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Exploring Accumulation Rates of Shell Deposits Through Seasonality Data


Shell middens are often analysed as the result of short- or long-term depositional activities. In order to confidently interpret such deposits, it is necessary to have accurate estimations of shell accumulation rates, most commonly produced by radiocarbon dates. This paper introduces the application of seasonality data as a temporal measurement of short-term shell deposition. This gives access to an additional estimate of shell accumulation rates, which work on a shorter timescale than can be analysed through radiocarbon dating. We focus on shell deposits on the Farasan Islands, Saudi Arabia, which comprise over 3000 shell midden sites dating to the mid-Holocene (6500–4500 calBP). One site (JW1727) was chosen to (1) explore the potential of seasonality data to reconstruct accumulation rates, (2) analyse the intensity of exploitation and (3) assess the visibility of short-term shellfish deposits. Stable oxygen isotope values (δ18O) were obtained from the marine gastropod Conomurex fasciatus (Born 1778), representing 72 % of the shell weight of JW1727, to reconstruct season of capture. Seasonality data was grouped by their spatial distribution, which allowed successive episodes of deposition within a stratigraphic sequence to be connected. This allowed us to make an estimation of exploited shell meat of ∼200 kg over a 7-month period (∼400 shells/day). We argue that excavation methods and low resolution stratigraphic data cause imprecision in the seasonality data and the low visibility of rapidly accumulated shell deposits. Also, an increase of analysed shells per layer is key to understanding the seasonal brickwork of more middens in the future.

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This research was funded by the European Research Council through Advanced Grant 269586 DISPERSE (Dynamic Landscapes, Coastal Environments and Hominin Dispersals). We thank HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), Professor Ali Al-Ghabban, Vice-President, and Mr Jamal Al Omar, Director General, for granting permission to undertake the fieldwork and for making available personnel, vehicles and other resources to support our research. Special thanks to Geoff Bailey, Ken Thomas, Yvette Eley, Hilary Sloane, Harry Robson and Jessica Hendy for their support and fruitful discussions. We also thank CFT Andrus and an anonymous reviewer for their valuable comments. Grateful thanks are also extended to Katerina Douka for providing valuable help with the radiocarbon dates. We also thank the staff of SCTA who worked with us, especially Abdu Aqeeli, and to Dr. Faisal Al Tamaihi from Jizan University. We also thank the Governor of Farasan, Hussain Aldajani, and Captain Yahya Bin Ali Jabbari of the Farasan Border Guard for their interest in our research and their assistance. This is DISPERSE contribution no. 0031.

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Hausmann, N., Meredith-Williams, M. Exploring Accumulation Rates of Shell Deposits Through Seasonality Data. J Archaeol Method Theory 24, 776–795 (2017).

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  • Shell midden
  • Accumulation
  • Seasonality
  • Feasting
  • Farasan
  • Stable isotopes