Bay Journal

Timothy B. Wheeler is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Long-buried oyster shells show how the Bay sustained early Americans

Middens found along Maryland's Rhode River date back 3,200 years

  • March 08, 2018
This Native American oyster shell deposit was found to be about 1,000 years old. (Torben Rick, Smithsonian)Bone tools found in shell middens along Rhode River. (Alex Jansen, Smithsonian)Sherds, or fragments of pottery, found in middens. (Alex Jansen, Smithsonian)

What can a bunch of old oyster shells tell you about the Chesapeake Bay’s past, and maybe its future? More than you’d think, according to Alex Jansen, a researcher with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

For several years, Jansen has been working with other researchers poking around on both shores of the Bay, digging up “shell middens,” primitive landfills holding ancient debris and other castoff artifacts. Around the Chesapeake, they mostly contain heaps of oyster shells, an indication of the dietary importance of the Bay’s bivalves to indigenous people long before European settlers arrived. 

As described in a paper published in January’s North American Archeologist, Jansen recently excavated six middens along the Rhode River, on the grounds of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD. Screens were used to sift out shells and shell fragments, bones and other items. Carbon dating was used to determine their age.

The earliest shell midden found at the Smithsonian center dates to the Early Woodland period, which goes back as far as 1200 B.C., Jansen said.

“There have been no shell middens located that date prior to this time period on the Rhode River,” he added in an email. “This indicates that people fed extensively on oysters from the Early Woodland period up to the time of European settlement.” 

But the middens also yielded evidence that early Bay residents didn’t rely exclusively on oysters. Found amid the shells were projectile points, clay pot sherds, and fragments of stone and bone tools. To Jansen, that suggests the early Bay residents supplemented their diets with some hunting. 

The findings of his and others’ midden analyses helps to flesh out the understanding of Native American life before European settlement. But it also offers some tips for modern-day management of oysters, Jansen said.

He said his findings tend to back up the conclusions of his mentor, Torben Rick, chair of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History, that Native Americans were able to rely on the oyster fishery as a sustainable resource.

Evidence has been found that prehistoric harvest pressures may have been intense in places, he noted, as shell sizes shrank over time. But it would appear that Native Americans collected the bivalves by hand from near-shore waters, as there were no artifacts found that indicated tools were used to harvest them. So, though it may not have been a conscious act of conservation, those early watermen and waterwomen apparently did not harvest oysters from reefs in deeper water, so those could reproduce and restock the population with fresh crops of bivalves.  

“You need to balance management with fishery needs,” he said.

Jansen said his research demonstrates the value of using radiocarbon dating along with artifact analysis to identify and evaluate archeological sites. Those methods of cataloguing a site are vital in coastal areas, he noted, as they’re increasingly being washed away or inundated by erosion and sea level rise. 

“Carbon dating can provide you quick information before they’re lost,” he said. Most of the shell midden sites like the ones he studied, he said “are going to be underwater in the next 10 to 20 years…Once they’re under water, they’re lost.”

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About Timothy B. Wheeler
Timothy B. Wheeler is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
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Lisabeth Williamson on March 09, 2018:

Yea I have seen what I thought fragments, were bone tools a couple of times . I will be sure to save anything if I miracle find again . I wondered

Steve Forrest on March 11, 2018:

We have a similar looking pile of oyster shells in a marsh location in Poquoson Va. The pile is slowly eroding out of the shoreline but has always interested me as it is above the normal tideline. I had speculated that this pile was deposited by waterman during the oyster boom of the 1900's. Any guidance you can give me regarding its possible origin would be appreciated.

John Lewis on March 16, 2018:

I had the opportunity as a volunteer Scuba Diver to survey the Chesapeake Bay waters with a team under the supervision of Bruce Thompson, the Md. State underwater Archaeologist in the 1980’s & 90’s. Moving to Florida in late 2012 and joining another Volunteer team, we are examining and identifying Material from Shell mounds collected over many years currently stored n the History Center in Sarasota County under the supervision of County Archaeologist Steve Koski. Early man in this area left tools created out of shells ,ie hammers, net weights,scrappers and the remains of what they ate. Fish ,turtle,& animal bones. that go back Thousands of years.

Jacob Reverb on April 11, 2018:

Wait. The oyster middens studied will "be underwater in the next 10 to 20 years"? Really? The current rate of land subsidence combined with sea level rise in the area mentioned (Rhode River, MD) is about 1.3 inches per decade. In 20 years, we're talking about 2.7 inches TOTAL. Source: The midden shown in the photo above appears to be "just a hair" more than an inch or two above MSL, and I'm betting the others studied were, as well. I love reading the Bay Journal, but it's the mute, unquestioning parroting of unbelievable claims such as these that makes so many people disbelieve EVERYTHING they hear from what they consider AGW" Chicken Littles." You can and should do better, Mr. Wheeler.

Timothy Wheeler on April 24, 2018:

The midden photo used with this post came from another story about middens, and was not necessarily one of those studied by the researcher. A 2013 report to the Maryland Climate Commission projected relative sea-level rise of 0.9 feet to 2.1 feet by 2050.

John on April 25, 2018:

The photo above is from North Central Elliotts Island (18DO439) shell midden which was featured in Jansen's (2015) paper on his work at Fishing Bay, Maryland. Jansen's recent (2018) paper on SERC notes that 18AN226 is already partially inundated at high tide and waterlogged and that 18AN1323 is also partially inundated at high tide. The paper also notes that many of the other sites at SERC are threatened by sea level rise, erosion, and other processes. Furthermore, Jansen's Fishing Bay paper makes note that many of the sites are threatened by sea level rise, erosion, and other processes based on the fact that Doctor's Creek Hummock (18DO127) is partially inundated at high tide; the Middle Woodland occupation at South Snake Island (18DO130) is completely submerged and was only able to be excavated at low tide; North Snake Island (18DO114) is partially submerged; West Groggs Point (18DO436) was only accessible during low tide; and that North Central Elliotts Island (18DO439) is located on a dune face and is visibly eroding as can be seen in the midden photo above. Both papers indicate that earlier sites are likely obscured or difficult to locate as a result of sea level rise, erosion, or some other combination of elements. These conditions will only likely increase with current projections of global sea level rise.

John on April 25, 2018:

It's also worth mentioning that many of these sites are situated on creek banks and are slowly being inundated by sea level rise, erosion, and other processes.

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