Chapter 4

Shell Middens Along the Coast

Shell middens are unique and extremely important archaeological sites, both because the alkaline nature of the shells preserves bone tools and food remains and because the deposits are layered or stratified so that change through time can be examined. As common and visible as they are along the coast, shell middens have attracted uncommon attention. In this chapter, we look at the history of shell midden archaeology in Maine, the history of maritime adaptations in relation to sea level rise and mollusk succession, and review the details of shell midden archaeology in the project area between Boothbay and the Kennebec.

A Brief History of Shell Midden Archaeology in Maine

".....if a day's work in a shell heap resulted in finding less than fifty or sixty objects, the heap was abandoned and we got aboard our boat and moved to another site." (Moorehead 1922:177)

Digging in "shell heaps" has long been a pastime in Maine, probably starting soon after the demise or relocation of Native populations. Professional investigation was longer in coming, especially for Maine institutions (Spiess 1985). The earliest published surveys, conducted during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were conducted by southern New England institutions including the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the R. S. Peabody Foundation, and Yale University. A small amount of work was also carried out under the auspices of the American Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution. Private support for Maine archaeology was initiated in 1928 with the opening of the Robert S. Abbe Museum of Stone Age Antiquities, but it was not until 1966, when the University of Maine hired archaeologist Dean Snow, that state support commenced. Today, archaeology in Maine is carried out through the auspices of the Maine State Museum, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, the University of Maine at Orono, Farmington, and at the University of Southern Maine.

During the nineteenth century, Maine shell midden archaeology was largely an armchair pursuit for naturalists with an interest in anthropology. While Jeffries Wyman, the first director of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, excavated Casco and Frenchman Bay shell middens himself, his successor, Frederic Ward Putnam, hired excavators, including Manly Hardy and Charles C. Willoughby, to recover material for display, as did John Wesley Powell for the American Bureau of Ethnology (Spiess 1985). The emphasis in these projects was on the recovery of artifacts, as well as on developing an understanding of events represented in the middens. No attention was paid to stratigraphy.

By the early twentieth century, more detailed scientific work was being carried out but excavation was generally rapid. Professors Frederic B. Loomis and J. Tyler of Yale University conducted a comparative analysis of eight Maine shell middens, including several in Casco Bay, one on Sawyers Island in Boothbay, and a few in Frenchman Bay (Loomis and Young 1912). Focusing largely on faunal remains, the group looked at settlement patterns and noted sea level rise. On Sawyers Island the group excavated 10,000 ft3 in a month's time. In even more rapid tours of Maine shell middens and interior sites, Warren K. Moorehead, who was the first curator and later the director of the newly formed Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology at Phillips Academy, recorded many of the largest Maine shell middens between 1912-1920 (Moorehead 1922). Stratigraphy was again completely ignored; the emphasis was on artifact recovery. Moorehead made many summary observations about Maine archaeology, however, that had a major impact on later thinking (Spiess 1985). For example, he defined a variety of site types, and proposed different ethnic affiliations for coastal and interior populations on the basis of artifact types.

The Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology continued an interest in Maine shell middens when they hired Douglas Byers in 1933. Byers directed excavations at the Nevin shell heap in Blue Hill during the 1940s, with a report on the work being published posthumously (Byers 1979). During the same period, W. B. Smith and later Wendall Hadlock were affiliated with the Robert S. Abbe Museum for Stone Age Antiquities, both men excavating shell middens in Frenchman Bay and reporting on their work (Smith 1929; Hadlock 1939, 1941). These reports contribute great detail about the middens and their contents but do not provide much in the way of analysis. As W. B. Smith said at the end of his report on the Jones Cover shell midden in Gouldsboro (Smith 1929:26), "These notes are simply an attempt to record the things found here without wandering far from tangible objects of the Jones Cove deposits, or in forming conclusions."

