Prehistoric Mystique

July 28, 2023

Story by Kingston Rhodes

Hilton Head Island has a diverse and multi-faceted historical narrative.

Archeologists and historians have evidence of prehistoric history locally that stretches as far back as 4,500 years when indigenous people left their mark on the island’s sandy, moist soil.

However, once records began being chronicled, a colorful island history unfolded. Today numerous historic markers dot the 41-square-mile island, including the mysterious Sea Pines Shell Ring.

Glen McCaskey is one local resident who has played a meaningful role in determining the focus of several landmarks. McCaskey, 82, was originally recruited by Sea Pines Company founder Charles Fraser to help ensure that Fraser’s specific standards of environmental stewardship and preservation of the island’s rich, natural beauty and historic significance would be maintained.

“When I arrived, our Sea Pines Master Plan revealed a fascinating nature preserve of nearly 600 acres right in the heart of the 5,200 acres planned for development,” says McCaskey. “It was centered around this small, pre-istoric ring of large oyster shells that had been identified a few years earlier as being something rare, and had undergone its first tiny excavation by Alan Calmes, an expert from the University of South Carolina.”

McCaskey notes that one of his immediate assignments was to oversee the design and project planning for the Forest Preserve, which Fraser believed would ultimately become a popular visitor experience and help set Hilton Head Island apart from other oceanfront destinations like Myrtle Beach.

“Protection of the Shell Ring became a priority,” states McCaskey, “and when I first saw it, I was surprised because it was hardly noticeable due to the fallen leaves, brush, and loose soil covering the site. But there definitely was a mystique that surrounded the clearing.”

On June 1, 1971, the Sea Pines Forest Preserve was officially dedicated as a “Wildlife Habitat and Outdoor Recreation Facility.”

Thousands of visitors and dozens of archaeologists have since visited the Preserve, with its main attraction being the small, yet mysterious, prehistoric shell ring measuring 120 feet in diameter and 18 inches high.

According to the Archaeological Society of South Carolina, Hilton Head Island has become a center point for shell ring studies in the United States. There are believed to be more than 50 shell rings in the Southeast, according to S.C. Department of Natural Resources

Archaeologist Dr. Matthew Sanger, now with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, has conducted multiple excavations at the Sea Pines Shell Ring site. Since his most recent one five years ago he and his team have discovered a dozen more potential shell rings on the island using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology drones that use light in the form of a pulsed laser to target potential locations.

Indeed, the intent of the shell rings continues to captivate the interest of archaeologists who desire to “crack the code” of why they were so purposefully constructed and why they are uniquely found on the barrier islands of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Interestingly the only other place in the world where similar shell rings are found is in Japan – and there the rings are not complete circles, but horseshoes.

As for their purpose, the most popular theory continues to be that they were constructed for ceremonial reasons. Other scientists theorize they were merely gathering spots to dine or conduct family meetings.

As McCaskey says with a grin, “Finding shell rings with technology is one thing, but figuring out their purpose is quite a different dilemma that we may never resolve.”To find Sea Pines Shell Ring, enter the gated resort community via the Greenwood Drive access, near Sea Pines Circle. Pay for a visitor pass. Proceed about one mile until you see a sign on the left-hand side. Pull in and park. Pick up the Visitor Map and follow the trail through the woods.

It’s a scenic 20-minute walk where you will pass recreational lakes and cross boardwalks in places. Make sure to have bug spray at certain times of the year.