Archaeological Site or Natural Marine Community? Excavation of a Submerged Shell Mound in Ninigret Pond, Rhode Island

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Submerged shell midden sites and natural shell deposits can have similar characteristics and can be difficult to distinguish archaeologically. We excavated two test units from a large (at least 35 m×70 m) submerged shell mound in Fort Neck Cove in southern Rhode Island to assess whether it was natural or cultural in origin. This mound had been recognized as a potential archaeological feature as early as the 1970s. Excavation, radiocarbon dating, and subsequent laboratory analysis of excavated materials suggest that the mound was a natural oyster reef rather than a submerged archaeological site. No artifacts were found; there was no clear evidence for human modification of any shells; small species that would not have been targeted as food were present; and δ13C values of oyster shells from the mound were consistent with freshwater input into their growth environment, suggesting that they grew in an estuarine environment that did not exist prior to the inundation of the ponds. The stratigraphically oldest radiocarbon date we could obtain (430-190 cal BP, 2σ range), from 70 cm below the pond floor, placed deposition of shells at least 3,000 years after the inundation of the pond. The excavation methods that we used and the process of testing, irrespective of whether the feature is cultural, are valuable contributions to the methodological literature on submerged site archaeology and help provide insight for other researchers working to discern natural from cultural shell midden sites. © 2014 Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

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Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology