What lies beneath

Maine shell midden artifacts

What lies beneath

Maine shell midden artifacts

Maine shell middens are full of artifacts — stone and bone tools, pottery, remains of fish and animals, and even shells that can enrich archaeologists’ understanding of the site’s cultural and environmental history. Alone, these artifacts can be of great interest and beauty; however, their context (where they were found) and association (what they were found with) are far more important. An artifact without these elements loses its ability to inform the past. This is why archaeologists go to great lengths to record meticulous details about where each was found and try to dissuade artifact collectors from disturbing shell middens. Once a site has been dug and the items removed, it can never be excavated again.

Stone and bone tools

Stone tools and the discarded materials from their manufacture (debitage) are commonly found in middens. The function and design of the tools can suggest a site’s age or the culture and activities of the people who left them behind. Also, the types of stones can shed light on where the site’s occupants came from or whom they interacted or traded with. Often, the stone material is from nearby sources; however, stones from as far away as Ohio or northern Labrador, Canada are occasionally found in Maine middens. Items made from bone are quite rare due to their perishable nature and are often only found in shell middens. Bone tools include barbed harpoons, projectile points, fishing hooks, and even beads, jewelry and musical instruments.

Three chipped-stone bifaces, left, clockwise: Kineo rhyolite, Moosehead Lake region; chert, unknown source; Munsungan chert, northern Maine (1000 BCE–500 CE Woodland/Ceramic Period); Right: bone awl (1000–500 CE Late Woodland Period)

Native ceramics

Native people in the Northeast began making ceramics nearly 3,000 years ago. While archaeologists have never found a fully intact vessel in Maine, their fragments (potsherds) are quite common in middens. The styles and patterns of decoration — imprints using animal teeth, fabric or sticks wrapped in cord — can be used to determine the age of a site. In some cases, what was cooked or stored in the pots can be determined by chemically analyzing the ancient residues.

Left to right: Cord-wrapped stick (CP4 (600–1000 CE late Middle Woodland/Ceramic); CP2 rocker dentate (200 BCE–300 CE early Middle Woodland/Ceramic Period)

Faunal remains

Discarded bones of fish, birds, reptiles and mammals often found in middens are representative of which animals lived and were hunted in and around the Gulf of Maine. Some animals, like the now-extinct sea mink, are only known through remains preserved in shell middens. The skeletal elements present also can hint at deeper cultural meanings. At one site, the left auditory bulla (ear bone) of the grey seal was found in greater abundance than any other part of the animal, suggesting those bones in particular had specific cultural significance.

Left to right: Grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) temporal auditory bulla; sea mink (Neovison macrodon) maxilla and teeth (1000 BCE—500 CE Woodland/Ceramic Period)


Clam and oyster shells that make up the bulk of a midden contain important records of ancient climate and environmental conditions in the Gulf of Maine. Oxygen isotopes, which became incorporated into the bivalve shells when they were alive, can be analyzed to determine past sea temperatures and salinity, the season in which they were harvested and the time of year the sites were occupied.

Softshell clam (Mya arenaria) (1000 BCE–500 CE Woodland/Ceramic Period)

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