Columbia County's Stallings Island is a crossroads of prehistory where many secrets remain partially hidden.
Covering barely 25 acres, the teardrop-shape island in the Savannah River below Stevens Creek Dam ranks among the nation's most significant -- and most studied -- archaeological sites, where excavations have been carried out for 140 years.
In its earliest role, the island was a place where American Indian tribes crossed the river's shallow shoals to access trading routes that bisected the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions. They fished and ate shellfish.
Later, the island and surrounding hillsides became the cradle for some of the earliest civilizations on the continent whose once-nomadic inhabitants opted to settle into permanent villages. They raised crops, buried their dead and created some of the continent's first pottery.
In his book, People of the Shoals: Stallings Culture of the Savannah River Valley, archaeologist Ken Sassaman summed it up this way:
"Evidence suggests that the first 8,000 years of prehistory involved only transient use of the middle Savannah River Valley. The hunter-gatherers of these early millennia were mobile people whose annual rounds took them from the mountains to the coast.
"Beginning some 4,000 years ago, certain groups of hunter-gatherers relinquished the mobile lifestyle for a more settled existence along the river. The shoals became their homeland, their place of origin."
One of the most noted archaeological studies of Stallings Island and its sprawling mounds of shells and debris from early visitors was the multiyear dig by Harvard University's Peabody Museum, which began in 1929.
During that expedition, which yielded thousands of artifacts now stored in museums, scientists exhumed 84 burial sites and learned what they could about the people who lived and died there.
They concluded Stallings Island was an apparent gathering spot for scattered groups of Indians who later made the area their home. The mounds of refuse they created grew over the centuries, eventually building a 1,500-foot-long pile that was 12 feet tall in places and up to 500 feet wide.
The abundant artifacts buried in the shell mounds attracted attention from relic seekers, too, who vandalized the island for more than a century. Much of what they carried away or destroyed could have helped scientists learn more about the people who lived there.
In September 1997, the island's owner -- Columbia County resident Wyck Knox -- donated the site to The Archaeological Conservancy, which is working to protect and preserve the island.
In recent years, new studies have gleaned more clues about the island's past, but there is still much to learn. Today the private site is a National Historic Landmark.
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