Georgia Department of Natural Resources/AP
Department of Natural Resources staff archaeologist Jenn Bedell, left, and Council on
American Indian Concerns archaeologist Tom Gresham examine artifacts from the
cremation excavation on Ossabaw Island.

Cremation Site Provides New Information About American Indian Burials

December 22, 2008 01:30 PM
by Isabel Cowles
A small cremation pit found off Georgia’s Ossabaw Island shows that the prehistoric American Indian tribe who once lived there cremated their dead.

Charred Bones Found in Ossabaw

A team of archeologists digging in Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia recently discovered something unanticipated within a small burial pit.

Instead of uncovering a single body, which would have fit perfectly inside the burial hole, researchers discovered several small charred bones mixed with burned logs and bits of pottery dating from one to three thousand years ago, the Associated Press reports.

Archaeologists have attributed the remains to the Woodland Period, between 1,000 B.C. and 900 A.D.; they hope to determine a more specific date using carbon dating.

According to a report by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the body was placed on top of wood above the pit and burned.

The finding is unique because American Indians are not typically known to cremate their dead: other burial mounds during this time period usually contain whole-body remains. Dave Crass, Georgia’s state archaeologist, explained that typical graves “tend to be shallow, bowl-shaped pits with bodies flexed in an almost fetal position on their side."

Because the remains discovered were the small bones of fingers and toes, Crass believes that the bodies were probably cremated on site then moved elsewhere for burial, making the find particularly unusual.

David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has studied Indian burials on neighboring St. Catherine’s Island for 30 years: out of nearly a thousand Woodland Period graves he’s studied, fewer than 10 held cremated remains.

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

Reference: Ossabaw Island

Ossabaw Island is Georgia’s third-largest barrier island, located off the coast of Savannah. According to the Ossabaw Island Foundation, humans have inhabited the island since approximately 2000 B.C. Today, it’s maintained in an undeveloped state, serving primarily as a site for scientific research and education.

The New Georgia Encyclopedia explains that Europeans first made themselves known on Ossabaw Island in 1568, when Spanish officials living in St. Augustine, Fla., established Jesuit and Franciscan missions along what would become the Georgian coast.

Related Topic: Cremation at Stonehenge

Some researchers at Stonehenge have recently theorized that the site was used largely as a burial ground. Researchers with the Stonehenge Riverside Project studied the Aubrey Holes, a circle of 56 holes surrounding the ground on which Stonehenge was built. The holes, previously examined in 1950, were known to contain cremated human remains. One of the holes contained a layer of crushed chalk, an indication that it had once held bluestones.

“These stones were very closely associated with the remains of the dead,” said researcher Mike Parker-Pearson. “There were cremation burials from inside the holes holding the stones and also the areas around them.”

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