Oyster Shell Analysis at a Native American Site

For the past year I have been working closely with Dr. Martin Gallivan of the anthropology department at the College of William and Mary. His research focuses on Algonquian speaking groups in the Tidewater region, and I hope to contribute to that work by doing research at a Native Site along the York River.

For most of our past humans have lived as foragers (or hunter-gatherers), and archaeological methods are critical for understanding this past. In recent decades, archaeologists have broadened their interpretive perspectives by turning their attention to aspects of forager’s social lives that have been largely overlooked and a host of new research questions and interpretive perspectives have opened in hunter-gatherer studies.  Salient themes running through these new approaches include an emphasis on the social complexity of foraging societies.

 This study seeks to contribute to these conversations through analysis of Tidewater Algonquian communities’ harvesting, processing, and consumption of oysters along the banks of the York River during the transition from foraging to horticulture. The questions I seek to answer are: did the location of oyster beds exploited by Tidewater Algonquians change in the wake of greater settlement permanence during the Late Woodland period (AD 900 – 1600)?  How did the Late Woodland presence of maize-beans-squash horticulture influence the organization of labor involved in oyster processing?  Did the size of the groups consuming oysters change with the Middle Woodland (500 BC – AD 900) to Late Woodland transition?

 To answer these questions I will analyze intact left oyster shells excavated from a shell midden found at a Native American site located along the banks of the York River. I will employ methods developed by archaeologists and marine biologists including Brett Kent (1988), Gregory Waselkov (1987), Juliana Harding (2008), and Kent Lightfoot (1998) in this analysis, which will include three components: location of harvested oyster beds, shellfish harvesting intensity, and oyster consumption practices.

I hope to pursue this project in an effort  to tell history from a social and event-driven perspective, highlighting human agency and social interaction as the basis for change within a society. Archaeology is a field that requires extensive manual labor and matriculation in the field, patience and knowledge of material culture in the lab, and an understanding of the human experience without bias. 

I hope that my research will add to this discussion in a meaningful way. Archaeology is about understanding the daily lives of people in the past, including their social interactions, their gender roles, their ideology, their use of the landscape, and their foodways. An in-depth analysis of each of these things is integral to a complete and fully informed understanding of a society, and my proposed study will address one of these key issues: foodways. By completing this study, I will reveal how a society changes over time and the adaptation to their environment via the choices people make in regard to their resources.