St. Catherines Island is home to pristine beaches, lush greenery and countless wild animal species, but its
mysterious interior holds clues about cultures and
civilizations believed to have existed thousands of years ago.
Editor’s note: This is part one of a four part series exploring Liberty County’s St. Catherines Island. Part one examines the current archeological research being conducted, including searches for information about the Guale Indians. Part two takes us back to the 1500s and the Mission of Santa Catalina de Guale, which was discovered on the Island in 1986. Part three takes a look at the exotic wildlife currently being cared for on the island, and part four explores the Button Gwinnett home and its history.
Roughly 50 miles south of Savannah, deep in the marshes of Liberty County, lies St. Catherines Island. The unspoiled island boasts a complex history and was designated as a National Historic Landmark on Dec. 16, 1969. Currently owned by the St. Catherines Island Foundation, the island boasts 14,640 acres of tidal marsh and wetlands, 6,700 acres of forested land, endangered exotic wildlife, and a plantation home reportedly once used by Button Gwinnett. But, more importantly, it’s the site where several important archeological artifacts were unearthed, proving Spaniards discovered the area centuries before Europeans landed on Plymouth Rock.
For more than 30 years, researchers and archeologist from New York’s American Museum of Natural History have explored St. Catherines’ past using grants and funding from the Edward John Noble Foundation. Noble purchased the island in 1943 and owned it until his death in 1958. In 1968, the island was transferred to the foundation, which pledged to keep the land in perpetuity as a means for research.
The most significant discovery on St. Catherines came in 1986 when archeologist David Hurst-Thomas found the remains of the Mission Santa Catalina de Guale, verifying the Spanish settled in Georgia long before they hit the west coast. Hurst-Thomas, who is the curator of the North American Archeology Division of Anthropology for the American Museum of Natural History, is now back on the island with a team of 16 researchers. They are excavating and exploring four sites and think they’ve found evidence dating back to the late pre-historic era, 1300-1500 A.D., and the late Archaic period, roughly 3,000 B.C.
"What we are doing right now is operating with two different time periods and each dig is pretty much devoted to one or the other," Hurst-Thomas said. "The island was born about 5,000 years ago when the sea levels separated it from the mainland, creating the marshes. The marsh juxtaposed right next to all those terrestrial resources making it a wonderful place for Indian people to live so they were on it practically the next day. And we have a number of sites, important sites that date to that really early time period. We’ve found what may some of the oldest pottery in North America, it may be that we have some of the earliest ceremonial expressions. That is what we are working on."
Another significant find is the shell rings on the island.
Anna Semon, lab supervisor for the North American Archeology Division of Anthropology for the American Museum of Natural History, is the excavation crew chief for the current projects. She first came to the island in 2005 and joined the staff of the museum as a full-time employee four years ago. Semon said they typically go to St. Catherines three times a year, twice in the spring and once in the fall and normally spend three weeks to a month each visit. Semon gave the Courier a complete tour of the island and excavation sites last Friday.
"We take all of the artifacts that we find back to New York to be cleaned and cataloged," Semon explained as she sat in the island’s historic carriage house, which the team is using as a research lab. "Everything stays there until we are ready to take it to the next level of curation at some other location. The bags that we have on the floor are samples from the excavations."
She said some of the samples are sent to Donna Rule at the Natural History Museum at the University of Florida where they’re analyzed for botanical remains.
"The second sample bags are related to a graduate student who is working on our current excavations," Semon said. "She is with the University of Georgia and she is looking for fauna remains as well as the animals who consumed them and shell fish."
Semon said when she came to St. Catherines in 2005 the researchers focused on the Spanish Mission.
"There was some erosion happening around the marsh edge near the Mission," she said. "So we wanted to do a little rescue archeology around the Mission."
However, Semon said some of the researchers wanted to focus on different time periods. She explained how Hurst-Thomas and his crew randomly surveyed 20 percent of the island 30 years ago. Those surveys yielded clues that her group is now exploring. Among the exploration sites is the St. Catherines shell ring.
Semon said the ring was named after the island because they thought it was the only one on the island. She said that changed when St. Catherines Island Foundation director Royce Hayes discovered a second shell ring they named McQueen’s Ring.
"From that site we’ve found some of the oldest ceramics so far," Semon said. "We found some of the older ceramics and we excavated a large block in the center. Then in March we excavated a block that was in the shell heavy area. We still have a bit to go through in trying to understand the deposition like how did they throw these shells down? Was it purposely constructed in a way where you can see the basket loads being deposited or is it something else?"
Researchers were perplexed by the McQueen shell ring because it contained two deposits, one containing mostly shellfish and seafood, while the second deposit contained primarily the bones of deer and other animals.
"These are really incredible sites," said Lorann S.A. Pendleton, lab director for the North American Archeology Division of the American Museum of Natural History. "They are these huge purposeful rings of shells and nobody really knows what they are for or what they were doing with them so we are excavating them and trying to find that out."
Pendleton’s task is to sort through samples and pull out the shells and fish vertebrae, some as small as an one-eighth of an inch in size.
"You have all these shells and a few little bones," she said, sorting through a bag. "I look for the bones and we can begin to see what they were eating. We find fish ear bones that tell us what season they died and what kind of fish it was and how old it was when it died. Fish ear bones tell us just about everything ... because they grow like tree rings grow so you can section them ..."
Pendleton said they even conducted C14 carbon dating tests on the shell rings.
"We’ve done quite a bit of that at the shell rings and we got really great dates at both shell rings and they are contemporaneous pretty much," she said. "One is a tiny bit older than the other but basically they are from the same period of time yet they are made completely differently. So people are left wondering what is going on here."
Semon and Pendleton explained how the shell rings have been found up and down the coast of Florida and Georgia, extending into the Gulf Coast and Louisiana.
"There are all these enigmatic shell rings and nobody really knows why they were used or anything," Pendleton said. "I think we are the first to really be excavating them like this and finding out what the heck was going on in there."
She said they have found plenty of pottery in the shell rings and one possibility is they were used for housing.
While they’re eager to dig up the past, the researchers also stress the importance of preserving the land.
"We do a lot of remote sensing before we ever excavate so we can see what might be underneath the ground before we put a shovel in," Pendleton said. "So we follow up on the anomalies that the remote sensing told us about to see what they were."
Semon said they use different techniques to explore the ground like proton magnetometers, ground penetrating radar and soil resistivity tests. Each test tells the scientists what’s going on underneath the soil before they begin to dig.
"It’s really important to conserve as much of the site as possible for the future," Pendleton said.
"What we are doing now is trying to find out what the native people where like at different points in time," Hurst-Thomas said. "Were they farmers or were they foragers? How important was maize in their diet? We are looking for groups who may be the descendants of the Creek and the Cherokees and mostly Oklahoma groups, but there is also every indication that the tribe that was living here when the French and Spanish arrived has gone extinct."
Thomas theorized the Indians who sided with the British got pushed off to Sapelo Island and established a new mission there. Later, they were pushed off to Amelia Island then St. Augustine. He said the last of the Guale Indians were traced to Cuba. Historians have since gone to Cuba and traced some Guale names through baptism records until the 19th century.
"If you are looking at that first chapter of history of the Native Americans, these are some of the very first tribes to go extinct in the country and so little is known about them," Hurst-Thomas said. "This whole area is just blank. So we are basically trying to write this unwritten history and there is no shortage of questions."