Shell middens dot coastal landscapes all around the world, evidence of inhabitants and communities that are now long gone. These refuse heaps are mostly composed of shells from the locally eaten shellfish, but also often contain rare artifacts. The alkaline conditions in the mounds preserve objects well and this can provide invaluable information to archaeologists, researchers, and descendants about life in these communities. As shown by the archeological excitement around privies and outhouses, we can learn a lot about people from their garbage.
Historically, however, shell middens have not been valued for what they can teach us. Throughout American history, developers and city builders have treated these historic heaps as nothing more than a useful material resource, carting away the oyster shells that compose these middens to fill in land, pave roads, feed chickens, or make cement. Any artifacts inside of the middens were lost. Here we see a common tragedy: archeological resources are lost before they are understood or valued. Like the destroyed earthen mounds of Cahokia, countless artifacts were lost because it was not considered important to save them. Perhaps those destroying these artifacts did not know they were there, perhaps such artifacts seemed too common to be valuable, or perhaps people just did not think Native American history was worth preserving. No matter what the motivation was, the outcome remains: middens were leveled and history was lost.
Where shell middens remain, many now work to protect and learn from them. In the center of downtown Boston, for example, the lack of development on the Boston Common allowed for archaeological research. At Frog Pond, a popular location for ice-skating, archeologists found stone tools and pottery fragments. Pieces of stone left over from shaping tools provided information about ancient trade networks while impressions left in pottery shards captured the outline of an ancient net. This miraculously undisturbed site and the knowledge found there helps us better understand the original inhabitants of the Shawmut peninsula, the land that became Boston. In nearby New York, the National Park Service has excavated middens on Liberty Island, sites discovered during a 1985 restoration of the Statue of Liberty. Over 9,000 items have been found and catalogued. New York City was famous for its oysters and oyster middens, but no living New Yorkers remember either. Currently, a project lead by landscape architect Kate Orff plans to bring oysters back to New York harbor. The middens, however, cannot be recreated.
These sites and the artifacts that they contain provide invaluable insight into Native American Communities. Donald Soctomah, a historic preservation officer for two Passamaquoddy tribes in Maine, spoke to the New York Times about the value of these middens: “To the Passamaquoddy, the shell middens are a link to the past, and give us an idea of how life was at a certain time and what people consumed…To us, any information about our past is very important, because we didn’t have a written record.” Artifacts provide a vital and emotional link to the past for all peoples. But for people whose history has not been recorded, or whose history has been deliberately kept out of the official record, any remaining artifacts become especially important as a way to understand the past and present of their communities. We must work to find, preserve, and understand any artifacts that keep such vital links alive.
All along the east coast, similar sites have been destroyed, ignored, and lost. The New York Times recently highlighted a struggle to save and study middens in Maine, were around 2,000 oyster middens still exist along the coast. Dr. Alice Kelley, who works with the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, organized a conference to discuss the threat to these sites at the most famous, the Whaleback Shell Midden. Kelley explained that these sites are numerous but, “in virtually every case here in southern Maine, they are disappearing or they are gone.” The ones that remain are guarded by environmental and historical organizations, but that does not completely protect them from looting and destruction. In archeology, context is everything. As soon as someone removes an ancient arrowhead or piece of pottery from a midden, it can tell us far less about the past than if we could see how deep it was buried or what it was near. Especially for artifacts as ancient as these, dating back thousands of years, every seemingly small clue helps piece together an elusive picture. For that reason, it is essential to fight for the shell middens that remain. The artifacts tell us about the people who made them, while the composition of the shells and other organic material can shed light on the ancient climate. This information is invaluable for all of us, but it stands to be lost through casual destruction or lack of concern. We must work to raise awareness about these mounds and what they can teach us. When people don’t understand, or don’t value, what may be lost, it is much less likely to be saved
Another, larger reality threatens these middens – because they are located on the coast, they are at risk of being lost as our climate changes and sea levels rise. Archeologists and preservationists are scrambling to act before the ocean destroys these resources forever. For example, the Florida Public Archaeology Network has launched the Heritage Monitoring Scouts program. Through this program (inspired by one in Scotland) they appeal to the public for help cataloging and documenting archaeological sites threatened by sea-level rise, offering training and resources to help them in this work. They frame this work as a public service “to our community, the environment, and past cultures.” As the Florida Public Archaeology network emphasizes, local and state governments work to protect property and infrastructure against sea level rise, but cultural heritage is not ranked as a priority. The Heritage Monitoring Scouts program offers a way to combat this inattention and to teach the value of heritage preservation. This effort could provide a model for costal communities going forward, a way to engage and educate citizens and to put their enthusiasm for history and heritage to work. Of course, working with the broad public raises other concerns. Many middens have not yet been located or studied and are occasionally stumbled upon by people less aware of cultural heritage issues. This puts these sites at risk for looting. Someone finds an ancient artifact and doesn’t know what it is and learns it might be valuable – without intervention or awareness of the importance of heritage preservation, they may be tempted to keep the artifact or sell it to the highest bidder. Even if artifacts are turned over to museums, they have been removed from their archaeological context which means they have much less information to offer us. How can museums and other professionals work with their local communities to raise awareness?
In January 2017, the New York Times published a profile of a promising new partnership. At the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, Kevin McBride, the museum’s director of research, has made efforts to work with hobbyist metal detectors to find and excavate archaeological sites. Many professionals distrust metal-detecting enthusiasts and see them as potential looters, while those interested in metal detecting worry that professionals will limit their ability to explore and find interesting objects. Their relationships are historically tense. McBride attempted to use metal detectors to uncover artifacts himself, but found it much harder than anticipated. He then moved to breach this division, reaching out to the experts at metal detecting and working to form a mutually beneficial alliance. Those interested in metal detecting get to explore and solve mysteries while historians and archaeologists get to learn more than they may have been able to otherwise. Through this cooperation, McBride has been able to explore a shell midden that may tell a story previously thought lost. After a brutal and devastating war against the Pequot in 1638, English colonists captured all remaining Pequot survivors. Any remnants of Pequot cultural identity were deliberately destroyed. The English killed many Pequot survivors and sold others into slavery. Some lived with the Mohegans, occupying five villages near modern day New London until around 1651. Previously, nobody knew exactly where these villages were. Metal detecting enthusiast Keith Wille found several objects of interest in that area and brought them to McBride. After Wille described the area, including the oyster shells there, and showed artifacts to McBride, the archaeologist concluded that Wille may have discovered one of those lost villages through their trash heap, or oyster midden. According to the New York Times, McBride is confident that this find could not have been made without the assistance of metal detectorists.
Through raising awareness and building connections, McBride found a way to turn a potential threat to heritage preservation into a valuable resource. Of course, many archaeologists and others may not agree with his approach and argue for carefully controlled access to vulnerable sites. But perhaps this work illustrates a model for a way to move forward in the immediate future when the loss of these middens looms so large on the horizon. In the effort to find and catalogue this history before it disappears forever, we may need all hands on deck.
To support this work, follow archaeologists, historians, and museums working to preserve shell middens and raise awareness about their significance. Look around your local community if you happen to live in a coastal area and follow local parks, museums, and preservationists on social media to learn about what support might be needed. Continue to support organizations like SAFE as we work to combat heritage destruction and looting. The more people are aware of places like shell middens as shared cultural resources, the more power will be available to protect and study them. Consider donating or volunteering with SAFE to further our work to protect our shared cultural heritage.
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