Damariscotta Shell Middens

Years and years and eons ago, on the coast of Maine there lived a group of oyster eating Native people. (And this is how I begin the story to my seven year old who asks the question, “How did all these shells get here, Mama? And stacked up on each other? And what about those ones across the river?”)

And right then and there, I realize that I have a library trip in my future, and some reading to do. Not to mention going to the Maine State Museum and taking explicit attention when I get to the section on the shell heaps.

All my life I have been fascinated by the people who lived here literally thousands of years ago. When I was my oldest daughter’s age (gulp…23 years ago…) the house we lived in in Phippsburg had the remains of a small fishing encampment in the bottom of the meadow near our house.  These remains were hard to date, some were believed to be prehistoric (not exactly sure how that is possible, but all the same…). When my stepfather was a child the remains of a woman was found- and her ancient bones taken and documented with the state. This was a famous finding- and since many such places have been found. When I was a child a research team came back and worked on the land at the bottom of our field. I spent literally days watching waiting and expecting with baited breath. I knew that they would find something incredible. They did find animal bones, arrowheads, ax heads and other tool pieces. It’s been years since I thought about this, and when my daughter asks about the shell heap remains not ten minutes from our home, I realize my fascination has only barely waned. I make a promise to find out.

And so, low and behold, what I find is that this area, as beautiful as it may be is a dump. Essentially. But in all truth, this is a kind of a dump that I can handle, it’s massiveness  is what is truly impressive. Not only are the heaps enormous, but they are on both sides of this river, which leads one to wonder if the river was the same in structure then as it is now. Or was it smaller? Cross-able by foot? Was at some point in time this dump all the same?  Not too long ago, when Maine was truly a booming industrial site, this land was discovered and the shell heaps were owned by a company that used them for chicken feed.  There are black and white photos of the giant hillside being mined away- a thought that baffles me even further…

A part of me simply loves the mystery. And doesn’t want to find out the gritty details about this sight. About the people who lived here… and the misfortunes that might have come to them. I especially don’t think I am ready to explain to my daughter that the Maine coast was once filled with such villages, and it was only when the English settlers came and brought diseases that the numbers diminished practically over night. (In what was called “The Great Dying,” – a small pox epidemic- about 3/4 of the population of peoples living here died in a two year period.) My white person guilt is just overwhelming and as much as I wish to tell my daughter this, I don’t. Not yet. But I will. Instead we  (I) decide to enjoy the moment, letting her run through the muddy fields, chasing her sweet little friend until they are out of view.

(Whaleback Shell Midden, on Business Rte 1 in Damariscotta, across from the Great Salt Bay school, and next door to the Round Top Farm. Parking is available, and then a short walk down the hill through the field and orchard leads you to the river. Watch out for poison ivy!) (For more information, check out the DRA (Damariscotta River Association).



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