112317 Litchfield Beach: Storms open window on ancient shoreline
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Paul Gayes uses a GPS system to log the location of a shell deposit on Litchfield Beach.

Litchfield Beach: Storms open window on ancient shoreline

By Emily Topper
Coastal Observer

A deposit just beyond Walkway 62 at Litchfield Beach has attracted the interest of underwater archaeologists from across South Carolina.

The deposit first appeared about three weeks ago, with area residents finding at least one artifact in the pile. Experts say that it is not uncommon for deposits to be uncovered following major storms, such as hurricanes Irma and Matthew.

And, they added, the deposits can be covered up almost as quickly.

“We are seeing this type of site exposed not just on Litchfield Beach, but across the coastal plains,” Nate Fulmer, an underwater archaeologist with the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, said. “Most of what we are seeing is natural erosion caused by these major storm events. That erosion during these events probably exposed some of the sites underneath the sand. Because this one seems to be associated with some cultural material, it appears there may have been some human agency involved in the site at some point. Typically we end up with higher tides during the fall and spring, so that doesn’t help with erosion, either.”

The deposit was initially thought to be a shell midden, but archaeologists said it was more likely to be a “rake” or a deposit.

“Some of my colleagues are describing it as a rake, which could be a naturally occurring structure,” Fulmer said. “A rake is where the shell lying on the bottom gets pushed up and mimics a shell midden.”

Middens are piles of shells left by human activity. In this area, archaeologists have primarily found clam shells. In other parts of the state, oyster shells form the middens.

Fulmer identified one item found in the Litchfield deposits as a prehistoric lithic projectile point, which is an object that can be used as a spear, dart or type of knife.

There were also bones in the deposits.

When Paul Gayes, the executive director of the Burroughs and Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at Coastal Carolina University, visited the site Tuesday, he found an oyster shell and a piece of fossil in the low tide.

“It’s very hard to find modern sediments,” Gayes said. “These former landscapes are not uncommon along the Grand Strand and represent the migration or transgression of barrier islands with sea level rise and limited sediment supply.”

Archaeologists also said they were working to identify an additional piece of material found in the deposit as possibly a piece of ceramic, but that it had yet to be determined.

“We see these types of reports in our office probably more than anything else,” Fulmer said. “And it happens fast. We had another site exposed during Irma back in September, and in the next four to six weeks we had lost the majority of the site.”

Gayes added that residents should report if they find shell deposits or rakes along the beach.

“It’s always worth getting an inventory,” he said. “They’re very short-lived, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Residents and beachgoers who come across sites are encouraged to call the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina.

“We recommend and request that if they do see something like this that they get in contact with us,” Fulmer said.

The institute can be reached by calling 803-777-8170.

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