On Saturday, the Dewees Island Archives Committee is putting together a talk on the Sewee Indians. Jonathan Lyons, of Awendaw, will be speaking at the Huyler House from 5:30 to 7:30. Wine and appetizers are included, and I have it on a pretty good source that we will be having an event-appropriate oyster or two. I am really looking forward to learning more about the early indigenous people of South Carolina. In the fall, I was captivated by a speech at the SC Natural History Society about the Shell Middens of South Carolina. So I did a little more research, and I can’t wait to learn more.
Shell middens are piles of oyster shells left behind by some prehistoric society. They are one of the earliest large-scale features of the United States, but they actually occur in different forms in coastal areas all around the world. There are at least 22 known sites in South Carolina, and the easiest one to walk to is not far from Dewees as the crow flies. Located near Awendaw in the Cape Romain National Forest, it is accessed by a boardwalk. We can surmise that the people who inhabited it were well familiar with our island as well.
Radio carbon dating of shells shows that the Sewee shell midden was built about 4000 years ago. There is evidence of a complex hunter-gatherer society, but we don’t really know very much about these early native Americans. The Sewee mound is in a C-shape, while many similar sites in South Carolina are round. this has led to some interesting theories. Some archaeologists have speculated that it was probably a whole circle at one point, but sea level rise and storms over the last 5000 years may have affected the shape of the circle. Others, noting U and C shaped mounds in Florida, and believing that the area was used for ceremonial and feasting purposes, hypothesize that it was open-ended so that it allowed the community to grow over time.
I decided to check out the midden in the National Forest in December. And I have to say, if there hadn’t been signs saying that this was a shell midden, I may have mistaken the trail for a simply beautiful walk in the woods, but little else. It is an easy and gorgeous hike in the Francis Marion National Forest. There are some signs explaining the site, but if you were exploring and the signs weren’t there, it would be easy to miss the whole thing. But the trail is well marked, and there are interpretive signs along the way. On a crisp fall day, all you can hear is the rustle of the wind in the pines and palmettos, the whine of a distant boat on the water, and the clicking and spitting of the oysters themselves in ancient rhythm. You’ll have to imagine a bustling settlement of people making camp here on the high ground. A slideshow of more photos is below, as well as a myriad of links to informative sites.
Information about the site in the Francis Marion National Forest
Native Plant Society information about middens and their flora
Stanley South: Archaeological Pathways to Site Development
Legacy, the magazine for the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, Vol 11, number 1, April 2007
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