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Protecting mysterious relics of an ancient 'Georgian' culture

They lived along the coast of what is now Georgia, at least 5,000 years ago. They left few clues about their way of life. But among the relics these people left behind are the earliest known pieces of pottery in North America -- and giant rings (up to 150 feet across) on what are today coastal islands. The rings are composed of systematically dumped refuse, including fish and some deer bones.

No one knows for sure the purpose of these rings -- or the origin of the people who made them.

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In order to try to protect such relics, the US Army Corps of Engineers -- often the target of criticism from environmentalists -- is trying to determine where these ancients lived. By mapping down and suspected dwelling sites, the corps hopes to avoid dumping dredgings on the relics.

As part of its maintenance work on the Intercoastal Waterway, the corps dredges some 1 million cubic yards a year of silt and sand along Georgia's coast and dumps it on nearby land or islands.

Federal laws enacted in recent years require closer attention than in earlier decades to environmental effect of such projects, including possible damage to archaeological sites.

"The corps has kind of swung 180 degrees" in protecting such sites, says Ervan Garrison, archaeologist at Texas A & M University. Dr. Garrison and two colleagues have been contracted by the corps to locate possible living sites of the early people along the Georgia coast.

The Texas A & M team scanned infrared aerial photographs to spot, among other things, prehistoric drainage systems. Then higher-ground areas were spot-checked to locate possible dwelling sites. Much of the work was devoted to compiling locations of sites previously discovered.

The Texas A & M final report is due to reach the Savannah, Ga., office of the corps in September.

Nationally, the Corps of Engineers has hired, mostly within the past five years, some 75 to 80 archaeologists to work full time on the staff. Altogether, some 800 persons, including biologists, foresters, and sociologists, have been added to the corps staff over the past decade to assess environmental effects of projects, says LT. col. George F. Boone of corps headquarters in Washington.

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Among the other examples he cites of the results of such studies: analyzing ancient rock drawings in the parth of a flood control project near Phoenix; relocating a lock on the Tennessee- Tombigbee Canal being built near the Mississippi-alabama border so an ancient Indian burial ground would not be destroyed.

"A lot of money is being spent on archaeology" at proposed project sites, says David Hurst Thomas, chairman of the anthropology department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Dr. Thomas estimates there are some 600 to 700 sites on St. Catherines Island , a 3-by-14-mile barrier island off Georgia's coast.

Still, there are places the corps could dump its dredgings that would not be likely sites of this ancient people. One safe kind of dumping ground Thomas suggests: the man-made islands formed by dumping ballast rocks overboard from ships arriving in the New World.

There are scattered signs of life on the Georgia coast dating back as far as 8,000 years, he says. The unnamed people who date back to about 5000 B.C. were followed by the Guale (pronounced "wally), who may really have been direct descendants of the more ancient people.

Under circumstances unknown today the Guale, around 4,500 years ago, began making a very distinctive kind of pottery. What appears to be palmetto fiber and, later, sand were used in making it, Thomas says.

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