To Do: Migrate

This presentation is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison

James Moore: Our next speaker will be Jeff Shanks. Jeff has been an archeologist with the National Park Service for 8 years. Prior to that, he worked for the Florida Bureau of Archeological Research. He is currently the Acting Program Leader for the external programs and NHL division at the Southeast Archeological Center in Tallahassee. In recent years, his primary area of research has been the woodland period sites on the northeast Florida Gulf Coast.

Jeff Shanks: All right. Thanks so much for having me. This has been a great conference so far. I’m going to be talking about one of the most ubiquitous archeological features that we find in prehistoric maritime cultures, the sometimes humble shell midden. What I want to do is look at shell middens not just as food refuse, although we can learn a lot about that, but sometimes looking at certain shell middens as part of a larger cultural landscape can tell us a lot more about prehistoric people than just resource exportation or what the environment was like. Jump right in. I apologize a little bit for reading here. If I don’t stick to the script, I’ll go way over 15 minutes. Make sure this works. All right.

Shell middens come in all shapes and sizes, from small pits in the ground to surface scatters to enormous piles 20 meters tall and hundreds of meters across. There’s a long standing controversy in America as to whether the big prehistoric heaps of shell found along our coasts and inland waterways represent little more than the refuse of neos or of former cultures, or something with more social, ceremonial and ideological functions and meaning. Limited by their low opinions of cultures other than their own, many 19th century archeologists concluded that yes, indeed, shell middens were simply garbage piles and merely the refuse of feasting. Nothing to see here.

Today, archeologists have largely abandoned such ideas, and for at least the last five decades, have concentrated on addressing what the shell and vertebrate fauna remains in shell middens can tell us about past environments and how shell mound building cultures adapted to those environments. This processional approach to shell middens has been an era of telephone booth archeology, where the column sample has reigned supreme. Ranked species has become the main data of reckoning. Such environmental explorations are of course necessary and important to modern archeological understanding of prehistoric maritime cultures. And up until recent years, shell mounds and rings, when they were examined at all, were the subjects of these kinds of processual analysis. What did folks eat and discard at these rings? What did they tell us about their relationship with the environment?

In the early 1990s, however, during a survey of NPS’s Timucuan Preserve in northeast Florida, two shell rings were discovered, and these begged deeper analysis. They were actually discovered by Mike Russo.Shell rings were circular and semi-circular rings of shell ranging from fifty to eighty meters in diameter and about a meter or two in height. Dating to between 3500 and 5000 years in age, and found only along the cost of South Carolina and Georgia, the peculiar shapes of the rings puzzled 19th century and early 20th century investigators who recognized them as being made of the same kinds of shell refuse found in most shell middens, but who speculated that their shapes must have also held some social or spiritual significance.

The two rings that were discovered in the Timucuan Preserve, were the first to be recognized in Florida. And they were a bit different. Over 200 meters in diameter and up to four meters high, they were much larger. One of these, the Rollins Ring, actually consisted of one large ring, with thirteen smaller asymmetrically shaped rings attached around its perimeter. Nothing exactly like this had been found in the heart of shell ring country in Georgia and South Carolina. In 2006, the known forty two archaic shell rings along the southeast US coast, were identified in an NHL theme study and the Fig Island shell ring complex of South Carolina was listed in the National Register, for its potentially yield important information on a national level of significance related to the builders adaptation to the 4500 year old conditions that existed at the time. And those conditions were far different than they stood at the time of the nomination.

The theme study recognized that all shell rings were originally built on high land in maritime forest. A contemporary Fig Island stood in a salt water marsh, subject to daily tidal submergence at its base deposits. I’ll show you just briefly, here’s the boundary that was drawn for this NHL that Mike drew. And he mentioned that at the time, he was sort of encouraged to keep it as small as possible. And you see the boundary here only incorporates the shell midden itself. At the time, it wasn’t … You know, we weren’t thinking of this in terms of a landscape, a cultural landscape. Had we approached this from that perspective, had Mike approached it from this perspective, that boundary might’ve been much broader and incorporated more of the environment around it. But, in any case, for the first time, the theme study nomination recognized shell rings as something other than just middens.

