Monday, July 11, 2011

Shell Middens

One major component of our site is a shell midden composed primarily of clam, and to a lesser extent, oyster shells. The species of clam is called Rangia cuneata, one of the most abundant and utilized species of shellfish among prehistoric peoples living on the Gulf Coast. The presence of these thick and extensive piles of shells is likely the result of prehistoric activity. A challenge in our fieldwork is to determine the way these middens were formed, and to learn from them about prehistoric lifeways. These middens may be discarded leftovers from one or many meals of clams and oysters, or they may be an attempt to build an elevated living floor on which shelters were constructed uphill from the water.

We have an added challenge in interpreting our shell midden. Beginning in the late 19th century, shell middens were often taken from their original context and reused as fill on roadways and in construction. At our site, the presence of a fish camp in the first half of the 20th century as well as subsequent road building means that we must look for signs that the shell middens are intact, as opposed to part of modern building efforts. In at least one part of the site, our large shell midden appears to be intact given the presence of unbroken, and in some cases, complete bivalve shells. If these shells had been disturbed and moved to fill in a roadway, we would expect a larger component of crushed and compacted shell. In addition to this, our finds of a prehistoric grinding stone, spear points, and a carved stone fishing weight amid the shell lend more evidence to support an intact midden.

Evidence so far from our excavations into the shell midden has indicated the presence of other animals that were likely part of the prehistoric diet: deer, turtle, catfish, and small, unidentified mammal bones. A number of small sherds of broken pottery have also been recovered, suggesting that we are currently in the midst of a prehistoric refuse pile. Our excavations over the next two weeks will help us understand the depth and extent of these shell middens and how they might relate to any structural features or evidence of cooking fires. An intact shell midden has the potential to teach us a great deal about prehistoric life, as well as provide us with information about the prehistoric environment. More information on shell middens present at prehistoric sites throughout the Gulf Coast area may be found at:

Shell Mounds and Shellfish: Staff of Prehistoric Life?

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