By Jeffrey Shanks and Michael Russo
Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service

Figure 1. Shell middens

Shell middens come in all shapes and sizes from small pits in the ground, to surface scatters, to enormous piles twenty meters tall and hundreds of meters across (Figure 1). There is a long-standing controversy in America as to whether the big prehistoric heaps of shell found along our coasts and inland waterways represent little more than the refuse of meals of former cultures or something with more social, ceremonial or ideological functions or meaning. Limited by their low opinions of cultures other than their own, many nineteenth century archaeologists concluded that yes, indeed, the shell mounds were simply garbage piles, and merely the refuse of feasting.

Today, archaeologists have largely abandoned such ideas, and for at least the last five decades have concentrated on addressing what the shell and vertebrate faunal remains in shell middens can tell us about past environments and how shell mound-building cultures adapted to those environments. This processual approach to shell middens has been an era of “telephone booth archaeology” in which the column sample reigned supreme and ranked species lists served as the data of reckoning.

Such environmental explorations are, of course, necessary and important to modern archaeological understanding of prehistoric maritime cultures and up until reason years, shell mounds and rings, when they were examined at all, were the subject of these kinds of processual analyses—what did the folks eat and discard at these rings, and what did that tell us about their relationship with the environment. In the early 1990s, however, during a survey of NPS’s Timucuan Preservation in Northeast Florida, two shell ring sites were discovered, and these begged deeper analysis.

Shell rings were circular and semi-circular “rings” of shell ranging from fifty to eighty meters in diameter and about a meter or two in height. Dating between 3,500 and 5,000 years in age and at first found only along the coasts of S. Carolina and Georgia, the peculiar shapes of the rings puzzled nineteenth century and early twentieth century investigators who recognized them as being made of the same kinds of shell refuse found in most shell middens, but who speculated that their shapes must have also held some social or spiritual significance.

The two rings discovered in the Timucuan Preserve were the first to be recognized in Florida and were a bit different. At two hundred or more meters in diameter and up to four meters high, they were much larger (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

One of these, the Rollins Ring, actually consisted of one large ring, with thirteen smaller asymmetrically-shaped “rings” attached around its perimeter (Figure 3). Nothing exactly like them had been found in the heart of shell ring country in GA and SC.

Figure 3.

In 2006, the known forty-two Archaic shell rings along the SE U.S. coast were identified in an NHL Theme Study (Russo 2006) and the Fig Island shell ring complex of South Carolina (Figure 4) was listed in the National Register for its potential to yield important information on a national level of significance related to the builder’s adaptation to the 4500 year-old environmental conditions that existed at the time. And those conditions were far different than they stood at the time of nomination. The theme study recognized that all shell rings were originally built on high land in maritime forests. But contemporary Fig Island stood in a saltwater marsh subject to daily tidal submergences of its base deposits.

Figure 4.

But for the first time, the Theme Study and nomination recognized shell rings as something other than just middens — as social places wherein the deposits which consisted of little more than food refuse held the potential to reveal insights into the social rankings of individuals and groups within the society, and communal events involving large-scale feasting that culminated in the construction of the rings as monuments. Using comparative analyses from circular communities throughout the world, and spatial theory of proxemics that analyzed “the organization of space in houses and buildings, and ultimately the layout of towns” (Hall 1963), the nomination argued that all shell rings regardless of their shapes as circles, Cs, or Us,  were constructed of large piles of shell representing single, sequential feasting events, with the most shell being piled at points in the ring that spatial theory predicted were symbolically significant points in society often held by the economically and symbolically most important groups or individuals in a society in comparative analyses. The evidence for feasting was represented in cross-sectioning of the rings that reveal not sequential construction layers, but overlapping large piles of shell representing temporally isolated events. The nomination suggested that rings were not built in construction sequences like Mississippian mounds, but rather communally as the epiphenomena of periodic feasting events that resulted in large amounts of shell. Purposefully and intentionally, the shell from each feast was gathered in one location in the ring over the course of time, enlarging and increasing the height of the rings, with more shell being deposited in those particularly symbolic points in the circle, C, or U plan of the construction.

Also in 2006, potential symbolic meaning was beginning to be discovered in a different, much younger type of shell ring along the NW Florida gulf coast. In northwest Florida, the Middle to Late Woodland archaeological cultures were known as the Swift Creek, identified by their complicated stamped ceramics, and the Weeden Island culture, identified by their intricate incised and punctuated ceramics and a series of effigy vessels that functioned primary as mortuary ware (Figure 5)

Figure 5

Many coastal Swift Creek and Weeden Island sites are demarcated by a roughly circular-shaped shell-bearing midden surrounding a “clean,” level, open area or plaza (Figure 6). These sites have been termed ring middens, shell enclosures, or annular middens. Aside from the organically-stained soils, coastal ring middens contain mostly animal remains (shell and bone) that are universally inferred to reflect the accumulated daily food discard of long-term occupations, either permanent or seasonal, and are most often interpreted to be the remnants of villages or base camps.

Figure 6.

Many of the Woodland Period ring middens on the northwest Florida coast are adjacent to sand mounds that contained multiple burials, and it is these mounds that have received the most attention over the years, many of them being excavated over a century ago by avocational archaeologist Clarence B. Moore (1900, 1902, 1918). During the 1970s the operating model tended to describe the burial mounds as sacred areas and the adjacent ring middens as secular spaces (Percy and Brose 1974). This sacred-secular dichotomy is now recognized as being overly-simplistic, and subsequent excavation has shown that in many cases it is simply wrong, as evidence of ceremonial activities can be found throughout the ring middens and plazas (Russo et al. 2014). But the influence of that model has still been pervasive, and the mounds and ring middens as still often thought of and discussed as separate archaeological features, and in many cases even have separate site numbers despite being nearly adjacent.

For the last ten years, the Southeast Archaeological Center of the National Park Service has been working on series of Woodland mound and midden sites at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City. The mounds were originally excavated by Moore, but little archaeological work had been done on the middens. The four sites at which NPS did their most extensive work are the Swift Creek Baker’s Landing site, the Weeden Island Strange’s Landing site, and the Pearl Bayou and Hare Hammock sites which have both cultural phases represented (Figure. 7). As a result of these excavations, and the large number of radiocarbon dates that were obtained, we have a very good understanding of both the relative and absolute local chronology for the area, as well as some intriguing observations on the nature of the shift from Swift Creek Middle Woodland to the Weeden Island Late Woodland. The past two years we have moved our focus farther east to Wakulla County south of Tallahassee, where we have found similar patterns in site formation, ceramic seriation, and chronology at several Woodland sites, particularly Mound Field and Byrd Hammock. This suggests that certain phenomena observable in the archaeological record associated with the shift from Middle to Late Woodland may have been regional in extent rather than isolated locally to the Tyndall Peninsula.

Figure 7.

These patterns only became apparent however when we started to view these mound and midden sites through the lens of landscape archaeology, viewing the various components as part of larger, integrated spatial complexes. These complexes were laid out in a generally concentric ring formation from the central plaza to the outer edge of the ring and beyond to the mound, constituting five basic zones where community activities took place (Figure 8). The plaza represents the central, public/sacred space, surrounded by a ring of houses (temporary or permanent) oriented facing the plaza. Outside the domiciliary ring, a concentric ring of refuse lay behind the houses. This is where discard represented by shell and other waste was deposited.  Among Swift Creek and Weeden Island communities, a fourth concentric zone beyond the refuse may be a vacant area between the ring midden and mound, and the final fifth ring is the space in which the burial mound would be placed. Together these constituted the basic structure of the built environment at coastal ring midden sites in this area. In contrast to previous models that spoke of the ring midden as the sole quotidian component of the village, this model posits that all concentric ring zones constitute the landscape of the many and diverse activity spheres—including the ceremonial and ideological—that constituted village life.

