Stuck in the midden with you…

I really didn’t ever think I would excavate another shell mound site. I mean, I did a whole PhD on the things and sieved and sorted and counted my way through hundreds of kilograms of samples. But as it happens, I am currently enjoying the warm weather at Weipa (north eastern Australia) while finalising my preparations for a two week project with the Alngith People, who are Aboriginal custodians of the western Weipa Peninsula. We are planning on excavating a number of unusual shell mound sites at their request, after a number of unrecorded shell mound sites were found in locations that they shouldn’t ‘normally’ occur. As such, they are interested to know the age of the mounds and to learn more about the history of their Country and people. Plus, I get the sense people really enjoy working on Country when there are no bulldozers waiting to clear the area for mining once they are done.

My interest is in the question of mound formation. My Doctoral research looked at the economic dimensions of shell mound formation, and I’ve argued that these sites were associated with strategic but episodic use of very specific ecological niches: intertidal mudflats and sandflats. These are very rich ecosystems, brimming with shellfish, crabs, fish, rays and so on. My argument was that these shellfish species are sometimes highly abundant for a few months of the year, and that shell mound formation was linked to very specific shellfishing events that were timed to coincide with these shellfish ‘gluts’.

There’s more to it than that, of course, and these ideas are outlined in more detail in my various publications. While I was writing one of these papers, it occurred to me that my research had drifted away from what I think is still a major gap in our knowledge: why did Aboriginal people build mounds? It’s funny, since that question was why I became interested in shell mounds in the first place, but I think to get to that I needed to look at a bunch of more basic questions first. Hence, a PhD that didn’t directly tackle this issue.

For the last few years I’ve become interested in this question again and this was helped along by a recent paper by Ian McNiven (Ritualized Middening: doi:10.1007/s10816-012-9130-y). Like others, McNiven suggested that we need to reconsider the idea that shell middens are refuse and are the result of unplanned, unintentional discard. Applied to shell mounds, one could posit that unintentional or unstructured discard of shells and other debris left over from past meals might have meant that shells were thrown back into the sea, or distributed about the landscape forming large scatters. But they weren’t: people intentionally focused the placement of shell in such a way to create not only single mounds, but entire landscapes of mounds. In other words, it was cultural practices that led to the deposition of shell to form mounds. But what were these cultural practices? How did people in the past understand shell mounds and what does that tell us about Aboriginal societies in the past?



So, my work on the mounds starts from the position that it is problematic to assume that shell mounds were accidental, or even that they were seen as ‘refuse’ as we understand it now. I’m interested in finding out what the cultural and social factors contributing to mound formation were. I do have lots of data to draw on to answer this question, but the problem with archaeology is that our research outcomes are heavily influenced by what we find in our excavations. Furthermore, the way an excavation is designed can yield very different kinds of information. It follows then, that a different question can lead to a different approach to excavating and, in turn, different results. So, this year we’ll be excavating and sampling with a different approach compared to earlier excavations I have done. I’ll post something else about that later in the week, but basically it’s all about understanding the stratigraphy of mounds as we excavate, and that entails adapting the single context method to suit these sites.

Dating shell mounds at Weipa, Cape York Peninsula

I was just emailed this rather nifty word cloud that the Editors of Australian Archaeology have generated for a paper I have coming out in that journal later this year. It’s a great graphic depiction of what the paper is about: looking at possible patterns in radiocarbon dates on shell mounds for the Weipa region in Cape York Peninsula. If you’re not sure what shell mounds are, read this overview I wrote a few years ago. In short, they are cultural sites formed by generations of Aboriginal people collecting, cooking, eating and discarding shellfish—and other materials—resulting in the formation of mounds of shell. They are of high importance to Aboriginal custodians in the region today. 

Shell mounds at Weipa began to appear in the archaeological record just after around 3000 years ago, though I suspect ongoing research will eventually push this date back by another 1000 years. In this paper though, I wasn’t interested in the earliest dates. Instead, I was motivated by research elsewhere in northern Australia that suggested that Aboriginal people stopped constructing shell mounds around 700-500 years ago. The reason? Environmental changes are thought to have led to a drop in the availability of the main shellfish species found in shell mounds (Anadara granosa, known locally at Kwambuk). Does this theory apply at Weipa?