Social places were in the deposits, which consisted of little more than food refuse, held the potential to reveal insights into the social rankings of individuals and groups within the society. And communal events involving large scale feasting that culminated in the construction of the rings as monuments. Using comparative analysis from circular communities throughout the world and social theories of proxemics that analyzed the organization of space and houses and buildings and the layout of towns, the nomination argued that all shell rings, regardless of their shapes as circles, Cs, or Us, were constructed of large piles of shells representing single sequential feasting events. With the most shell being piled at points in the ring that special theory predicted were symbolically significant points in society that were often held by the most economically and symbolically most important groups or individuals in that society.

The evidence or thesis was represented in cross sectioning the rings that revealed not sequential construction layers, but overlapping piles of shell representing temporally isolated events. The nomination suggested that rings were not built in construction sequences, like Mississippian mounds, but rather communally. As the epi-phenomena of periodic feasting events that resulted in large amounts of shell. Purposefully and intentionally, the shell from each feast was gathered in one location in the ring over the course of time enlarging and increasing the height of the rings with more shell being deposited in those particularly symbolic points within the circle, C, or U plan of the construction.

So, also, about the same time as the nomination, in 2006, a potential symbolic meaning was beginning to be discovered in a very different, much younger type of shell midden, along the northwest Florida gulf coast. In northwest Florida, the middle to late woodland archeological cultures are known as the Swift Creek, identified by their complicated stamp ceramics and Weeden Island culture identified by their intricate in size and punctuated ceramics and a series of epithagy vessels that function primarily as mortuary wear.

Many coastal, Swift Creek, and Weeden Island sites are demarcated by roughly circular shell bearing middens surrounding clean level open area or plaza. The sites have been termed ring middens, shell enclosures, or annual middens. Asides from organically sustained soils, coastal ring midden contain mostly animal remains, shell and bones, that are universal inferred or reflect the accumulated daily food discard of longterm occupations. Either permanent or seasonal and are most often interpreted to be the remanence of villages or base camps. Many of the Woodland period ring middens on the northwest Florida coast are adjacent to sand mounds that contain multiple burials. And it’s these mounds that have received the most attention over the years. Many of them being excavated by Clarence B. Moore over a century ago.

During the 1970s, the operating model intended to describe the burial mounds as sacred areas and the adjacent ring middens as secular spaces. This sacred secular dichotomy is now recognized as being overly simplistic and subsequent excavation is shown that in many cases are simply wrong as evidence of ceremonial activities can be found throughout the ring middens and plazas, as well as the mounds. But, it’s still often thought of … And the rings and mounds are still thought of as separate sites. So, that idea, even though we recognize it as, you know, being somewhat outdated, it still kind of plays into our thinking, somewhat. And you even see it in the case of naming the sites. A lot of these sites … The mound will have a separate site number than the midden, for example. Even though, really, it should be seen as part of the same complex.

So, for the last ten years, the southeast archeological center, the National Park Services, have been working on a series of Woodland mound and midden sites at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City. The mounds here were originally excavated by Moore, by little archeological work had been done on the middens. The four sites, at which MPS did their most extensive work, are Swift Creek … The Swift Creek site, Baker’s Landing, the Weeden Island’s Stranger’s Landing Site, and the Pearl Bayou and Hare Hammock Sites, which have both Swift Creek and Weeden Island phases.

So, as result of these excavations and a large number of radio carbon dates that were obtained, we have a very good understanding of both the relative and absolute local chronology for the area. As well as some interesting and intriguing observations on the nature of the shift from the earlier Swift Creek Middle Woodland to the later Weeden Island Late Woodland. The past two years, we’ve moved our focus further east to Wakulla County, south of Tallahassee, where we found similar patterns in site formation, ceramic creation and chronology at several Woodland sites. Particularly, Mound Field, which is a Weeden Island Site and Bird Hammock, which again has both Swift Creek and Weeden Island components. What we found is that there is certain phenomena observable in the archeological record associated with that shift from middle to late Woodland that may have been regional in extent, rather than isolated locally to the Tennel Peninsula.

