From left, USM intern Grayson Jones of Brunswick, Alan Stearns of Royal River Conservation Trust and Thomas Bennett of Prince Memorial Library at an excavation site.  Contributed / RRCT

Archeologists and other experts are excavating and surveying shell middens in the Cumberland area to continue work that started in the late 1970s and see what effect climate change has had.

According to the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, “Maine’s coastal shell middens are eroding in the face of climate-change-related factors: sea-level rise, increased storminess and storm intensity, and growing numbers of freeze-thaw events in the winter. These features record thousands of years of coastal occupation and paleoenvironmental information through the preservation of organic materials that is unique in the region.”

Middens contain shells, remains of reptiles and fish, tool fragments, and even pieces of pottery and can often be found on the coast and the islands of Maine. Excavators and can tell the history of the area where they were found, including how the environment has changed over the years. This is especially significant when studying the impacts of climate change on the state. Middens can also tell the stories of people who used to occupy that land, primarily Indigenous people.

The project is being made possible through a $9,500 grant from The Island Institute, a Rockland-based nonprofit that works with  Maine’s island and coastal leaders to build sustainability and share solutions to critical issues facing the coast, according to its website.

University of Southern Maine archeology Professor Nathan Hamilton will be leading the project along the coast of Cumberland and on Little Chebeague island, Great Chebeague Island, Littlejohn Island, and Moshier Island in Casco Bay.

“It’s important to conduct this midden excavation work now as we face continued sea level rise,” said Chad Fierros, stewardship director of Royal River Conservation Trust, which conserves Littlejohn Island. “We’re already having to revive the history of this area from the effects of colonization and displacement of Abenaki and other Indigenous people, and rediscovering/retelling this cultural history will be even more difficult as middens and other sites become submerged or altered with sea level rise.”


“Conserving areas like Littlejohn that have hosted robust human activity for so long, yet that retain functional, natural communities, helps us convey the full picture of these lands, with humans as an integral part. We wouldn’t be able to convey that without the work of Bennett and colleagues, alongside Abenaki and other indigenous voices.”

USM intern Grayson Jones is compiling old, handwritten notes into a digital map of all the sites so there is a digital record of all the research. Jones, who is majoring in anthropology and geography, will also be digging and taking notes in the field.

The group also has two volunteers that help collect artifacts. Thomas Bennett, a historian and director of Prince Memorial Library, said volunteers are always needed and the hope is to get the community more engaged in the project. Those interested in learning more about shell middens and volunteering can contact Bennett at

Bennett and Hamilton intend to host educational talks with local libraries and land trusts in the future to spread the word about the importance of the project.

“We want people to really understand that shell middens are important culturally in terms of the environment and monitoring climate change, and for (community members) to help us monitor these middens,” said Bennett, who submitted the successful grant application. “Island residents, if there’s a big storm, after that storm they can go down and take a look at the site, take some pictures and help us understand how these sites and the island are being affected by climate change.”

Archeology work in Maine is constrained by the cold months, Bennett said, so digging will likely wrap up by the end of October. Archival work and community talks will continue after that and the grant will likely be used up by next spring.

Bennett said he, Hamilton and Jones will continue working together on the project and seeking other grants.

“This type of stuff is super fascinating and I think a lot of other people would find it interesting, too,” Jones said. “This is a lot of really rich history that a lot of people just don’t know about it yet.”

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