Culture and heritage

Aboriginal heritage

Shell middens

Shell middens are places where the debris from eating shellfish and other food has accumulated over time. They can contain:

  • shellfish remains
  • bones of fish, birds, and land and sea mammals used for food
  • charcoal from campfires
  • tools made from stone, shell, and bone.

Shell middens tell us a lot about Aboriginal activities in the past. The types of shells in a midden can show the type of marine environment that was used, and the time of year when Aboriginal people used it.

Where do you find shell middens?

Shell middens are found throughout Australia, usually close to a shellfish source. They are generally found on the coast, but can be around inland lakes, swamps, and river banks. In NSW, middens are:

  • on headlands
  • on sandy beaches and dunes
  • around estuaries, swamps and the tidal stretches of creeks and rivers
  • along the banks of inland rivers, creeks, and lakes.

Middens are usually in the best possible spot - a pleasant place, that's easy to get to, where there are plenty of shellfish. They are often fairly close to fresh water on a level, sheltered surface.

Types of shell middens

Middens range from thin scatters of shell to deep, layered deposits which have built up over time. Riverbank middens tend to be smaller than estuarine and coastal middens. Such small sites may show short-term occupation. They can even be the debris from a single meal.

Few middens are comprised of only one species of shellfish, although many sites south of Newcastle contain species from just one habitat: rock platforms. Common species in rock platform middens include limpets, turban shells, periwinkles, nerites, tritans, and cartrut shellfish. Some of these species are also found in estuaries.

Middens containing only estuarine species are uncommon. The major estuarine species found in middens are bivalves, including cockles, whelks, mud oysters, rock oysters, and both edible and hairy mussels.

How about beach shellfish species? You won't find any middens south of Newcastle containing only these species. But in the area north of Newcastle the pipi, a beach species, was important to the Aboriginal economy. Middens made entirely of pipis have been found in this area.

Other archaeological remains

Shell middens also contain evidence of other Aboriginal activities. They can include:

  • the remains of hearths and cooking fires
  • tools made from stone, bone or shell
  • bones from land and sea animals used as food
  • burials.

Middens often contain the remains of fish, sea birds, sea mammals, and sometimes land mammals. Bones can indicate the use of particular environments. For example, fish bones in middens of rock platform species are usually from reef species such as snapper. Estuarine middens may contain the bones of estuarine species such as flathead or bream.

Bird bones found in sites can show us the season during which the middens were occupied. For example, shearwaters are only hunted during their spring migration to the south. Mammal bones, for example from seals or wallabies, can indicate that Aboriginal people concentrated on marine or land resources at a particular site.

Middens may contain evidence of stone working and stone artefacts. Stone will often have come from a very different area, showing that it was traded or transported. Scientists occasionally find shell or bone artefacts, such as fish hooks or barbs, in the upper layers of shell middens.

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Page last updated: 22 August 2013