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01 March, 2009

Smitten with Midden

When I lived and worked in Hawai`i, there was a steady stream of archaeologists arriving from elsewhere (as I had), and who were unsteady in their assimilation to both the larger culutre and to the islands' archaeolgical tribe. One bone of conten tion was the term 'midden,' which to Hawaiian archaeologists meant any accumulation of shell and food debris. Some mainlanders could not accept anything less than a massive shell mound as midden, and bristled at application of this term to anything less. (For the record, the Norsemen who brought the ancestral term to the British Isles would be just as justified in ther own bristling at archaeological misappropriation, since the word originally meant "dungheap.")

Personally, I used the term midden the local way, for just about any amount of shell. Having grown up near the Chesapeake, where middens are sometimes so large they can be mistaken for natural landforms, I can sympathize with the other point of view, but where's the fun in going to Hawai`i and expecting it to be Norfolk? (For the record, I almost never saw a midden that would've represented more than a few meals to any self-respecting Hawaiian family. Island culture fed the rubbish to the fire, or back to the water, and not so much to the earth.)

Now, I'm back in a land of big shell deposits. The one pictured above is in the San Juan Islands, and consists mostly of clam shell. The trowel point rests on what looks like the first meal, and above it are layers representing much larger harvests. Some are pretty well crushed, like they were in the midst of an active settlement, and there are lenses of dirt between some layers, showing times of hiatus. (For the record, some people are better able to glean details, but there is some small pride in my being midden-literate in claiming the title Mighty Mo, Oracle of Dungheaps).

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