Shellfish were collected by the Native Americans of Florida since they arrived at the end of the last Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago. Sea level then was 80 m below present levels and the Gulf coast over 200 km to the west. Rising waters have since flooded old shorelines and the habitation sites of early coastal communities. But sites dating to the last 5,000 years are distributed widely along the modern coast, testifying to an intrinsic relationship between shellfish and ancient coastal people. Shellfish were important for their food value, for technology, and for ritual purposes.

Layers of oyster shell accumulated in what archaeologists call “middens,” basically refuse piles. Achieving monumental scale at certain times and places, shell middens attest to the importance of shellfish to both ancient diets and sustained land use.

Shellfish as Food

Oysters, hard clams, scallops, crown conch, lightning whelk, and other species of shellfish were routinely collected and consumed. They were the mainstay of a marine economy that also included fish, turtle, and sea birds. Where reefs thrived under estuarine conditions, oyster was harvested in large quantities. Over 1.2 billion oysters were deposited at Shell Mound, one of many massive shell deposits in the Lower Suwannee region. Archaeological evidence suggests that native people enhanced the natural productivity of oyster reefs through maricultural practices.

Successive shell deposits that accumulated over centuries or millennia—as seen in this profile of an archaeological test unit on North Key—are “vertical archives” of changes in environment and cultural choices that affected shellfish ecology.

Shell as Raw Material

The inedible part of shellfish was used as raw material for tools and architecture. The shells of lightning whelk were modified to make cups, adzes, hammers, chisels, net weights, and beads. Crown conch and hard clam were drafted into tool uses too. Moreover, shell in general and oyster shell in particular made great aggregate for house mounds and larger architecture, such as the C-shaped Shell Mound, which enclosed a community and its public plaza.

Shells of crown conch were often perforated in one or two places on the outer whirl to enable a handle to be inserted. Battering on the ends of these perforated shells shows they were used as hammers, perhaps for breaking up oyster clusters.

Shell as Symbol

Coming from the watery underworld, shell likely signified a medium of otherworldly power. Native people buried their deceased in shell, and many objects of symbolic import were made from shell. Judging from the beliefs of descendant communities, shell was associated with fertility, world renewal, or rebirth. Some shell constructions were oriented to celestial cycles.

Content and photos provided by Dr. Ken Sassaman, Professor of Florida Archaeology at the University of Florida. See more: