Friday, June 3, 2016

The Midden is the Message

Archaeology is to study past human societies through the excavation, identification and interpretation of their material remains. Differential preservation, especially in the temperate zones of the world such as Pennsylvania, yields but a glimpse of a society’s entire material culture.
One approach by archaeologists has been to study the material remains that accumulated over days, months or years of occupation that have survived the vestiges of time. The remains of material culture typically lost, dropped or cast aside were often deposited on certain parts of the site and these are the objects that allow for a reconstruction of past cultural behavior. Archaeologists classify these locations as middens, places where stuff accumulated.  Middens tend to develop inside of, or around dwellings, and at other locations on the site where tasks and crafting associated with daily activities took place. Waste such as butchered animal and fish parts, human excrement and rotting plants deemed purposeless were cast away and described as unsanitary. Their removal loosely discouraged the attraction of vermin, especially flies and at the same time served to prevent stench from permeating the immediate living area.

Triangular arrow points and other stone tools from the Eschelman site midden (36La12)

Middens were also convenient repositories for broken and damaged tools as well as other objects used in the life of an individual. Cooking pots which were accidently dropped and broken and their contents lost, or occasionally overcooked and burnt, rendering their caloric value useless – over time all of this and more ended up in one of the accumulating garbage dumps. The preservation of these things over many centuries was principally due to the introduction of organics into an anaerobic environment. This, coupled with the change in soil chemistry from large amounts of discarded shells of river mussels, wood ash and charcoal enabled preservation of the midden.
Mussel and snail shells from the Eschelman site midden (36La12)
Carbonized plant remains from the Eschelman site midden (36La12)
Much can be learned about humans and their activities through their garbage heap.  One example is the Eschelman site (36La12) midden associated with the Washington Boro Village site (36La8), a Susquehannock village of the AD. 1600-1625/30 period, was excavated in 1949 by John Witthoft then with the Pennsylvania State Museum (now The State Museum of Pennsylvania).  His excavations recovered a massive number of animal bones representing   mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. 
Cut Antler

Worked bone from the Eschelman site midden (36La12)

Among the bones were artifacts of broken pottery and stone tools and objects of European manufacture such as iron axes, awls and personal items of adornment – beads and bangles. Scraps of brass cuttings left over from making objects such as tinkling cones, facilitates preservation of some organics which would otherwise have decayed. Eventually all of these things from the village longhouses and storage areas found their way into the Eschelman midden.

Brass and Copper artifacts from the Eschelman site midden (36La12)

By studying the bones, researchers were able to determine that certain butchering patterns were employed by the Susquehannocks when skinning, dismembering and processing carcasses for hides and food. Other cut marks indicate that extreme care was taken to carefully remove the pelt for later use in the tailoring of leather clothing and blankets. The proximal and distal ends of other bones displayed severe cut marks where the Susquehannocks chose to make their incisions so as to effectively remove the meat.  Many bones of the larger animals, principally elk, deer and bear were smashed and broken apart for extraction of the nutritious marrow they held. 
A more telling example of how middens reveal something about the message of 20th century consumerism is William Rathje’s Tucson Garbage Project. This study pioneered the creative field of research known as “Garbology”.  In 1973 Dr. Rathje and his students at the University of Arizona began this study by sorting waste at Tucson’s landfill.

Students participating in the Garbage Project

The upshot of their findings demonstrated that residents sent 10% of their food to the landfill and that the poor and wealthy households wasted surprisingly less than middle class households – a lesson to be learned in today’s sustainability of food production and consumption.
We hope you will take some time to read about the archaeological heritage of our commonwealth and the lessons that archaeology can provide for the future. Please take the time to record archaeological sites that you may know about.  Remember this is your heritage and it is our duty as citizens to strive to preserve the past for the future
For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and                         Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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