Shell midden formation is largely controlled by anthropogenic processes, resulting from human exploitation of aquatic resources. This makes shell middens archives of both human behaviour and palaeoenvironmental records. However, their often complex stratigraphy hampers the isolation of individual anthropogenic events. In the central/southern coast of Portugal, extensive inland estuaries were preferential settings for Mesolithic groups from c. 6200 cal BC. Here, we present a microstratigraphic approach to the shell midden of Poças de São Bento, one of the largest and best-known sites in the Sado Valley. The microfacies approach was based on sedimentary components, their abundance and arrangement, and post-depositional processes. Anthropogenic processes identified as tossing events and anthropogenically reworked deposits allowed inferences on spatial organisation, preferential refuse areas, occupational surfaces, and temporality of the occupations. The presence of calcareous pebbles in the anthropogenic, shell-rich sediments, together with foraminifera, presumably from the estuarine marshes, is compared with the regional geology, providing a hypothetical location of the shellfish gathering. The microstratigraphy described reveals a full internal dynamic in the formation of the apparently homogeneous shell midden layer. The human activities inferred at Poças de São Bento have many similarities with those reported for Cabeço da Amoreira in the nearby Tagus palaeo-estuary. This evidence points to the need for further micromorphological approaches in similar deposits. The study of shell midden formation processes, through integrative microcontextual approaches, plays a major role in understanding Mesolithic societies in the large early Holocene estuary environments of Atlantic Iberia.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Aldeias V, Bicho N (2016) Embedded behavior: human activities and the construction of the Mesolithic Shellmound of Cabeço da Amoreira, Muge, Portugal. Geoarchaeology 31:530–549
Aldeias V, Goldberg P, Sandgathe D, Berna F, Dibble HL, Mcpherron SP, Turq A, Rezek Z (2012) Evidence for Neandertal use of fire at roc de Marsal (France). J Archaeol Sci 39:2414–2423
Aldeias V, Goldberg P, Dibble HL, El-Hajraoui M (2014) Deciphering site formation processes through soil micromorphology at Contrebandiers Cave, Morocco. J Hum Evol 69:8–30
Aldeias V, Gur-Arieh S, Maria R, Monteiro P, Cura P (2016) Shell we cook it? An experimental approach to the microarchaeological record of shellfish roasting. Archaeol Anthropol Sci:1–19. doi:10.1007/s12520-016-0413-1
Ãlvarez M, Briz Godino I, Balbo A, Madella M (2011) Shell middens as archives of past environments, human dispersal and specialized resource management. Quat Int 239:1–7
Araújo AC (1995-1997) A indústria lítica do concheiro de Poças de S. Bento (Vale do Sado) no seu contexto regional. O Arqueólogo Português. Serie IV 13-15:87–159
Araújo, A. C., Arias, P. & Diniz, M. 2015. Lithics in a Mesolithic shell mound: new data from Poças de São Bento (Portugal). In: Bicho, N., Cunha, E., Detry, C. & Price, T. D. (eds.) Muge 150th: the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the Mesolithic shellmiddens. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Arias, P., Diniz, M., Araújo, A. C., Armendáriz, Á. & Teira, L. C. 2015. At the edge of the marshes: new approaches to the Sado valley Mesolithic (southern Portugal). In: Bicho, N., Detry, C., Price, D. T. & Cunha, E. (eds.) Muge 150th: The 150th Anniversary of the Discovery of Mesolithic Shellmiddens. Volume 1.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Arnaud JM (1989) The Mesolithic communities of the Sado Valley, Portugal in their ecological setting. The Mesolithic in Europe International Symposium 3:614–631
Arnaud JM (2000) Os concheiros mesolíticos do vale do Sado e a exploração dos recursos estuarinos (nos tempos pré-históricos e na actualidade). Actas do Encontro sobre Arqueologia da Arrábida, Trabalhos de Arqueologia 4:21–43
Arpin TL, Mallol C, Goldberg P (2002) Short contribution: a new method of analyzing and documenting micromorphological thin sections using flatbed scanners: applications in geoarchaeological studies. Geoarchaeology 17(3):305–313
Balbo AL, Madella M, Vila A, Estévez J (2010) Micromorphological perspectives on the stratigraphical excavation of shell middens: a first approximation from the ethnohistorical site Tunel VII, Tierra del Fuego (Argentina). J Archaeol Sci 37:1252–1259
Balbo A, Madella M, Godino IB, ÃLvarez M (2011) Shell midden research: an interdisciplinary agenda for the quaternary and social sciences. Quat Int 239:147–152
Bicho N, Umbelino C, Detry C, Pereira T (2010) The emergence of Muge Mesolithic Shell Middens in Central Portugal and the 8200 cal yr BP cold event. The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 5:86–104
Bicho N, Cascalheira J, Marreiros J, Pereira T (2011) The 2008–2010 excavations of Cabeço da Amoreira, Muge, Portugal. Mesolithic Miscellany 21:3–13
Bicho N, Cascalheira J, Marreiros J, Gonçalves C, Pereira T, Dias R (2013) Chronology of the Mesolithic occupation of the Muge valley, central Portugal: the case of Cabeço da Amoreira. Quat Int 308–309:130–139
Buurman P, Jongmans AG (2005) Podzolisation and soil organic matter dynamics. Geoderma 125:71–83
Buurman P, Van Bergen PF, Jongmans AG, Meijer EL, Duran B, Van Lagen B (2005) Spatial and temporal variation in podzol organic matter studied by pyrolysis-gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and micromorphology. Eur J Soil Sci 56:253–270
Colonese AC, Troelstra S, Ziveri P, Martini F, Lo Vetro D, Tommasini S (2009) Mesolithic shellfish exploitation in SW Italy: seasonal evidence from the oxygen isotopic composition of Osilinus turbinatus shells. J Archaeol Sci 36:1935–1944
Colonese AC, Verdún-Castelló E, Álvarez M, Briz I, Godino I, Zurro D, Salvatelli L (2012) Oxygen isotopic composition of limpet shells from the Beagle Channel: implications for seasonal studies in shell middens of Tierra del Fuego. J Archaeol Sci 39:1738–1748
Costa, A. M., Freitas, M. C., Arias, P., Diniz, M., Araújo, A. C., Andrade, C., Rodrigues, A., Duarte, J., Cachão, M., Leira, M. 2015. Lower Sado basin sediments: a source for information for the late Mesolithic behaviour. Proceeding of Progress in Quaternary Archive Studies in the Iberian Peninsula, Seville, March 2015.
Costa, A. M., Freitas, M. C., Arias, P., Diniz, M., Araújo, A. C. 2017. Sado River sediments as a major source of information to recostruct Mesolithic landscapes. Paper accepted to be delivered at the 1st Meeting of Histories of Nature and Environment: Dialogues and Perspectives, Lisbon, March 2017.
Courty M-A (2001) Microfacies analysis assisting archaeological stratigraphy. In: Goldberg P, Holliday VT, Ferring CR (eds) Earth sciences and archaeology. Boston, MA, Springer US
Courty M-A, Fedoroff N (2002) Micromorphologie des sols et sédiments archéologiques. In: Miskovsky J-C (ed) Géologie de la Préhistoire: méthodes, techniques, applications. Presses Universitaires de Perpignan, Paris
Courty M, Goldberg P, Macphail R (1989) Soils and micromorphology in archaeology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Cambridge
Dias JMA, Boski T, Rodrigues A, Magalhães F (2000) Coast line evolution in Portugal since the last glacial maximum until present — a synthesis. Mar Geol 170:177–186
Diniz, M. T. & Arias, P. 2012. O povoamento humano do paleo-estuário do Sado (Portugal): problemáticas em torno da ocupação dos concheiros mesolíticos. In: Almeida, A. C., Bettencourt, A. M. S., Moura, D., Monteiro-Rodrigues, S. & Alves, M. I. C. (eds.) Environmental changes and human interaction along the Western Atlantic edge / Mundanças ambientais e interação humana na fachada atlântica ocidental. Coimbra: APEQ-CITCEM-CEGOT-CGUP-CCT.
Duarte, C., Iriarte, E., Diniz, M. & Arias, P. 2015. High resolution XRF chemostratigraphy of the Poças de São Bento shell midden (Sado valley, Portugal). In: Bicho, N., Detry, C., Price, D. T. & Cunha, E. (eds.) Muge 150th: The 150th Anniversary of the Discovery of Mesolithic Shellmiddens. Volume 1.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Durand N, Monger HC, Canti MG (2010) 9 - Calcium Carbonate Features. In: Stoops G, Marcelino V, Mees F (eds) Interpretation of Micromorphological features of soils and Regoliths. Elsevier, Amsterdam
Fairchild, I.J. & BakeR, A. 2012. Speleothem Science: from processes to past environments. Wiley-Blackwell.
