Note: In August, a group of about 40 people gathered to learn about and discuss Maine’s shell middens, part of the Maine Sea Grant-funded research project, Lost to the Sea. The two-day workshop include a field trip to the Whaleback Midden State Historic Site. We thought it would be informative to revisit the site in advance of the annual Pemaquid Oyster Festival on Sunday, September 24.
A mown path curves through the meadow, sloping downhill and passing between rows of apple trees before ending a few feet above the shore of the Damariscotta River in Midcoast Maine. The water has the deep teal color of tidal influence; in the distance are the whitecapped waves of rapids. Brine tinges the air. A dirt path, speckled white with bits of shell, leads to more shells along the river’s edge, dense piles of them, here grown over with trees and wildflowers, there along the bank crumbling into the water.
This is what is left of the Whaleback, the largest midden—piles of shells left by this continent’s indigenous peoples—north of Florida.
Across the channel on the opposite river bank, a big white cliff stands in contrast to the dark forest on either side. This is the Glidden Midden, a more intact shell heap from the same time. Downstream toward the open ocean, the shoreline is marked with another 200 ancient heaps, smaller and made of clam shells. More than 2,000 such sites exist along the coast of Maine.
Shell middens mark locations where ancestors of the Wabanaki people gathered, feasted, and lived seasonally, and remain important to the Tribes today. Middens have also been attractive to curious newcomers and amateur and professional archaeologists. Many sites have been looted over the years, destroyed by treasure hunters and market collectors.
At the Whaleback Midden, named for the long sloping hill formed by the piles, the shell heaps were considered worthless, a resource to be exploited.
With teams of horses and scows, the descendants of European colonists took shells to pave their walkways and roads, carting away hundreds of tons. In the late nineteenth century, Boston businessmen excavated the Whaleback Midden, mining the shells for chicken feed. They built a factory on the property to dry and grind the material, processing 200 barrels of shell per day into shell flakes for hen food and powdered fertilizer. Though the operation only lasted for five years, it consumed more than 95 percent of the midden.
Archaeologists, however, knew the midden contained a much greater wealth. The Peabody Museum at Harvard University purchased the rights to materials buried within the Whaleback. During the mining, A.T. Gamage was on site, working ahead of the shovels, collecting items of human interest as part of a systematic effort to recover what artifacts he could. All were sent to the museum in Massachusetts, including the skeletal remains of fourteen people (since returned to the Wabanaki).
Gamage found beads of beaten copper, stone arrowheads and axes, flame-hardened ceramic fragments and piles of blue clay that suggested pottery was made at the site. Among the oyster shells were charred and heat-split rocks; bones of alewife, shad, sturgeon, cod, deer, moose, bears, raccoons, seals, eider ducks, loons, and the now-extinct sea mink and the great auk. Hollows formed where shells surrounded tree trunks that then decayed. But mostly there were shells, in an irregular mound extending 300 feet back from the river and twenty feet high. The layers are patchy and inconsistent, the shells strewn as if they had been eaten one by one, or dumped basketful by basketful. Over time, the shells compacted into strata. Erosion of the Glidden Midden, several meters already, has acted like an archaeological dig, creating a cross-section of the midden, strata revealing hundreds of years of human activity.
Native people started building the Damariscotta oyster middens about 2,200 years ago, when rising sea levels, still reacting to the end of the last Ice Age, pushed salt water up over bedrock ledges in the river channel, creating prime oyster habitat. Scientists using modern methods have found that the oyster feasts occurred in late winter and spring, when other foods had grown scarce and the alewives were starting to run upriver. Around 700 years ago, the people stopped eating oysters, presumably because the oyster population declined, although some wild oysters persisted in remnant reefs.
Shell middens connect us to the individuals who once lived in this place. Also unearthed from the Damariscotta River middens was a strange-looking tool, a stone chisel attached to the end of a wooden handle, the kind of implement a person might use to harvest oysters, wading out into the shallow current to the shellfish bed, prying oysters apart, one by one.
The oyster feast will be repeated this weekend at the annual Pemaquid Oyster Festival at Schooner Landing, where hundreds of people will gather on the shores of the Damariscotta, celebrate the turn of the seasons, and eat thousands of oysters pulled from the river. At the end of the day, after everyone has gone home, there will be nothing to mark the event but a giant heap of shells.