Big Talbot Island: Grand Shell Ring

by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2021

We trudge through these thickets. The trail does not begin from the unpaved road. You have to know where to go to get to the trail.

These oaks stand greater than any king and have never needed to leave for posterity their Ozymandias. The dark green grows exuberant, luxuriant, lush in these weakest of soils, barely more than sands, islands new in geographic time.

Archaeologist Keith Ashley says, “You can see there’s a burial mound there,” but no one untrained could see it if he weren’t pointing to it and saying so. I see only a burst of lush growth amidst a background of lush bursts of green growth.

We’re standing on the ring right now. It’s about three feet tall and 200 feet across. I hadn’t known what I might expect. We’re standing on an ancient structure, not only archaeological, but architectural, submerged in the verdant earth from which a lost people birthed it.

When Keith first brought University of North Florida archaeological students back here in 1998, this area had grown solid with jungle for centuries. You couldn’t see the shape of it. When they worked the ring, they cleared it. Now it’s starting to grow back in.

We walk from one edge of the Grand Shell Ring, across the dropped center, to another crest by the coast, where we look down over Simpson Creek. Keith points this way and that. “You can see the rise there, the rise there, and the high spot at the burial mound, then how it dips down in the middle.”

So what is this ring? What is the ring on which we’re standing? Was it intentional? It’s architectural. There’s no way it’s haphazard. Nothing natural carved this shape.

You can see it most clearly in LiDAR, Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing method using laser pulsations to measure ranges and distances on the earth from overhead. He’s right. He emails me the LiDAR map, but asks me not to share it publicly, as it gives away coordinates. The truth-seeking archaeologist’s greatest enemy, besides purblind development, is the treasure hunter. It’s a felony to dig into ancient graves, but that doesn’t stop people.

This ring is not the only one. The shell ring is a recognized architectural form found up and down the Southeastern coast. Indigenous architectural shell rings are found from South Carolina to South Florida and around the Gulf of Mexico to Mississippi. Indigenous people started building them in the Late Archaic Period around 4,000 years ago. “They built these shell rings,” Keith Ashley says, “between 2000 and 1500 B.C. They were in vogue for hundreds of years.”

And that introduces the greater mystery of this particular Grand Shell Ring, which the Mocoman people built around 1000 A.D. Why? They built it 2000 years or more after the other rings. Archaeologists have found no other shell ring built at such a gulf in time from its predecessors. How is it even possible that an indigenous people with an oral culture and no written record created a structure with such apparent reverence and reference to so distant a past?

And what was the purpose of the shell ring as architecture in the first place? Were they ceremonial? What connection did they have to surrounding communities? The rings themselves are composed of the same materials as all other shell middens—mostly oyster shells, but also fish and deer bones, broken pieces of pottery.

“I believe,” Keith says, and sends me his chapter of an upcoming book on Florida archaeology arguing the point, “the structure where we’re standing is something ritually based. It’s ceremonial. You can’t ignore the fact there’s a burial mound on top of it and the community is spread out over a much larger area. I think they’re building this structure to commemorate the past.”

If so, what archaeologists have uncovered here is a lost and ancient commemoration of a past more ancient still. So we ask not only “Who were the people who lived here?” and “What did they achieve?” and “What understanding had they accumulated of what it meant to live life and create a world from this earth? We ask also, “What distant past did they look to before them?”

“When we first dug here in 1998,” Keith says, “everyone had heard we had a burial mound here, but no one knew anything for sure. So the state said we could do two small shovel tests.” NAGPRA, the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, had passed in 1990. As a result, archaeologists here were told, Keith says, “If you find anything suspect, stop.”

The first shovel test gave them a layer of red soil. That’s “hematite impregnated,” Keith says. Fe2O3. Hematite, red iron oxide, is one of the most abundant minerals on earth. Yet there’s something strange about its universal significance.

“You tend to see that in mounds,” Keith says. “So once we got to that point, we knew this was going to be a burial mound. Then we did a shovel test on the other side and we found a human tooth. So we stopped. But we were able to find out this ring lies underneath the level of the burial mound.”

Much is made of hematite in Becky Cooper’s 2020 constant red herring of a true crime book, We Keep the Dead Close, since it was found at the 1969 murder site of Harvard Anthropology student Jane Britton. Keith says it’s true hematite is found marking burial sites of indigenous peoples all over the world.

“It’s iron oxide,” he says. “It’s life blood. So that’s giving life to the dead. Yeah, that’s a universal. It actually is.”

In noting that the Grand Shell Ring comprises much of the same elements as unstructured shell middens found up and down the Atlantic coast, Keith argues that what we’re standing on here is a form of “ritualized middening,” a specific form of the “ritualization of the mundane” performed the indigenous world over.

Here there’s a strange but obvious, the more you look at it, connection between the romantic Indiana Jones world of archaeology and the oft-ignored question of what a culture does with its garbage. A current branch of archaeology indeed concerns itself with present waste practices and dubs itself garbology. Yet archaeology is always about the waste of the past, whether that means daily garbage or high honorary rituals dealing with the dead.

Keith writes, quoting Julian Thomas’s 1999 Understanding the Neolithic, “In early Neolithic Britain, for example, certain groups placed ‘representative residues’ in specialized pit features ‘as a means of commemorating particular events, whether feasts, gatherings or periods of occupation’ that created a ‘durable trace of their memory.’”

What could make more sense archaeologically? Relating to the mass production (and thus mass disposal) of our own capitalist industrial age, poet A.R. Ammons’s 1993 book-length poem Garbage begins with the thesis that “garbage” is “the poem of our time.”

And surely all cultures capture “representative residues,” for what else could that mean but ghost and memory, in other words, art and culture?

In the case of the Grand Shell Ring, Keith Ashley argues, “Individual households living on the island may have contributed or offered their own garbage in special situations as a commemorative act that invoked past times and practices. Depositing refuse in a mounded annual configuration distinguished ritualized middening from daily garbage disposal practices that occurred closer to their residences.”

In our own time, we’d rather not think about our garbage. If only what we throw away actually went “away!” Various organizations argue which decade in the 21st century the United States will run out of landfill space. Meanwhile, some of our own most thoughtful artists have made “repurposing” central to their vision, while others have made the landscape their most important artistic material. Perhaps Robert Smithson’s 1970 Spiral Jetty could be a distant cousin, across time and culture, to the Grand Shell Ring. It might be right to consider the Grand Shell Ring the oldest piece of public art in Northeast Florida.

Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, courtesy The New York Times

“As participants in ring construction,” Ashley continues, “households may have experienced the past by replicating an ancient practice (shell ring building) and contributing to the creation of a visual edifice that linked them to their mythical ancestors (whether factually true or not), thereby bestowing the shell ring with meaning and significance beyond the ordinary. In effect, ring formation moored the past in the present, as its ongoing construction memorialized their version of ancestral times and (re)produced community solidarity, identity, and history at the Grand [Shell Ring] site.”

courtesy Keith Ashley