately, this is the case at Pockoy, where nothing even approaching a complete vessel has been found. Therefore, I had to get more creative in my efforts to reconstruct their full sizes and shapes.
The first thing that I did was comb through dozens of bags of sherds that were excavated from Pockoy in 2018, finding ones that fit together and mending them with Elmer’s glue as I went. I was searching for the largest sherds in the collection, and particularly for sherds that included a portion of the vessel’s rim, as these are the most informative about vessel shape and size. I ended up with several large sherds, including those that were pieced together from many smaller ones. However, these sherds were still not large enough to give a precise idea of the shape and size of the complete vessel that they came from simply by looking at them. For that, I needed to use a more advanced technique: digital modeling.
I have never considered myself a particularly tech savvy person, so the idea of using AutoCAD – a modeling software used by engineers – to model complete vessels based on a few ceramic fragments was more than a little intimidating to me. But with some tutoring from Heritage Trust archaeologist Sean Taylor, I learned how to transfer the measurements and proportions of a physical sherd to digital curves and lines, and how to then extrapolate from those to create an accurate, digital rendering of a complete vessel. Once I got the hang of it, I was able to use eleven of my best sherds to build digital models of the complete vessels that they were once a part of. The fact that I was only able to reconstruct eleven vessels from the thousands of sherds that have been recovered from the site is a testament to how fragmented this pottery really is. Still, eleven vessels is much better than none, and the digital models provided a great deal of useful information about vessel size and shape.
I found that these eleven vessels fit into four general categories of vessel form, from smallest to largest: small bowls; hemispherical bowls; large, shallow bowls; and large jars. Pictured below is an example of each of these forms, alongside the sherds that those models are based on.
So, being able to see these vessels as they would have looked over 4,000 years ago is fascinating, but what can these models tell us about what went on at Pockoy on a human level?
One feature that stands out is the variety of shapes and sizes that these vessels take. Clearly, pottery was produced in a variety of forms to fit a variety of purposes, just as in a modern kitchen. For example, the smallest form – the small bowl – could only hold a very small amount, and was therefore most likely used as a personal vessel for one person to eat or drink from. Likewise, the large, shallow bowls could hold a much larger quantity, and may have been used to serve food to an entire group. The hemispherical bowls would also be suitable for serving food, as well as for cooking food over a fire (although the lack of soot on the outside of any of these vessels indicates that food may have been cooked in other ways, such as roasting in large pits). It is unclear exactly what the large jars could have been used for, as they are too deep and unwieldy to be used as serving vessels, but it is possible that they were used for storing things, such as fresh water.
Notably, the hemispherical bowls and the large, shallow bowls appear to be the most common types of vessels, together accounting for eight of the eleven vessels that I modeled. This is interesting, because both of these types of bowls are best suited for serving food to a group. If this is the case, it would match up nicely with one of the hypotheses about shell rings: that they were sites of large social or ceremonial gatherings, such as feasts. If people gathered at the Pockoy Island shell rings for a big feast, it would make sense that they would need a large number of serving bowls. Of course, this is just speculation based on a small number of vessels, but it shows how illuminating ceramic artifacts can be with regards to the human activities that went on in the past.
Given that this is only a very small sampling of the total number of ceramic vessels that were used by Pockoy’s inhabitants, it stands to reason that there was an even greater variety of pottery than what I have described here. Luckily, there is no shortage of sherds in the collection of artifacts from Pockoy, and excavations are still ongoing; in fact, we plan to return to the site for more excavations in September. I plan to continue working on these vessel models in the future, and I’m excited to see what I find as we continue to learn more about the people who built the Pockoy Island shell rings.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.