Carolyn Howle Outlaw

Carolyn Howle Outlaw

Carolyn Howle Outlaw (PhD Candidate)

A review of shell midden archaeology in Ireland

Supervisor: Professor William O'Brien


Coastal shell middens are an important archaeological resource, with the potential to shed light on many different aspects of human interaction with coastal environments over time. These large and small deposits of discarded shells, charcoal, and other cultural material can be found at various locations along the 7500km or so of the Irish coastline. They have a long chronology from the Mesolithic through to early modern times, along with a considerable degree of variability in terms of site function, settlement context, and environmental setting. The study of these sites in Ireland has largely focused on the pre-farming (Mesolithic) period as part of a consideration of coastal foraging economies. Current evidence points to a long tradition of utilising coastal resources, which after c. 4000 BC was integrated to varying degrees with agricultural activity through changing cultural practices evident elsewhere in the archaeological record. The principal aim of this study is to understand the changing role that coastal resources played through time in Ireland.

The work will begin by collating all available data on Irish shell middens. This is imperative as rising sea levels and coastal erosion, both of which are worsened by climate change, are adding to the destruction of this heritage. Research methods include a review of published and archive sources on shell midden archaeology in Ireland, followed by field survey and a dating program of previously sampled sites. The data collected will be statistically analysed with a view of understanding relevant changes in artefactual, ecofactural, and structural remain changes through time. Specific case studies which exemplify potential trends will then be chosen and an environmental reconstruction based on shell species, animal bone species, wood species, pollen records, and geological observations such as raised beaches.

The final analysis will examine broad trends through time in relation to the use of coastal resources by humans in Ireland. Other questions to be addressed include the contribution to diet and nutrition made by coastal resources and their use as economic goods. The liminal character of the coastal zone, historical references to religious and folk beliefs concerning the coast, and inclusions of ritual deposits such as burials, and the potential role of shell middens as feasting locations will also be examined as separate from but interwoven with the economic value of the shells.

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