These patterns only become apparent, however, when we start to view these mound and midden sites through the lens of landscape archeology. Viewing the various components as part of a larger integrated spatial complexes. These complexes were laid out in generally concentric ring formations, from the central plaza to the outer edge and beyond the mound. Constituting the five basic zones where the community activities took place. Let me back up here a little bit. If it’ll let me. There we go. These complexes are generally laid out in concentric ring formation, so you have in the center of the plaza area, that’s usually, generally, mostly devoid of artifacts, although we do find features, this is, you know, sort of the central public sacred space. That’s surrounded then by a ring of houses, that … You know, the habitation area. Beyond that, you have the refuse, the midden itself. Then you have a sort of transitional area beyond the midden, where there may be processional areas leading to the mound that connects the mound with the habitation area that we haven’t really been able to discern those yet. And then you have the mound itself, beyond that. You know, this other sacred space.

So, you know, together these different rings or different spaces, they constitute the basic structure of the built environment at coastal ring middens in this area. In contrast to previous models that spoke of the ring midden as the sole quartinian component of the village, this model composites these concentric ring zones constitute the landscape of the many and diverse activity spheres. Including the ceremonial and the ideological that constituted village life.

When we expand our landscape view, spatially to incorporate the greater coastal region and temporally to include the shift from the middle to late Woodland where patterns emerge. The Swift Creek sites tend to be smaller and the shell refuse tends to be more heavily concentrated and evenly distributed around the entire circumference of the ring midden. With the Weeden Island sites the shell is deposited only in certain locations within the ring. Usually, one side. And the ring itself is only fully discernible by looking at the distribution of ceramics. So, what may be going on is that you have … You can see here, this Weeden Island Ring, this is actually the ceramic distribution, but you can see more artifacts on one side of the ring, so it may be that we have populations living here in this village more or less permanently, but then the rest of the ring gets filled in for feasting events and things like that, when, you know, people come to visit the village.  The Weedeen Island Ring middens are also larger in diameter than their Swift Creek counterparts, based on the time of occupation of the sites and the amount of shell in the middens, there’s no evidence, however, of an increase in population, despite the larger size of these Ring Island rings.

There had to be some reason that the inhabitants of the Weeden Island Ring Middens require more disperse living areas with a larger plaza area than they’re Swift Creek predecessors. The placement of the burial mound relative to the village plaza may have also taken on new significance after the appearance of Weeden Island ceramics that was not present during the Swift Creek period. Although, there’s too few examples to say for certain, there may have been a pattern of placing Weeden Island mounds to the northwest of the village. You can see that on three of the four sites on the left side of this image here. That angle would be … It’s sort of rudimentary solstitial alignment that is, to someone standing in the center of the plaza … On the winter solstice, they would see the sun setting behind the burial mound. So, you know, this is again, something you only see when you look at these as a larger landscape.

Also, in the Weeden Island mounds, we find that there’s usually a ceramic cache on the east side of the mound or slightly southeast. This would be a sun rise alignment. So, there seems to be some sort of solar mortuary idea going on during the Weeden Island period that we don’t see evidence for, yet anyway, in the earlier Swift Creek period.

One of the more interesting conclusions we can draw from our extensive radio carbon dating is how rapidly the shift from the Swift Creek to the Weeden Island sites occurs. Around 650 to 700 the Swift Creek middens and mounds go out of use and new Weeden Island middens and mounds appear. Sometimes, only a few dozen meters away. Such as at Bird Hammock, south of Tallahassee, and at Hare Hammock at Tyndall. Within a very short period of time, coincidental with the introduction of the Weeden Island Ceramics into the area, the people of this region felt the need to not only shift their villages to a new larger footprint, accommodating a much large plaza area, but also to construct a new burial mound with possibly a solar oriented placement. At Hare Hammock, there’s even evidence to suggest that burials may have been exhumed from the older Swift Creek mound and moved into the new Weeden Island mounds during this time … During this shift. So, what we may have evidence for the archeological record, is the appearance of a new religious idea, a new mortuary cult, a Weeden Island- maybe this Weeden Island mortuary cult, that spreads through the region all about the same time period, around 650, 700. But this is only something that becomes apparent when these sites are viewed collectively as a cultural landscape.

So, by shifting our focus from looking at certain types of coastal shell middens as merely garbage, or food refuse, and recognizing them as part of a larger cultural landscape, new social and ideological patterns can emerge and new archeological and cultural significance may become discernible. Sites that when viewed in isolation may not meet the threshold for nomination, just another shell midden, just food refuse, can instead become a contributing element as part of a greater cultural landscape.
Thank you.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119