Alice Kelley will give a Human Ecology Forum talk on shell middens on Oct. 17. PHOTO COURTESY OF COLLEGE OF THE ATLANTIC

Shell middens may be lost to the sea

BAR HARBOR — University of Maine climate scientist Alice Kelley will explore the race to save Maine’s shell middens — piles of clam and oyster shells, archaeological artifacts and animal bones left by coastal indigenous Americans thousands of years ago — as climate change and rising seas bear down on Maine’s coast at College of the Atlantic’s Human Ecology Forum on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 4:10 p.m. The free, public talk takes place in McCormick Lecture Hall.


The Maine coast hosts over 2,000 shell middens, which represent a rich archive of the last 4,000 years of indigenous life and coastal ecosystem structure before European contact. However, virtually all of these deposits are currently eroding as a result of sea level rise. Complete loss of some middens already has been documented. As they disappear, an irreplaceable cultural and environmental record is lost to the sea.

Archaeological evaluation and rescue of all of these sites is impossible due to the sheer numbers and the time required for this exacting work. Kelley has been working on a project funded by Maine Sea Grant to address the loss of these valuable cultural resources. They seek to develop geophysical and spatial analysis techniques to rapidly characterize the size and archaeological and paleo-environmental potential of eroding sites, and to develop a policy for the monitoring and rescue of these vital resources.

Kelley is an instructor in the School of Earth and Climate Sciences and a research associate professor in the Climate Change Institute at University of Maine. Her research interests are focused on geoarchaeology, specifically how humans deal with and are influenced by landscapes and environmental factors. This interest has lead to research on changing aboriginal occupation patterns as related to the postglacial development of a major river valley in Maine, investigations of sand invasions of sites in Shetland and Peru, currently submerged pre-European sites off the Maine coast and coastal erosion of archaeological sites.

Kelley works with colleagues in the School of Earth and Climate Sciences, the Climate Change Institute, and several other universities and colleges. Their work uses a variety of geological and geophysical tools in the analysis of archaeological sites. Additionally, she has mapped the surficial geology of several quadrangles in the central portion of the state of Maine.

The Human Ecology Forum is a free, weekly speaker series based on the work of the academic community, which also draws on artists, poets and political and religious leaders from around the world. Members of the public are invited to attend.

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