Shell Middens of Manatee County

It’s a simple concept: a pile of discarded shells. Not at all the beautiful sea shells that are collected along the shore not far away. The simple mound, also called a midden, is all that remains of many of the local native villages. Although humble in their appearance, what they contain can tell archaeologists many things about how the early native people of the region lived.

Although similar in structure, middens vary from burial and temple mounds as they resemble landfills or garbage piles today. Taking up less space than modern sites (due to smaller populations), these middens would tell us the same information that people could learn from us: what food was available, what we used for tools, where we lived or how many people probably lived in the area. For archaeologists, middens are exceptionally important in learning about groups of people who didn’t record their history, or those whose history has been lost to us.

Shell midden, courtesy of Florida Memory

Middens can be found all over the United States. In Florida, these sites are most common along the Gulf Coast from the panhandle to the Keys. Manatee County is home to several mounds and middens that still exist. Due to the plentiful nature of shellfish, it should come as no surprise that most of Florida’s middens are comprised of discarded oyster, clam, scallop, and whelk shells. Bones of small mammals and fish can also be found accompanied by broken pottery and tools. These contents are also why they are sometimes referred to as “kitchen middens”. These middens vary greatly in size and could have served a campsite for a small group of people or a village of hundreds or more. By examining these sites, archaeologist can discover what time of year people lived at that particular site and, through radiocarbon dating, can estimate what centuries various groups inhabited the area.

One of the most well known local sites is the Madira Bickel Temple Mound on Terra Ceia. Now a state park, the 10-acre preserve is composed of a temple and a burial mound, which are different than a typical midden. Traditionally, the cacique or chief lived near the temple. At Emerson Point in Palmetto is the Portavant Temple Mound, which is thought to be the oldest mound and midden site in the Tampa Bay area.

When this area was first settled as Manatee County many more middens existed, such as those that used to be at the Riverview Pointe Preserve in Bradenton. Over time, some of these sites were destroyed as their shell was harvested to build local roads. The surviving middens and mounds today are completely covered in vegetation and do not always look like they are hiding a trove of knowledge about their past residents. It is against the law to disturb, dig or harvest from these sites, but many of them are located in nature preserves that are open to the public.

Photo courtesy of Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida

Author: Krystin Miner


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