This time of year, most people are flocking to Maine in search of beaches, puffins, lobster rolls, and blueberry pie. As a Mainer, I sailed schooners out of Camden in the summers, enjoying the strong winds and mild surf as much as any tourist. But this year, I had a different type of summer trip: I searched the shoreline for something that has been there all along - for literally thousands of years. Despite growing up on an island I never noticed them before… giant mounds of shells!
In Maine, these shell mounds, more formally known as shell middens, are Indigenous cultural spaces containing massive quantities of shell and bone refuse and can also include artifacts and items of ceremonial significance. These sites can be as big as football fields and some extend several meters into the ground, dating back 5000 years. The strata in the middens act like the distinctive stripes in the Grand Canyon: each level describes a different period of time or captures different cultural events. Archaeologists can paint a picture of what life must have been like for those using the area at each stratum. For example, during a period of climate change, the Damariscotta River was full of foot-long oysters and the Whaleback and Glidden middens represent this history with their 30 foot deep oyster shell mounds.
These shells have captivated researchers for decades. Scores of shell middens (also known as shell mounds or shell heaps) have been excavated along the coast, most of them dotting the shores of Penobscot Bay. If you hold your left hand flat out in front of you as if it were the state of Maine, Penobscot Bay falls between your wrist and the crook of your thumb. In Penobscot Bay alone, over 40 shell middens have been documented and many studied, making it the hub not only of the midcoast, but also of coastal Maine archaeology. Nearly a century ago, the pioneering anthropologist who built the core of the Smithsonian collections, Frank Hamilton Cushing, worked with the Penobscot Bay middens in Brooklin and Stonington. Ironically, although he had originally come to Maine to look after his health, he choked on a fish bone and passed away while at a now famous research site.
In the second week of June 2021, Drs. Alexis Mychajliw (Middlebury College) and Courtney Hofman (University of Oklahoma) and I traveled up the coast to visit shell middens including those in North Haven, Blue Hill, Brooklin (where Cushing choked on a fish bone), and Machiasport (the eastern most point of the United States). Each midden was situated adjacent to a body of saltwater (either a brackish river or the ocean). At each site, we witnessed broken shells falling onto the beach from the bank. Sometimes, we saw animal bone fragments.
But, we didn’t collect anything just because we saw it. Sadly, even today looting remains an issue at archaeological sites. Unlike earlier collectors who sought mostly to extract specimens without engaging local people, our visit instead was a reunion of sorts. We have been working with historically collected specimens from these very shell middens, and we were here to instead see these as places of cultural significance, not just sources of data. We were here to learn about the future of these middens, not just their past. During our visit to Machias, Dr. Bonnie Newsom (University of Maine), member of the Penobscot Nation and director of the U. Maine archaeology field school, shared with us how Indigenous approaches to archaeology can strengthen connections between Native youth and their ancestors. Protecting these middens and ensuring access to them for future generations is an important part of Wabanaki sovereignty today. If you are in Maine and notice a midden, we encourage you to reach out to the Maine Midden Minders program to learn how you can help preserve these cultural spaces.
This summer, I am working with mammal bones from several Maine middens. Though they fill only two cardboard filing boxes, their categorization, measurement, photography, and sampling will fill eight weeks of study for my summer internship. My goal? To examine how minks in Maine may have varied over time in their ecology and use by people. In particular, the Sea mink (the supposed extinct sister taxon of the American mink)2. has been recovered from archaeological sites only along the Maine coast, whereas the American mink is widespread across North America and numerous fur farms around the planet -- something that everyone was reminded of recently due to COVID-19 causing the culls of millions of minks in Denmark 3.
Although I’m not cooking lobster on the beach or sailing around Penobscot Bay this summer, I’m excited to engage with my home state in a completely new way. This is the first of three blog posts I will write this summer, so keep an eye out for a lab update in July. I can’t wait to dig in!
1. Sanger, D. & Sanger, M. J. The Damariscotta Oyster Shell Heaps. Northeast. Nat. 4, 93-102 (1997).
2. Prentiss, D. W. Description of an extinct mink from the shell heaps of the Maine coast. Proceedings United States National Museum 26, 887-888 (1903).
3. Enserink, M. Coronavirus rips through Dutch mink farms, triggering culls. Science 368, 1169 (2020).