Flügel E (2004) Microfacies of carbonate rocks. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg
Fontanals-Coll M, Subirà ME, Marín-Moratalla N, Ruiz J, Gibaja JF (2014) From Sado Valley to Europe: Mesolithic dietary practices through different geographic distributions. J Archaeol Sci 50:539–550
French C (2003) Geoarchaeology in action: studies in soil micromorphology and landscape evolution. Routledge, London
Goldberg P, Aldeias V (2016) Why does (archaeological) micromorphology have such little traction in (geo)archaeology? Archaeol Anthropol Sci. doi:10.1007/s12520-016-0353-9
Goldberg P, Berna F (2010) Micromorphology and context. Quat Int 214:56–62
Goldberg P, Schiegl S, Meligne K, Dayton C, Conard N (2003) Micromorphology and site formation at Hohle Fels Cave, Swabian Jura, Germany. Eiszeit Gegenw 53:1–25
Goldberg P, Miller CE, Schiegl S, Ligouis B, Berna F, Conard NJ, Wadley L (2009) Bedding, hearths, and site maintenance in the middle stone age of Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 1:95–122
Goudie AS (2017) Eolian settings: sand. In: Gilbert AS (ed) Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology. Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht
Gutiérrez-Zugasti I, Andersen SH, Araújo AC, Dupont C, Milner N, Monge-Soares AM (2011) Shell midden research in Atlantic Europe: state of the art, research problems and perspectives for the future. Quat Int 239:70–85
Gutiérrez-Zugasti I, García-Escárzaga A, Martín-Chivelet J, González-Morales MR (2015) Determination of sea surface temperatures using oxygen isotope ratios from Phorcus lineatus (da Costa, 1778) in northern Spain: implications for paleoclimate and archaeological studies. The Holocene 25:1002–1014
Karkanas P (2002) Micromorphological studies of Greek prehistoric sites: new insights in the interpretation of the archaeological record. Geoarchaeology 17:237–259
Larsson L (1996) Late Atlantic settlement in southern Portugal. Results of an excavation of a Mesolithic shell midden by the river Sado. Current Swedish Archaeology 4:123–139
Larsson L (2010) Shells in the sand. Poças de São Bento—a Mesolithic shell midden by the river Sado, southern Portugal. In: Armbruester T, Hegewisch M (eds) On pre- and earlier history of Iberia and Central Europe: studies in honour of Philine Kalb. Bonn, Habelt
López-Dóriga I (2016) The use of plants during the Mesolithic and the Neolithic in the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula. Universidad de Cantabria, Dissertation
López-Dóriga I, Diniz M, Arias P (2016) Macrobotanical remains and shell-midden formation processes, are they related? The case of Poças de São Bento (Portugal). Archaeol Anthropol Sci:1–13. doi:10.1007/s12520-016-0429-6
Mallol C, Mentzer SM (2015) Contacts under the lens: perspectives on the role of microstratigraphy in archaeological research. Archaeol Anthropol Sci:1–25
Mallol C, Cabanes D, Baena J (2010) Microstratigraphy and diagenesis at the upper Pleistocene site of Esquilleu Cave (Cantabria, Spain). Quat Int 214:70–81
Marchand G (2001) Les traditions techniques du Mésolithique final dans le sud du Portugal: les industries lithiques des amas coquilliers de Várzea da Mó et de Cabeço do Rebolador (fouilles M. Heleno) Revista Portuguesa de. Arqueologia 4(2):47–110
Mentzer SM (2014) Microarchaeological approaches to the identification and interpretation of combustion features in prehistoric archaeological sites. J Archaeol Method Theory 21:616–668
Miller CE, Conard NJ, Goldberg P, Berna F (2010) Dumping, sweeping and trampling: experimental micromorphological analysis of anthropogenically modified combustion features. In: Théry-Parisot, I., Chabal, L. & Costamagno S. (eds.) The taphonomy of burned organic residues and combustion features in archaeological contexts, proceedings of the round table, May 27-29 2008. Palethnologie 2:25–37
Miller CE, Goldberg P, Berna F (2013) Geoarchaeological investigations at Diepkloof rock shelter, Western cape, South Africa. J Archaeol Sci 40:3432–3452
Peyroteo Stjerna R (2016) On death in the Mesolithic: or the mortuary practices of the last hunter-gatherers of the south-Western Iberian peninsula, 7th–6th millennium BCE. Uppsala University, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History
Pimentel N, Azevêdo TM (1994) Etapas e controlo alpino da sedimentação na bacia do Sado (SW de Portugal). Cadernos do Laboratorio Xeolóxico de Laxe: Revista de xeoloxía galega e do hercínico peninsular 19:229–238
Pimentel, N., Nukushina, D., Diniz, M. & Arias, P. 2015. Lithic materials in the Sado River’s shell middens: geological provenance and impact on site location. In: Bicho, N., Cunha, E., Detry, C. & Price, T. D. (eds.) Muge 150th anniversary of the discovery of the Mesolithic shellmiddens. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Roche J (1966) Balance de un siglo de excavaciones en los cocheros mesol´ıticos de Muge. Empúries: revista de món clàassic i antiguitat tardana, 13–48
Scholle PA, Ulmer-Scholle DS (2003) A color guide to the petrography of carbonate rocks: grains. Textures, Porosity, Diagenesis, Tulsa, AAPG
Sherwood SC, Kidder TR (2011) The DaVincis of dirt: geoarchaeological perspectives on native American mound building in the Mississippi River basin. J Anthropol Archaeol 30:69–87
Shillito L-M, Matthews W, Almond MJ, Bull ID (2011) The microstratigraphy of middens: capturing daily routine in rubbish at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Antiquity 85:1024–1038
Stein J (1992) Deciphering a shell midden. Academic Press, San Diego
Stjerna, R. P. 2015. Death in place: rituals in practice. In: Von Hackwitz, K. & Peyroteo Stjerna, R. (eds.) Ancient death ways, Occasional Papers in Archaeology 59.
