Sustainability for Maine’s Coastal Cultural Heritage: Creating a Maine Midden Minder Network and Database

Maine midden. Photo: University of MaineInstitution: University of Maine
Sponsor: Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions

This interdisciplinary project seeks to address the sustainability of eroding coastal cultural resources. It is focused on developing a protocol for use by volunteer citizen scientists in conservation organizations to monitor the erosion of Maine shell middens—human-created accumulations of mollusk shells, fish, mammal, and bird skeletons artifacts such as bone and stone tools—that archive 4,000-plus years of cultural and environmental data.

As sea level rises and storm intensity grows, pre- and post-European contact archaeological sites are increasingly threatened by coastal erosion. As these sites disappear, modern societies lose a link to the past. The history of ancient ways of life and associated environmental data slip beneath the waves just as new approaches of interpreting Indigenous culture and scientific techniques are creating innovative ways to understand human history.

Years of coastal erosion investigations have shown that middens cannot be moved like an engineered structure, such as a lighthouse. Moreover, attempts to armor middens with seawalls or riprap can create other problems, such as the erosion of beaches or adjacent properties.

The alternative is to recover as much information as possible, either through data recovery excavations or documenting material as exposed.

Excavation is labor and time intensive, hence expensive, and in some cases, it may also accelerate erosion. As a result, decisions must be made as to where to focus limited funds and energy. Citizen science-based coastal monitoring can provide this information at reasonable cost and with increased community engagement. Long term, this local engagement may result in local problem-solving and impact-mitigation response that is site-specific and appropriately scaled.

The Maine Historic Preservation Commission (MHPC) has documented over 2,000 Maine shell middens. But no systematic survey of these features has occurred for more than three decades. Thus, it is currently unknown how many of the previously identified sites still exist or what their condition is.

The project will create an interdisciplinary group of scientists, students, tribal representatives, conservation educators/stewards, and community volunteers to participate in “Maine Midden Minder” demonstration projects at eroding shell middens in three locations: Damariscotta, Frenchman’s Bay, and Machiasport/Pembroke.

Stakeholders in this effort include Acadia National Park, College of the Atlantic, Damariscotta River Association, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, MHPC, Passamaquoddy Tribes, the Penobscot Nation, University of Maine, Maine Sea Grant and US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Team Leader

  • Alice R. Kelley, University of Maine, Climate Change Institute and School of Earth and Climate Sciences.

UMaine Team Members

  • Bonnie Newsom, Department of Anthropology (Indigenous Archaeology)

External Partners