Of all the artifacts Native Americans of the Chesapeake left behind, the most abundant at SERC are oyster shell middens. Essentially early trash piles, middens are clusters of shells that Native Americans and some early settlers discarded after eating the meat inside. They can endure for millennia. SERC has 31 recorded oyster middens on its property, the oldest dating back to 1250 B.C.E.
These middens have led to some surprising discoveries about Native Americans’ past, and their environmental legacy today. It was once a common belief that Native Americans and the first settlers rarely ate blue crabs, because blue crab remains seldom turned up in archaeological sites. But after a more thorough investigation with scientists at the National Museum of Natural History, SERC scientists discovered blue crab remains were far more common in shell middens than previously thought. They also showed that blue crab remains are fragile and do not preserve very well, except for the tips of their claws. The claw tips showed that not only did Native American catch and eat blue crabs in addition to oysters, but they caught substantially larger crabs than typically seen today. Furthermore, unlike most modern trash piles, oyster middens have positive environmental impacts still felt in the present. Soils with oyster middens beneath them contain more nutrients, and host a greater diversity of native flora, than soils without them.
Many questions remain: Why is there a 900-year gap in the ages of oyster middens around the Rhode River, spanning 800 B.C.E. to 150 C.E.? Did Native Americans only use the property as seasonal fishing and hunting grounds, or were there ever any permanent villages? Researchers continue to sift through the remains in search of answers.