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Curious monuments of the simplest kind: Shell midden archaeology in Massachusetts (1868-2008)

Katharine Vickers Kirakosian, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In this dissertation, I broadly consider how the recent past has affected archaeologist's present understandings of the deep past. To do so, I complete a historiography of the shell midden site type on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket, Massachusetts using Foucault's archaeological and genealogical methods. While archaeologists have generally interpreted shell middens as places for food refuse disposal, Native oral traditions as well as ethnohistorical and archaeological data have prompted some to reconsider such monolithic views of these complex sites. Through a series of interviews with local professional and avocational archaeologists, I show that there is, in fact, little consensus about what constitutes a shell midden at all. Inspired by recent scholarship in Social Network Analysis (SNA), Actor-Network theory (ANT), fluid space, and wayfaring, I consider how knowledge that has been constructed about shell middens may have been affected by one's personal and professional relationships as well as one's institutional affiliations. By tracing the social connections of ten generations of professional and avocational archaeologists working here, I examine how these complex social worlds impacted local shell midden archaeology. I also review the ways in which archaeologists have written about shell middens through time. Although a great deal has changed in terms of what archaeologists try to glean from shell midden sites, the ways in which archaeologists construct their narratives have changed very little. These narratives actually focus more on archaeologists than on Native lifeways and in ways that make archaeologists the heroes of their own dramas. I conclude that using rigid typological categories like “shell midden” is an act of structural violence. In fact, many shell midden narratives have correlated food and culture with progress, disappearance, and fate. In all, the shell midden site type offers a long established, but clearly outdated, explanation for past human behavior. From here, archaeologists should consider the complex uses and potential meanings of these sites in the deep past and work to forge new narrative molds when writing about ancient Native lives in ways that both inspire and inform present and future generations.^

Subject Area

Archaeology|Native American studies

Recommended Citation

Kirakosian, Katharine Vickers, "Curious monuments of the simplest kind: Shell midden archaeology in Massachusetts (1868-2008)" (2014). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3615424.