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Research hopping on St. Catherines

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POSTED: November 6, 2009 10:10 a.m.
Photo by Lauren Hunsberger/

Dr. David Hurst Thomas speaks at this week's Rotary Club meeting.

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Dr. David Hurst Thomas, author, archaeologist and curator for the American Museum of Natural History, told Liberty County residents Tuesday that he has spent his life digging his way across the country, but St. Catherines Island has an irresistible intrigue he doesn’t often see.
Thomas spoke at the Hinesville Rotary Club’s weekly meeting and said he and a team of interns are about to once again get their hands dirty on the barrier island. He first began archaeological research on the island in 1974 and has made frequent trips back since then.
St. Catherines, which juts off the Liberty County coast, has long been a hotbed for scientific research. It’s home to numerous wildlife projects, such as the long-term primate study that involves four troops of ring-tailed lemurs that live in the oak canopy and a sea-turtle rehabilitation facility.
But Thomas, an expert in native American anthropology, is most interested in the archaeological findings, which he said shed light on the history of the island and the surrounding mainland.
“One thing we’ve always been concerned about is understanding history — mainly the geographic history,” Thomas said. In fact, he maintains that understanding the physical components of the area could be the key to understanding the history of its people and their culture.

The making of an island


Thomas said St. Catherines probably formed around the time the Intracoastal Waterway took shape. He said about 10,000 years ago, sea levels started to rise when polar ice caps began to melt, causing tributaries to make their way inward and create channels and marshes between the land formations.
“St. Catherine’s was born about 5,000 years ago,” the archaeologist said.
He said it was this separation from the forested mainland that eventually made the island an ideal place for settlement.
“The forest and the marshland are two of the most productive ecosystems in the world,” Thomas said, adding that one of the greatest benefits was that people had a variety of food sources. “Because of the incredibly productive set of ecosystems, people settled down.”
Evidence of an ancient settlement came in the form of a huge shell ring.
He said even with today’s sophisticated equipment, the intricate and perfect circle would take months and years to build. Back then, he said, the project was most likely completed with baskets, which he thinks means intelligent people once inhabited the land and used all available resources.
“There are only about 30 shell circles like this in the South and two of them are on St. Catherines,” he said. He and his interns are still asking questions about the structures’ uses and purposes.  
“We’ve worked on this problem for five years …Honestly, I can’t give you any answers, but we will find out,” he said.
Thomas said the shell ring could be one of the oldest ceremonial structures in the country in terms of things like food storage units or large gathering areas.

The Spanish Mission


Many groups who have enjoyed St. Catherines’ resources have left their marks behind.
Thomas said the island was heavily occupied during the Spanish mission. His team spent a lot of time trying to understand the Spanish influence on the area, and he thinks the St. Catherines’ settlement was once the northernmost outpost.
The archaeologist said the island is currently experiencing heavy wear and tear from recent storm surges and rising seas levels. He is eager to learn more about the history before it is literally washed away.
“We’re going to take one more run on the Spanish mission,” Thomas said.

Preserving the history


While he is excited about St. Catherines’ archaeology and former settlements, Thomas said he also interested in preserving the island’s history. He even went so far as to rebury bodies he found under the floor of a church on the island.
“We have to be careful not to dig too much,” Thomas said. He estimates they’ve tapped into less than three percent of the Spanish colonists’ remains, which expand down into Florida.
Technology has eradicated some intrusive research methods and has allowed Thomas’ team to map more of the remains without actually digging.
He likens the procedure, called remote sensing geophysics, to an MRI and said they can now take x-ray-like pictures of what lies beneath the soil.
 

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