Late one afternoon a few weeks ago, I took a walk along a Wellfleet beach facing Cape Cod Bay. At its start, this beach is backed by a low line of dunes, but after a few hundred feet, the dunes rise to become a low glacial bluff, a mix of sand and clay perhaps 20 feet high.
After another several hundred feet I came upon a stretch of bluff that showed signs of severe recent erosion. The face of the bluff had been gouged away, and a number of trees and shrubs lay like stranded wrecks on the beach.
The cause of the erosion seemed obvious. Just beyond the stretch of unprotected bluff a massive rock wall had been erected to cover the face of the bluff and protect the line of houses above it. Because of the nature of longshore currents, any time you have a natural glacial bluff butting up against an artificial seawall, you can pretty much guarantee that the former will suffer from accelerated erosion. That is what had happened here.
It was a scene I had come upon many times and in many places. But what caught my eye here were hundreds of shells and shell fragments sprinkled over the face of the eroded scarp. Looking up the slope I saw, about four feet below the crest, the unmistakable profile of a large Indian midden, or shell heap. It was about 10” thick in the middle, tapering out at both ends to a length of about ten to twelve feet. From the beach it appeared to be composed entirely of oyster and quahog shells. Many of them, especially the oysters, were pitted with hundreds of small holes, as if tiny oyster drills had been at them.
Middens, a term derived from the Danish word for “kitchen,” are extremely important archaeological sites. Basically they are prehistoric garbage dumps which, like our own contemporary landfills, can tell us much about the diet and culture of the inhabitants. The predominance of shells in Cape Cod middens, for instance, is evidence that shellfish were a very important staple of the diet of Native Americans. In addition to shells, middens may also contain vegetable and animal remains, discarded stone tools and a large variety of bones. Serendipitously, the calcium carbonate that leaches out of midden shells neutralizes the Cape’s acid soil and thus helps to preserve other artifacts.
Several hundred shell middens have been located on the Cape and Islands, and no doubt several hundred more remain to be found. I had seen other middens, previously excavated, but never before had I come on one freshly exposed. There was something remarkable is seeing this prehistoric communal garbage repository so ruthlessly and unceremoniously unearthed and exposed to view. For how many centuries had it lain buried and hidden, its location camouflaged by subsequent deposits of windblown sand and forest loam? Centuries at least. And how long would it be before ongoing erosion, accelerated by the abutting rock wall, completely obliterated it? In any case, it gave a kind of distinguished lineage to the place, a depth of ancient human presence I had read about but never before beheld like this.
If you’re interested in learning more about local middens, or about Cape Cod archaeology in general, I highly recommend Fred Dunford’s 1997 book, Secrets in the Sand.