Maine shell midden excavation sponsored by clubs and societies commenced in the 1940s and grew in popularity through the 1950s. An early example was John Howland Rowe's excavation at the Waterside site in Frenchman Bay under the auspices of Harvard's Excavators Club (Rowe 1940; Spiess 1985). Using careful excavation techniques, Rowe identified stratigraphic units associated with different suites of cultural material, coining the term "Moorehead Complex" for material at the lowest level (Spiess 1985:21). In 1956, two members of the South Shore Chapter of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, Guy Mellgren and Edward Runge, began excavations at the Goddard site in Blue Hill, excavating using a grid system and locating important finds on square plans. During fifteen summers' excavation at Goddard, Mellgren and Runge recovered over 20,000 artifacts including a Norse coin (Bourque and Cox 1981) ), all now donated to the Maine State Museum. The Maine Archaeological Society was established in 1957, sponsoring digs at many sites, including shell middens, for a number of years, and providing an important liaison between amateur and professional archaeologists.

The State of Maine made a commitment to Maine archaeology in 1966 when they hired Dean Snow as the first professor of archaeology at the University of Maine at Orono. Snow was succeeded by David Sanger in 1971, and the Maine State Museum hired Bruce Bourque as their prehistoric archaeologist in 1972. With strong interests in shell midden archaeology, both Sanger and Bourque have made major contributions to the scientific pursuit of Maine archaeology and particularly, shell midden archaeology (e.g. Bourque 1995; Sanger 1987, 1988). Arthur Spiess became the prehistoric archaeologist at the Maine Historic Preservation Commission in 1978, and David Yesner joined the faculty of the University of Southern Maine in the same year. Yesner's shell midden work (e.g. Yesner 1983) and that of his successor, Nathan Hamilton (Hamilton 1985; Hamilton and Mosher 1994), has focused on Casco Bay, while Arthur Spiess has conducted shell midden excavations on Sears Island in Penobscot Bay (Spiess and Hedden 1983) and on Allen's Island (Spiess 1984).

Recent work in Maine shell midden archaeology is highly scientific and has followed several research trajectories. Bourque's Turner Farm report used shell midden stratigraphy to develop a detailed chronology for the late Archaic period in Maine. Analysis of the Turner Farm faunal remains (Spiess and Lewis in prep) provides a wealth of information on prehistoric subsistence patterns through time. Sanger and many of his graduate students have taken a cultural ecological approach and focused on the environmental context of coastal settlement and on maritime adaptations (e.g. Carlson 1986; Chase 1988; Mack 1994; Sanger 1988; Sanger and Kellogg 1989). Both Yesner (1983) and Hamilton 1985) have focused on maritime adaptations, while Spiess (Spiess and Hedden 1981; Spiess and Lewis in prep) has examined subsistence patterns in relation to chronology.

Shell Midden Archaeology in the Boothbay Region

The Boothbay region has been visited by professional archaeologists sporadically since the early twentieth century, with a significant amount of work being conducted by the University of Maine at Orono in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first excavation in the region was carried out in 1909 by Professors Frederic B. Loomis and J. Tyler of Yale University on site 16.54, a shell midden on Sawyers Island (Loomis and Young 1912). The two professors, together with three students, excavated 10,000 ft3 in a month's time, about 50 ft3 per person per day. Shortly thereafter, Warren K. Moorehead (1922) conducted the first survey of the region, reporting thirteen shell middens greater than 20m in diameter. Boothbay received no more attention until 1967, when Dean Snow, the first archaeologist at the University of Maine at Orono, began cataloguing all Maine sites in the records of the R.S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology (Thomas 1995). Snow noted thirty-two sites in the Boothbay region at that time.

