Exposed by erosion at the edge of a crumbling bluff, the pit discovered beneath 2 feet of sandy dirt at first appeared to be a grave just long and deep enough to bury a human body.
An excavation by archaeologists on Ossabaw Island revealed something more puzzling — just a few small bones, apparently from fingers or toes, mixed with charcoal, bits of burned logs and pottery shards more than 1,000 to 3,000 years old.
The find has led researchers to suspect that American Indians used the ancient pit to burn bodies of the dead, making it a rare example of cremation among the early native inhabitants of the southeastern U.S.
"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 six 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, who was not involved in the Ossabaw excavation, has been studying Indian burials on neighboring St. Catherines Island for 30 years. Out of about 900 Woodland Period graves he's studied there, he said, only nine held cremated remains.
"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 Ossabaw cremation pit, roughly 6 feet long and 3 feet deep, had other unique characteristics.
Crass and fellow archaeologists, at first, suspected it might be a more modern grave because of its flat bottom and straight sides.
Early Indian graves tend to have round bottoms because people lacked shovels or other digging tools, said Dan Elliott, a Savannah archaeologist who helped excavate the Ossabaw pit last month.
"We're thinking it was a fairly formal structure that was used to deflesh people — it looks almost like a little oven," Elliott said. "That's so far back in history that we don't know what was on their minds, but it shows there was a special reverence for the dead."
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.
Thomas said such a find is a step in helping researchers understand America's early inhabitants, though why they would choose to cremate some of their dead and bury others intact remains a mystery.
"We don't know whether that's high status or low status. Is that the way you treat elders or battle captains?" Thomas said. "We're buried according to who we are when we die. It tells us a lot about a society by the way they treat the dead."