Doing archaeology on small and heavily vegetated islands in Georgia

Island Archaeology and the Native American Economies (2500 B.C.–A.D. 1700) of the Georgia Coast.

Thompson, Victor D., and John A. Turck 2010. Journal of Field Archaeology 35(3):283-297.

 Another article currently available for free download from Maney Publishing, this one is interesting because it focuses on small islands – specifically marsh islands located between the mainland and the barrier islands of the Georgia coast. By small, the authors mean islands less than 0.5 sq km (or about 123 acres) in size, and by marsh, they mean islands surrounded by tidal marsh, tidal creeks, or estuaries. Thompson, a professor at The Ohio State University, and Turck, a graduate student at the University of Georgia, make the point, correctly, I think, that even among island archaeologists, such very small islands get little attention. Yet such islands are abundant (according to the authors, there are over 1,400 of them off the Georgia coast alone) and, I suspect, are much more likely to have avoided the rampant development that has affected most of the barrier islands all along the Atlantic coast.

 Thompson and Turck did shovel testing on four of these marsh islands and examined exposed areas along the shore of one them, Pumpkin Hammock (much of the hard work of slogging through the dense vegetation was done by University of West Florida field school students). Sites were dated using ceramic chronology (ceramics are present in the Late Archaic in this area – actually this area has some of the earliest pottery in the U.S.). All four islands had evidence of Native American occupation, though artifacts are apparently limited to ceramics and shell. They point out that between 5% and 16% of shovel test pits contained pottery, but no shell. There are a few things missing, though. Are ceramic and shell really all that was found, or did they recover stone or bone artifacts and just not mention them? How deeply buried are these artifact-bearing levels, and are they stratified or not?

 They conclude that there was “intensive occupation of these marsh islands, although when pottery is used to differentiate time periods of use, the results are not linear. There are unexpected periods of non-use (e.g. during the Late Archaic on Mary Hammock and the Early and Middle Woodland periods on Pumpkin Hammock), as well as periods of  intense occupation (e.g. during the Late Mississippian on Mary Hammock, the Late Archaic on Patterson Island, and the Historical Contact period on Pumpkin Hammock).” (p. 294)

 They close with some thoughts on the significance of their study for island archaeology. They “suggest that the question of connectivity and isolationism is essentially what defines island archaeology. As opposed to studies on mainlands where connectivity is assumed, island archaeology must first ask the question: To what degree are groups occupying or using different islands connected? Following this, we ask: How were these connections facilitated?” (p. 295) Fair enough, but to me the big deal is simply that all of the islands they tested had evidence of thousands of years of occupation by Native Americans, and that evidence was widespread. Perhaps this was already well known, but I wonder whether similar studies have been conducted on similar islands up and down the Atlantic coast, and if so, were the results similar?


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