When Dr. David Sanger of the University of Maine at Orono began a comprehensive survey of the Boothbay 15' topographic quadrangle in 1979, ninety sites were known in the region, an increase from Snow's work based on several surveys conducted in the area during the 1970s. The aim of Sanger's work, which was supported by a NOAA Sea Grant, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and the University of Maine, was to identify all sites in the region and to characterize the chronology and nature of the deposits as well as the environmental setting. Sanger's crew recorded 100 new sites in the region, and numerous master's theses resulted from the work. Several focused on site seasonality using faunal remains (Carlson 1986; Chase 1988; Hancock 1982), one summarized the University of Maine excavations and examined several amateur collections from the region (Thomas 1995), and another looked at site location choices (Kellogg 1982).

The 1995 and 1996 excavations on Indiantown represent the most recent work in the region, and the only work conducted since the University of Maine's survey.

Shell Middens and Maritime Adaptations

Coastal archaeological sites, and shell middens in particular, provide detailed information about prehistoric use of marine resources. Anthropologists have, in fact, characterized a maritime adaptation for non-agricultural hunter-gatherers that is relatively sedentary because the marine environment is productive year-round. In addition, the social structure of coastal dwellers tends to be less egalitarian than for inland groups (Carlson 1986:13). In this section, we will look at the evolution of Maine's coastal environment and the timing of coastal habitation.

The character of the Gulf of Maine has changed considerably as sea level has risen during the last 11,000 years. Until 8,000 years ago, the Gulf of Maine was a shallow, tideless body of water (Schnitker 1974) that may not have been highly productive. By 6,000 years ago, tides had been established but marine waters were still shallower and warmer than today. The warmth was due in part to the circulation pattern of the Labrador Current, which did not flow into the Gulf of Maine through the Northeast Channel as it does today. About 6,000 years ago, oysters, which thrive in moderately warm, brackish water and require hard bottom for reproduction (Yesner 1983:81), were growing near Lazygut Island in Penobscot Bay (Spiess, Bourque and Cox 1983) and in the lower Damariscotta River estuary (Shipp 1989; Spiess and Hedden 1990), although there is no direct evidence that people were harvesting them. Between 5,000 and 3,700 years ago, swordfish were hunted by Native People in the Gulf of Maine (Bourque 1995; Cox 1991; Eldridge 1996; Sanger and Kellogg 1989), with sites containing swordfish bone in Penobscot Bay and on Monhegan. As early as 5,000 years ago, soft-shell clams were being harvested in Penobscot Bay, but widespread use of soft-shell clams did not occur until about 2,000-3,000 years ago (Sanger and Kellogg 1989; Yesner 1983).

The oldest dated evidence for coastal habitation in Maine comes from the Turner Farm site on North Haven, where late Archaic remains at the base of a shell midden dated to 5,000 years ago (Bourque 1995). Two reasons have been proposed to explain the lack of older coastal sites. The first is that the sites were drowned or eroded as sea levels rose during the past 11,000 years (Sanger and Kellogg 1989; Kellogg 1995). The second is that the early Gulf of Maine was not highly productive, a result of low tidal amplitude and poor circulation, and that there were scant resources to support people in a maritime adaptation (Sanger and Belknap 1987). Evidence for the first scenario may be found in the rare artifacts that have been dragged up by fishing boats in the Gulf of Maine and associated estuaries (e.g. Spiess, Bourque, and Cox 1983; Wilson 1997). The second reason is much harder to confirm.

One conclusion from Maine coastal research is that the timing of the earliest visible occupation varies significantly along the coast, a result of localized rates of sea level rise and differential erosion rates (Sanger and Kellogg 1989). Another factor contributing to the pattern is that certain locations only became available for habitation when sea level had risen enough to make access possible and to create clam flats.

Research conducted to date shows that the oldest extant Maine shell middens are in Penobscot and Frenchman Bays, where soft-shell clams were procured as early as 5,000 B.P. In Casco Bay, the earliest dated occupation, about 4,000 B.P., was associated with oyster shells at the base of a large midden on Great Moshier Island (Yesner 1984). Basal deposits in the oldest Casco Bay shell middens are routinely composed of oyster and quahog (Loomis and Young 1912; Sanger and Kellogg 1989; Yesner 1983), species indicative of warmer waters and a lack of intense sedimentation. A decline in the rate of sea level rise, increasing sedimentation, and colder surface temperatures have been proposed to account for intensive coastal settlement and the formation of soft-shell clam middens after 2,000 B.P. in Casco Bay (Yesner 1983).

