More than just a pile of shells

The Damariscotta River oyster piles are the largest middens on the East Coast north of Florida. Why are they so big?

They are thickest at the water’s edge, but extend hundreds of feet into the forest. Discarded pottery and other artifacts from within and around the middens indicate people were living on site, not simply collecting and preparing shellfish. It was more than a fishing camp. People gathered there in seasons both warm and cold. They cooked and made pottery at the site and got water from a small stream. They ate berries and nuts; clams, fish, deer, seal, moose, and bear. And lots and lots of oysters.

The piles may have started out of accident or convenience. Or people could have intended from the outset to make their mark. They didn’t throw the shells back into the river, but instead built tall mounds, dumping shells on top and creating landmarks visible to people paddling up and down the river.

There are lots of reasons why ancestors of the Wabanaki people would want to make a shell pile large and noticeable. This essay in the 2018 Island Journal describes how contemporary anthropologists and archaeologists and Indigenous scholars have a new understanding of Maine’s shell middens.