Figure 8.

When we expand our landscape view spatially to incorporate the greater coastal region and temporally to include the shift from the Middle to the Late Woodland, more patterns emerge (Figure 9). At the Swift Creek sites, the rings tend to be smaller and shell refuse tends to be heavily concentrated and evenly distributed around the entire circumference of the ring midden. With the Weeden Island sites, the shell is deposited only in certain locations within the ring usually one side, and the ring itself is only fully discernable by looking at the distribution of ceramics.

Figure 9.

The Weeden Island ring middens are also larger in diameter than their Swift Creek counterparts, based on the time of occupation of the sites and the amount of shell in the middens there is no evidence for an increase in population. So there had to be some other reason that the inhabitants of the Hare Hammock ring midden required more dispersed living areas with a larger plaza than their Swift Creek predecessors.

The placement of the burial mound relative to the village plaza may have also taken on a new significance after the appearance of Weeden Island ceramics that were not present during the Swift Creek period. Although there are too few examples to say for certain, there may have been a pattern of placing Weeden Island mounds to the northwest of the village. This would have created a rudimentary solstitial alignment—that is, someone standing in the center of the village plaza would have seen the sun setting over the burial mound on the winter solstice. There is no evidence of any similar consistent pattern in the placement of Swift Creek mounds. The placement of Weeden Island ceramic caches on the east side of the mounds would also seem to suggest a solar-informed mortuary ideology.

One of the more interesting conclusions we can draw from our extensive RC dating is how rapidly the shift from the Swift Creek sites to the Weeden Island sites occurs. Around AD 650 to 700, the Swift Creek middens and mound go out of use and new Weeden Island middens and mounds appear, sometimes only a few dozen meters away as at Byrd Hammock and Hare Hammock. Within a very short period of time, coincident with the introduction of the Weeden Island ceramics into the area, the people of this region felt the need to not only shift their villages to new, larger footprint accommodating a much greater plaza area, but also to construct a new burial mound with a possibly solar-oriented placement. At Hare Hammock there is even evidence suggesting that burials may have been exhumed from the older Swift Creek mound and reinterred in the new Weeden Island mound. So what we may have is evidence in the archaeological record of a new religious idea, a new mortuary cult that spreads through the region, but this is only something that becomes apparent when these sites are viewed collectively as a cultural landscape.

So by shifting our focus from looking at certain types of coastal shell middens as merely garbage and food refuse, and recognizing them as part of a larger cultural landscape, new social and ideological patterns can emerge and new archaeological and cultural significance may become discernible. Sites that when viewed in isolation may not meet the threshold for nomination, can instead become a contributing element as part of a greater cultural landscape.


Hall, Eward T. 1963. A System for the Notation of Proxemic Behavior. American Anthropologist. (65.5): 1003–1026.

Moore, Clarence B. 1900. Certain Antiquities of the Florida West-coast.  University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reprint 1999.

_________. 1902. “Certain Aboriginal Remains of the Northwest Florida Coast, Part II,” Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (12):127–358.

_________. 1918. “The Northwestern Florida Coast Revisited,” Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (16): 513–581.

Percy, George W., and David S. Brose. 1974. “Weeden Island Ecology, Subsistence, and Village Life in Northwest Florida. “Paper presented at the 39th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Washington.

Russo, Michael. 2006. Archaic Shell Rings of the Southeast U.S. National Historic Landmarks,

Historic Context Study. Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service.

Russo, Michael, Craig Dengel, and Jeffrey Shanks. 2014. “Northwest Florida Woodland Mounds and Middens: The Sacred and the Not-So Secular,” in New Histories of Pre-Columbian Florida, edited by Neill J. Wallis and Asa R. Randall. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 121-142


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