UMaine shell midden research receives Maine Historical Preservation Commission grant – A. Kelley et al.

A University of Maine archaeological survey team has received a grant from the Maine Historical Preservation Commission to use technology to update the status of four prehistoric coastal shell middens in Lincoln County that are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The $23,000 MHPC grant, which has been matched by UMaine, supports a three-part project led by geoarchaeologist Alice Kelley, an associate research professor in the Climate Change Institute. Kelley’s team, which includes four UMaine professors and students in a School of Earth and Climate Sciences geomatics course, uses geological and remote sensing techniques to study past and present erosion rates of the state’s shell middens, cultural spaces on the mainland and island coasts that were created by Maine’s indigenous people during thousands of years of coastal occupation. Additionally, the grant supports expanding the reach of the ongoing Maine Midden Minders program through travel funds for outreach.

The Midden Minders program, a citizen science project based at UMaine, documents and monitors erosion of Maine’s shell middens and the valuable archaeological and environmental information they contain. Middens are primarily composed of shells — oyster, clam, mussel — and archaeological material and faunal remains — mammal, fish, bird, and reptile bones and teeth. Botanical remains, primarily seeds, also are preserved in middens. Sea level rise and coastal erosion are two of the leading threats to these fragile sites.

The four sites on the National Register were first surveyed by Kelley and the UMaine team in 2020 and 2021. One focus of the project is to fine tune last year’s pilot drone study that created 3D images of the sites at the centimeter scale. This effort will resurvey the sites judged to be the most at risk to measure change and develop a plan for prioritizing the monitoring and documentation of other listed and eligible middens.

A second focus of the study is to use nearshore sediment cores in an effort to determine the original extent of an eroded midden. Archaeologists have long suspected that many of the middens seen today represent the uneroded portion of much larger features. This effort hopes to estimate the former size and rate of loss of these important features.

This archaeological work also has an important role in public education about coastal erosion of such sites, largely through the Midden Minders project. Assessing sea level rise-driven coastal erosion informs understanding and preservation efforts of all of Maine’s approximately 2,000 shell middens. With the help of Midden Minder volunteers, up to 100 acres may be surveyed or resurveyed.

“These features are an important part of Maine’s pre-European history and a touchstone for the state’s Indigenous communities,” according to Kelley. “The undocumented loss of these resources represents a loss of an important component of the state’s history. Planning and survey information from this project also will foster the development of priorities for site protection or testing in the future.”

Assisting with the sediment core analyses will be UMaine emeritus professor Joseph Kelley. Data processing, including the conversion of drone imagery into georeferenced, 3D elevation models, will be directed by Kristin Schild, UMaine assistant professor of geomatics.

Midden Minders was developed in cooperation with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and initially funded by Maine Sea Grant and the University of Maine Senator George Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.

Disclaimer: This material was produced with assistance from the Historic Preservation Fund, administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.