The archaeology of coastal shell middens in Ireland

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Howle Outlaw, Carolyn E.
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University College Cork
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Coastal shell middens are an important archaeological resource, with the potential to shed light on many different aspects of human interaction with coastal environments over time. These deposits of discarded shells, charcoal, and other cultural material can be found at various locations along the c.7500km or so of the Irish coastline. They have a long chronology from the Mesolithic through to early modern times, along with a considerable degree of variability in terms of site function, settlement context, and environmental setting. The study of these sites in Ireland has largely focused on the pre-farming (Mesolithic) period as part of a consideration of coastal foraging economies. Current evidence points to a long tradition of utilising coastal resources, which after c.4000 BC was integrated to varying degrees with agricultural activity through changing cultural practices evident elsewhere in the archaeological record. The principal aim of this study is to understand the changing role that coastal resources played through time in Ireland. Research methods include a review of published and archived sources on shell midden archaeology in Ireland and field survey. The data collected is statistically analysed with a view of understanding relevant changes in artefactual, ecofactual, and structural remains through time. Interpretations are based upon the archaeological data, relevant theories of interpretation, and ethnographical accounts of the use of molluscs and their deposition. The final analysis examines broad trends through time in relation to the use of coastal resources by humans in Ireland. Other questions addressed include the contribution to diet and nutrition made by coastal resources and their use as economic goods. The liminal character of the coastal zone, historical references to religious and folk beliefs concerning the coast, and inclusions of ritual deposits such as burials are examined as separate from but interwoven with the economic value of the shells.
Shell middens , Kitchen middens , Shell bearing deposits , Shellfish , Irish archaeology
Howle Outlaw, C. E. 2023. The archaeology of coastal shell middens in Ireland. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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