Close to 100 radiocarbon dates have been collected on shell mounds at Weipa, so I analysed this dataset to try to understand whether this theory could be supported. Without getting into the technical details, the answer was very simple. There is clear evidence that Aboriginal people continued to build shell mound sites up until AD 1800, that is, to within the past few hundred years. After that, our data is patchy because radiocarbon dating can not accurately date more recent samples.

The other interesting result was that within the last 1000 years there seems to have been an increase in the rate of mound building, though this is a trend that requires more research to better understand. This issue is a focus of excavations planned next year at Weipa, i.e. to better understand patterns of mound use through the past 1000 years.

You can find the abstract of the paper on the AAA website. If you want a copy of the paper, feel free to email me (or just join AAA!). 

The shell mounds of Albatross Bay, Cape York Peninsula

It has been some time since I last blogged about archaeology so in this post – which is a contribution to the Four Stone Hearth blogging carnival – I am taking up a question that has driven my work for the best part of the last decade – shellfish and its role as a food for Aboriginal people over the past ~2300 years on north western Cape York Peninsula (Australia’s north eastern ‘pointy bit’), which was the topic of my recent (2010) PhD Thesis.

[Note: This post is an attempt at writing about my research in plain English that is free from academic jargon which is something that I’ve wanted to do  for quite some time. There’s something dissatisfying about writing a 100,000 word academic thesis that won’t be read, and I think all academics have a responsibility to interpret their work for a wider audience. So my apologies – if you’re looking for something more academic,  then perhaps read some of the papers I’ve included in my reference list.

Continue reading

PhD is done!

At long, long last I am happy to report that my doctoral dissertation is through the examination process and came out largely unscathed. Although I need to make some minor corrections and graduate before it is ‘official’, it really all hinges on examiners comments which I received a few weeks ago. They were good, so I thought it might be timely to post my abstract.

The shell mounds of Albatross Bay: an archaeological investigation of late Holocene gatherer-hunter production strategies near Weipa, north eastern Australia.

This thesis presents the results of an archaeological investigation of shell matrix sites, and in particular, shell mounds sites that occur around the shores of Albatross Bay, near Weipa on the north western Cape York Peninsula, northern Australia. It is the contention of this thesis that earlier approaches to the investigation of shell mound sites in northern Australia have tended to place too much emphasis on developing long-term explanatory models that gloss over explanations for the specific roles of these unique sites in past economic systems. While long-term explanations represent important contributions, it is argued here that short-term decadal scale modelling of the production systems associated with shell mound formation and use are required in order to fully understand the significance of the mid- to late Holocene emergence of these types of sites. It is argued that a focus on production – defined in a substantive economic sense – is a suitable avenue through which archaeologists can expand our understanding of the role of these features in past Indigenous societies, and their broader importance on longer-term time scales

The thesis thus develops a detailed model of the production strategies associated with the formation of shell mound sites that occur around Albatross Bay, while also considering the broader significance of this model, particularly within the context of Cape York Peninsula. It presents the results of field surveys and excavations carried out around Albatross Bay by the author, as well as a detailed review and analysis of work carried out by others. It is argued that shell mounds are the result of relatively specialised production activities focussing on a very specific resource base: mudflat shellfish species. Shell mounds offered a range of unique benefits for people engaged in these specialised activities, including as camp sites and as specialised activity areas. These events were inherently flexible in size and in terms of timing, reflecting the dynamic nature of the resource base itself; yet the flexible nature of this production strategy also enabled more regular small scale social gatherings, along with a range of social and economic benefits to participants, than would have been otherwise possible. It is proposed that these types of strategies may represent an important characteristic of the production systems employed by gatherer-hunter peoples in late Holocene Cape York.

Overall, this thesis makes a significant contribution to both our understanding of late Holocene lifeways at Albatross Bay as well as to our understanding of the significance of the emergence of shell mound sites in Cape York. Furthermore, it highlights the importance of a focus on short-term modelling of Indigenous lifeways alongside approaches oriented toward longer-term explanations of economic, social and environmental change.

I’m in the process of making the final corrections and within a few months expect it to be available online and open access via the Open Digital Thesis Program. I’ll post again when that happens.

Morrison, M.J. 2010 The shell mounds of Albatross Bay: an archaeological investigation of late Holocene production strategies near Weipa, north eastern Australia. Unpublished PhD thesis, Adelaide: Department of Archaeology, Flinders University.