Aboriginal Shell Middens

Aboriginal shell middens are distinct concentrations of shell. They contain evidence of past Aboriginal
  • hunting;
  • gathering; and
  • food processing activities.

These middens consist primarily of concentrations of discarded shell and bone, botanical remains, ash and charcoal.
 
Aboriginal midden material may appear on the ground surface as sparse scatters or concentrations of broken shell, and are often associated with dark, ashy soil including charcoal. Middens can also be visible in eroded or collapsed sections of dunes where they may appear as a dark, ashy band with layers of shell throughout.

Midden sites can range in size from small shallow discrete scatters to extensive deposits that run along a coastline for hundreds of metres. The discarded shell and other materials may be the remains of a single meal, or the result of repeated use of a particular location over thousands of years.


Aboriginal midden
Copyright: Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment

Where are middens found?

Aboriginal middens are one of the most common site types found in Tasmania and are typically found in coastal and estuarine environments. A number of smaller midden sites have been found inland along major river systems and wetlands. Coastal middens are predominantly found on elevated ground, such as within coastal dune systems, close to headlands and rocky outcrops where shellfish and molluscs were collected. 


Aboriginal midden, northwest Tasmania
Copyright: Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment


How to identify an Aboriginal midden

Aboriginal middens are commonly identified by the following features:
  • the dominant presence of specific edible mature shellfish and mollusc species such as abalone, mussel, oyster, limpet, warreners and whelks
  • ash and charcoal
  • bones of various species of bird, marsupial, and seal
  • artefacts made from stone, bone and shell

Artefacts and animal bone are not always immediately visible on middens, however the presence of a combination of edible shellfish species and the remains of campfires (charcoal and ash) are key indicators of a midden site.

Mid​​den or shell wash deposit?

Concentrations of shell washed to shore by natural processes such as strong tides or storms can sometimes create mounds of shell that appear similar to an Aboriginal midden. These natural deposits are usually found at the high tide mark, and predominantly contain small shellfish such as Venus Clams and Dog Cockles. 

You may be able to distinguish a natural shell mound from an Aboriginal midden by asking yourself the following questions:
  • Is there a dominant presence of edible shell species?
  • If the material in a dune is exposed, can you see distinct layers of shell mixed with ash and charcoal?
  • Can you see any stone artefacts or bone?
  • If you have answered 'yes' to any of these questions, you are potentially dealing with an Aboriginal midden. 


Aboriginal midden
Copyright: Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment

Why are midd​​ens important?

The study of middens provides important information regarding past Aboriginal lifeways within a particular region. Scientific analysis of the materials found within middens (i.e. shell, bone, stone tools) helps researchers to reconstruct past environments, and to understand Aboriginal occupation and land use patterns through time. 

In some instances, estimations can be made about the size of the group that used the site, how long they occupied the region, and whether it was a regular campsite or the product of a single event. Charcoal samples may be tested to determine the age of each layer of occupation, and pollen samples may provide insight into past vegetation within the region. 

Middens are a valuable archaeological resource not only for what they reveal about Aboriginal dietary habits, but also the t echnology that was utilized in gathering and processing food, seasonal trends of species exploitation, and also how humans adapted to environmental changes.

Are Aborigin​​​al middens protected?

Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural material or sites are defined as ‘relics’ and therefore protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1975. It is an offence to destroy, damage, deface, conceal, remove or otherwise interfere with a relic. It is also an offence not to report the finding of a relic. 

So if you suspect that an Aboriginal midden has been discovered during your activity, do not interfere with the site. Report the site to Aboriginal Heritage Tasmania.

Provide the location of the site and images on the Aboriginal Heritage Site Reporting Form send the completed form to aboriginal@heritage.tas.gov.au​

Aboriginal Heritage Tasmania will provide further advice in accordance with the Act.​


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Contact

Aboriginal Heritage Tasmania
GPO Box 44
Hobart TAS 7001
Phone: 1300 487 045
Email: aboriginal@heritage.tas.gov.au

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