Stallings Island, a 25-acre archaeological landmark in the Savannah River, was donated Tuesday to The Archaeological Conservancy by its longtime owner, Columbia County resident Wyck Knox.
"This is something we've been working on with the Knox family for a number of years," said Alan Gruber, director of the conservancy's Southeast regional office in Acworth, Ga. "This is a major gift of great significance."
The conservancy, a New Mexico nonprofit organization that works to preserve significant archaeological sites, owns about 130 culturally significant areas across the United States. Stallings Island is in the river between the diversion dam at the Augusta Canal headgates and Stevens Creek Dam.
"We're really excited about this one," Mr. Gruber said. "Stallings Island is one of the most significant sites in the country, not just in Georgia or the Southeast. It's studied around the world."
The island was inhabited by prehistoric tribes for thousands of years and is home to the oldest pottery found in North America, dating to approximately 2500 B.C., Mr. Gruber said.
The island was the subject of an extensive multi-year dig by Harvard University researchers in the 1920s. Scores of burial areas were explored and thousands of artifacts were gathered from shell mounds.
Some of those artifacts now reside at Harvard's Peabody Museum, while others are stored at the Smithsonian Institution. The University of Georgia also has an extensive Stallings Island collection.
Mr. Knox, who acquired the island in 1980, said his decision to donate the site was influenced largely by the conservancy's willigness to protect the area from intermittent looting that has plagued the island for decades.
"As part of this agreement, they're going to implement a conservation program," Mr. Knox said. "They'll also be taking steps to stop the vandalism and keep it secure."
The looting has been carried out by artifact collectors, or "pot hunters," whose indiscriminate digging makes it difficult - or impossible - to study the site for its valuable clues to ancient culture.
The island holds the potential to shed more light on the mysterious cultures that lived along - and later vanished from - the Savannah River, Mr. Gruber said.
"We'll be making plans to map the site and clean up the area to determine the extent of the looting that's already gone on there," he said. "Then we'll be implementing measures to secure the island and protect it."
One of the first steps will be to increase patrols with the aid of officials from nearby S.C. Electric & Gas Co.'s Stevens Creek Plant - which lies within view of the island, he said.
The Stallings Island acquisition is among few such properties in the South, Mr. Gruber said. The conservancy owns three other Georgia sites: the Sawyer Mounds near Dublin, the Scott-McCall Archaeological Preserve near Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, and a major site in Soapstone Ridge in DeKalb County. The organization owns no sites in South Carolina, he said.