Evidence for shell midden use is somewhat later along the midcoast and far downeast coasts. In the Boothbay region, the earliest intact shell midden deposits date to about 3,000 B.P., while sites more recent than 2,000 B.P. are common. All coastal and lower estuary sites are primarily composed of soft-shell clam; however, significant oyster deposits and, to a lesser degree, quahog deposits, are present in the upper Damariscotta River estuary (Cranmer and Spiess 1996; Sanger and Kellogg 1989; Sanger and Sanger 1986). The large oyster shell heaps were formed between 2,400 and 1,000 B.P. (Sanger and Kellogg 1989; Sanger and Sanger 1986) at a time when sea level had risen enough to create optimum conditions above a bedrock sill in the upper Damariscotta River. Oysters appear on several sub-bottom profiles taken lower in the river (Shipp 1989), indicating that oysters moved upriver as sea level rose above successive bedrock sills. No oyster shell middens are present along the shores of the Sheepscot or other midcoast estuaries, although there is a relict oyster population present below the Head Tide dam in the Sheepscot today. Further, random oyster shells are found in many shell middens in the lower Sheepscot, including on Indiantown (Raymond Swett personal communication, Wilson personal observation).

Recent analysis of artifact collections from the Boothbay region (Wilson 1997) and the current work on Indiantown suggests several reasons for a lack of early shell middens in the region. First, sea level reconstructions indicate (Figure 3) that the locations of most known shell middens were not available for habitation prior to 3,000 B.P. Older artifacts associated with some of these shell middens, Paleoindian and middle Archaic artifacts at site 16.37 (Crotts 1985; Wilson 1997), for example, appear to be associated with an ancient inland stream, possibly at a small falls. A recently reported non-shell midden spanning the period between 5,000-2,000 B.P. (Wilson 1997) is located on the Goose Rocks passage, which was an active marine channel by about 8,000 B.P. The site does not contain shell, suggesting that flats were not productive at the time of prehistoric habitation. It seems likely that other Archaic coastal sites are present in the region in locations that were available for settlement at that time, but that they were not encountered during the University of Maine surveys, which focused on shell middens.

On the far downeast coast, particularly in Passamaquoddy Bay, the pattern is much the same as for the midcoast, with soft-shell clam middens dating no earlier than 3,000 B.P., and most common after 2,000 B.P. (Sanger and Kellogg 1989). Sanger (Sanger and Kellogg 1989) suggests that sea level was relatively stable between 2,000-350 B.P. and began to rise at a rate of about 9mm per year since 350 B.P.

In summary, the available evidence documents prehistoric use of the Maine coast from about 5,000 years ago to the Contact period. However, earlier use is not only possible, but likely, based on accumulating data from artifacts recovered by fishing boats in estuaries and bays, and from sites such as 16.238 on Westport, a non-shell midden with a strong late Archaic small stem point component adjacent to a salt water passage of great antiquity. What does seem likely, however, is that shell middens do not date much older than 5,000 B.P., and that modeling and surveying for non-shell sites in locations available prior to that date and not currently drowned or eroded has not been undertaken.

A succession of oyster to quahog to soft-shell clam middens is present in some areas, notably in Casco Bay and the Damariscotta River, while the soft shell clam appears first and almost exclusively in the midcoast region, Penobscot Bay, and the downeast coast. The lack of oysters and quahogs may indicate that early micro-habitats that supported these species were not present in the latter regions. Even with less tidal amplitude and warmer sea temperatures, the Gulf of Maine appears to have been the northern limit for these species, which dominate early middens in southern New England and the mid-Atlantic states (Bernstein 1993; Ritchie 1969; Claassen 1996).

Go to the top