Unlike modern oysters, those in the
midden measured from a foot to twenty inches in length. The careful
cutting and documentation marked an early application of professional
archaeological principles to the historic excavation.
Map of the Whaleback, 1966
Whaleback survey by Gamage, 1886
or shell heaps, are scattered along the Maine coast giving
evidence of the lifestyles of its ancient inhabitants. A "midden"
is a refuse heap, or less delicately - a dump.
While they are found all over the world - from Denmark to
Japan, Florida to British Columbia - the Damariscotta Oyster Shell Heaps are among the largest and have been
of interest to scholars since the 19th century. Now protected by the Maine
Department of Conservation, which provides educational material at the site, it
was once the focus of a local industry.
The Whaleback shell midden, as the Damariscotta heap on
the east bank of the Damariscotta River is known, was one of the largest on the
east coast of the United States before it was mined. It extends back from
the river along a stream, possibly because it was convenient to move upstream as
the shell heaps grew deeper along the river. The elongated higher ridge of
shells suggested the name.
Thousands of years old, the heaps were begun at least
2,200 year ago and contain ceramic materials (pottery) from the earliest
period. Since no European artifacts have been found in the midden, its
formation apparently ceased well before they arrived.
Europeans were introduced to the
middens in the early 1600's as explorers, such as George
Weymouth and Sir Fernando Gorges, were invited to
the home of the Wawenock Indians near the site. Later European settlers
removed great quantities of the shells for road construction and other purposes,
but made only a slight dent in the estimated 5 million cubic feet of material.
In 1886, a commercial venture built a large
factory to convert the shells into lime. Professor F. W. Putnam of the
Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts arranged for careful measurements and
accounting to be made documenting the contents of the heap. He hired Abram
Tarr Gamage of Damariscotta to record the information. Gamage also took
these photos of the project.
The heaps were placed on the Register of
Historic Places in 1969. In 1998 the Damariscotta Shell
Midden Historic District was added to the Register.
Castner, Harold W., The
Prehistoric Oyster Shell Heaps of the Damariscotta River. Waldoboro:
Waldoboro Press. 1950. (Fourth edition 1963.)
Bourque, Bruce J. "Maine Shell Midden Archaeology (1860-1910) and the
Influence of Adolphe von Morlot." New Perspectives on the Origins of
Americanist Archaeology. David L. Browman and Stephen Williams, eds.
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 2002.
Speiss, Arthur. "Damariscotta Shell Midden Historic District."
National Register of Historic Places documentation. Augusta: Maine
Historic Preservation Commission. 1998. (Source of map and survey at
Castner photos courtesy of the Pejepscot Historical Society, Brunswick, Maine.