Whaleback Shell Midden
A thousand years of Native American seafood dinners
These two men are standing next to the Whaleback Shell Midden
in Damariscotta in 1886. The pile of oyster shells was once
more than thirty feet deep.
Shell middens (also often called "shell heaps,"
and "shell mounds") are rubbish dumps left by prehistoric
peoples, usually in coastal areas. They consist mainly of
discarded shells along with related cultural materials, such
as bones, ceramic pots, and stone tools. Middens can range
in size from thin scatterings of shells along the shore to
deep, layered accumulations like the ones here, which have
built up over many, many years.
of the calcium carbonate content of the shells, middens tend
to be alkaline, which reduces soil acidity that otherwise
quickly destroys shells, bones and other discarded materials.
Animal remains may be preserved over long periods of time
and their analysis gives archaeologists valuable clues as
to the climate, season, hunting patterns, and other conditions
existing during periods when a site was occupied. Artifacts
found in middens also help archaeologists set dates for when
the middens were created and better understand the technologies
and way of life of the ancient peoples that built them.
The upper Damariscotta River is famous for its enormous oyster
shell heaps, also called middens. Native Americans created
the middens over a period of about a thousand years, between
2,200 and 1,000 years ago.
The east side of the Damariscotta River once contained an
enormous shell heap named Whaleback because of its shape.
Much of this midden was removed in the late 1880s to supply
a factory built here to process the oyster shells into chicken
feed. As a result, only a small portion of Whaleback remains
Managed in cooperation with the Damariscotta
River Association, the area around the midden is now a
State Historic Site that includes a small hiking trail an
dbeautiful views of the river. A series of interpretive panels
helps inform visitors about the history of the area.