Anthropology: American Shell Mounds Research Paper

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Native American shell mounds are one of the most historically rich sites still around today. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the last places with this history available. The West Berkeley Shellmound, trinomial designation CA-ALA-307, is an example of one of these rare sites. This shell mound is located at Second Street and Hearst Avenue in Berkeley, California, and is one of the last shell mounds to line the shore of the San Francisco Bay.

Due to the large removal of the shell mound throughout the years, for the building of paved streets, railroad tracks, and two factories, it is near impossible to estimate the exact size of the shell mound itself. In 1975, the shell mounds dimensions were 45’x100’ in length and width. However, at one time it was estimated to stand fifteen feet above the ground and three feet below it, with dimensions of up to 350’x600’ in length and width. In 1950, large-scale excavation of the mound began.

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Although a lot of the mound was no longer present because of its location in between two buildings, the excavation was still successful due to a fair amount of sampling that was recovered from the remnants of the mound and preserved. This shell mound was separated into two distinct areas, the North end, and the South end. Totaled, these two areas represented a combined area of about 1,175 square feet. The main excavation site was located at the South end trench and was dug down to a depth ranging from nine to eighteen feet, depending on the thickness and deposit in the strata.

The North end trench held a ten-foot square pit that was cut through a layer of limestone. This cut was incredibly necessary in order to reach the sterile soil layer underneath the midden. This midden was, in total, 14,000 cubic feet and was tediously measured in twelve-inch increments. Many different artifacts were found at the site; about 3. 412 man-made objects were collected, from stone tools and textiles to animal and human bones. Many of the artifacts recovered, such as stone tools, textiles, net sinkers, and shells proved that there were previous inhabitants in the area.

With these, other artifacts were found, including the following: broken pieces of china, glass bottles, nails, and various other evidence of white occupation in the area. In addition to the aforementioned artifacts, skeletal remains were discovered in the midden; although, the skeletal remains were of poor quality. At the site, an estimated 95, more or less, complete skeletons were found. Unfortunately, a lot of the bones found were in bad condition and extremely decayed.

This would usually be contrary to the usual belief that shell mounds are good for preservation. But due to the partial removal of the shell mound, the bones lying in the shallow graves were likely affected by human activity on the surface. Along with the human remains, animal remains were also found. These included deer bones, birds, and even whales were present in the mounds. The majority of the animal bones found were made into tools such as fishhooks and daggers. Along with these objects, a lot of projectile pointless were found in the midden.

In his writing, Wallace provides, “Approximately fifty-six projectile points were discovered and all ranged in shapes from stemmed leaf-shaped points to stemless, leaf-shaped, concave bases”. “Once the weeds and factory debris covering the surface had been removed, an area the south end was staked out in five-foot squares. A cut 20-25 feet wide was then carried in along the site’s major north-south axis,” tells Wallace. The material was moved with shovels in twelve-inch layers until the stratum was reached.

After that, they dug an extra foot to be sure nothing was overlooked. Now, with these data and profiles, the excavators were able to analyze the different layers of soil. Sifting through each layer of soil, shell, charcoal, artifacts, and human and animal bones were found compacted in each layer. These findings were found under the top of the mound down to twelve feet below the surface. This method of excavation is probably the most efficient and intelligent plan; using another excavation plan would have been very difficult due to the already damaged site.

One other option would be to scrape the topsoil, but doing so would not yield as much information. Due to the destruction of the site done by buildings, roads, and railroads, it was necessary to dig deep to find sufficient information. To learn about the site properly, the excavators were forced to relate the artifacts they found with the area around the site’s culture. Because of this methodology, I would classify the archaeological investigation as cultural history. Very little fieldwork was able to be done due to the destruction that had already taken place at the mound.

Much of the data collected was compared to previous excavations of shell mounds that were similar to this one. This can be done because, as Wallace puts it, “A cultural sequence was able to be processed for the San Francisco Bay Area and the Marin County coast to the North based on artifacts accompanying burials from the published sites”. Furthermore, there is no written record available to account for who occupied the area. The research done at the West Berkley Shellmound acted as a missing link in the Bay Area shell mounds.

Archaeologists were able to relate the information about other shell mounds in the area to the West Berkeley Shellmound that could have linked past inhabitants to being a part of the same tribe. According to the research paper, “Emeryville and Ellis Landing revealed that certain basic traits are common to all three shell mounds. Mortars and pestles represent the characteristic grinding implements; a developed bone industry is found, shell beads and pendants comprise the typical articles of personal adornment; food habits and methods of disposing of the dead are alike”.

There were very minimal changes in the tribes over time. The introduction of new forms of shell beads seemed trivial. The only critical change was the abandonment of the use of net-sinkers, which corresponds to an end of a certain fishing technique. The West Berkeley Shellmound culture represents a small mode of existence, preoccupied with gathering and showing few outstanding technical achievements. The West Berkeley Shellmounds have proved to be of little significance to understanding the past of the San Francisco Bay Area.

It did, however, help researchers determine how long man has been in the Bay Area. The radiocarbon testing that was done showed that the presence of man can be traced back to about 2,300 years. I do agree that it has proved to be of little significance to understanding the Bay Area’s past, but I believe that it is still part of its history and should be preserved. I believe the possibility of public outreach and education is small due to the lack of information from a mostly destroyed site.

If the site was preserved properly and if there was more investigation, we would have a better understanding of who inhabited the area and would be able to draw people in who are interested in a site like this. However, despite this, I do believe that public education is possible. The education process would have been much easier and more beneficial had action been taken earlier, before the site’s destruction. One way that would increase public awareness is by making one of the adjacent factories a sort of museum or information center.

It could teach the history of the area and be a fun experience at the same time. Another option for public awareness is to use the site as a teaching tool. Since it is all but destroyed, the public could come and learn the fundamentals of archaeology in a hands-on experience.


  1. Wallace, William J. , and Donald W. Lathrap. West Berkeley (CA-ALA-307): A Culturally Stratified Shellmound on the East Shore of the San Francisco Bay: University of California, Berkeley, 1975.

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