American Indian cremation pit found on US Ossabaw island

By Russ Bynum
Savannah, Georgia (AP) 12-08

Researchers have found what they suspect is a rare example of cremation among the early native inhabitants of the southeastern U.S.

Exposed by erosion at the edge of a crumbling bluff, the pit discovered beneath 2 feet (60 centimeters) of sandy dirt at first appeared to be a grave just long and deep enough to bury a human body.

Archaeologists initially thought the pit could be 1,000 to 3,000 years old based on pottery shards they found. Though carbon dating revealed it to be more recent, the find is still considered prehistoric because it predates the arrival of the first European explorers in Georgia in 1520.

The researchers suspect that American Indians used the ancient pit to burn bodies of the dead.

“It’s a special sort of burial,” said Tom Gresham, an Athens archaeologist who worked on the excavation and serves on Georgia’s Council on American Indian Concerns. “The way Indian tribes over time buried their dead varied tremendously. But cremations are fairly rare.”

Located 6 miles off the Savannah coast, Ossabaw Island remains one of Georgia’s wildest barrier islands. Hogs, deer, armadillos and Sicilian donkeys roam the state-owned island’s 11,800 acres of wishbone-shaped uplands. Live oaks tower above the remains of slave plantations and ancient Indian burial mounds.

Researchers have found evidence that humans came to Ossabaw more than 4,000 years ago. It’s believed Indians at first may have used the island as a winter camp to feed on shellfish before moving inland to hunt deer in the spring.


Burial mounds on Ossabaw typically hold intact human remains, said Dave Crass, Georgia’s state archaeologist. Archaeologists believe the cremation pit dates to the Woodland Period between 1000 B.C. and 900 A.D. They hope to narrow that time period by carbon dating the charcoal from the pit.

“Burials from the Woodland Period tend to be shallow, bowl-shaped pits with bodies flexed in an almost fetal position on their side,” Crass said. “What makes this particular site unusual is that the individual was apparently cremated and then the remains were presumably taken from this pit and interred somewhere else.”

David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said the cremation pit on Ossabaw sounds significant.

Thomas was not involved in the Ossabaw excavation but has been studying Indian burials on neighboring St. Catherines Island for 30 years. Out of about 900 graves he’s studied there that predate the arrival of Europeans, only nine held cremated remains, he said.

“Based on our St. Catherines experience, this is about a one-in-100 shot,” Thomas said. “As a mortuary feature of that antiquity, I would say that’s a big deal.”

The state Council on American Indian Concerns gave the archaeologists permission to excavate the Ossabaw pit because it was being destroyed by erosion.

The few human bones found in the pit will be studied further in hopes of determining if they belonged to more than one person. Once that’s done, Crass said, they’ll be reinterred with the Council overseeing the burial.

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