Stoops G (2003) Guidelines for analysis and description of soil and regolith thin sections. Soil Science Society of America Inc., Madison, Wisconsin
Surge D, Wang T, Gutierrez-Zugasti I, Kelley PH (2013) Isotope sclerochronology and season of annual growth line formation in limpet shells (Patella vulgata) from warm-and cold-temperate zones in the eastern North Atlantic. PALAIOS 28:386–393
Umbelino, C., Pérez-Pérez, A., Cunha, E., Hipólito, C., Freitas, M. D. C. & Cabral, J. P. 2007. Outros sabores do passado: um novo olhar sobre as comunidades humanas mesolíticas de Muge e do Sado através de análises químicas dos ossos. Promontoria, Revista do Departamento de História, Arqueologia e Património da Universidade do Algarve, 45–90.
Villagran XS (2014a) Experimental micromorphology on burnt shells of Anomalocardia brasiliana (Gmelin 1791) (Bivalvia, Veneridae) and its potential for identification of combustion features on Shell-matrix sites. Geoarchaeology 29:389–396
Villagran XS (2014b) A redefinition of waste: deconstructing shell and fish mound formation among coastal groups of southern Brazil. J Anthropol Archaeol 36:211–227
Villagran XS, Giannini PC (2014) Shell mounds as environmental proxies on the southern coast of Brazil. The Holocene 24:1009–1016
Villagran XS, Giannini PCF, Deblasis P (2009) Archaeofacies analysis: using depositional attributes to identify anthropic processes of deposition in a monumental shell mound of Santa Catarina State, southern Brazil. Geoarchaeology 24:311–335
Villagran XS, Balbo AL, Madella M, Vila A, Estevez J (2011) Stratigraphic and spatial variability in shell middens: microfacies identification at the ethnohistoric site Tunel VII (Tierra del Fuego, Argentina). Archaeol Anthropol Sci 3:357–378
Wilson MA, Righi D (2010) 12 - Spodic Materials. In: Stoops G, Marcelino V, Mees F (eds) Interpretation of Micromorphological features of soils and Regoliths. Elsevier, Amsterdam
Witkamp M, Frank ML (1969) Evolution of CO2 from litter, humus, and subsoil of a pine stand. Pedobiologia 9:358–365
Zerboni A (2011) Micromorphology reveals in situ Mesolithic living floors and archaeological features in multiphase sites in central Sudan. Geoarchaeology 26:365–391
This research was possible thanks to a PhD scholarship Formación de Personal Investigador (BES-2012-053695) granted to CD by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. Fieldwork at Poças de São Bento and thin section production was conducted in the framework of “Sado-Meso” project, an international collaboration made possible by several projects over the last years: “COASTTRAN - Coastal transitions: A comparative approach to the processes of neolithization in Atlantic Europe” (HAR2011-29907-C03-00) (P.I.: PA) and “Co-Change – Coastal societies in a changing world: A diachronic and comparative approach to the Prehistory of SW Europe from the late Palaeolithic to the Neolithic” (HAR2014-51830-P) (P.I.: PA), both funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, and the project “Back to Sado: a case among the last hunter-gatherers and farmers’ societies emergence in the South of Portugal” (PTDC/HIS-ARQ/121592/2010) (P.I.: MD), funded by the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia. We would like to thank Luis Teira for the topographic and photogrammetric data production and edition for this work, and Monica Alonso for help in phytolith identification. A special thanks to Vera Aldeias for her comments on an earlier version of this paper; we are very grateful to her and Ximena Villagran for productive discussion on the thin section analysis and some of the ideas expressed in this paper. Finally, we are very grateful to the two reviewers for their comments that improve the manuscript.
Electronic supplementary material
About this article
Cite this article
Duarte, C., Iriarte, E., Diniz, M. et al. The microstratigraphic record of human activities and formation processes at the Mesolithic shell midden of Poças de São Bento (Sado Valley, Portugal). Archaeol Anthropol Sci 11, 483–509 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-017-0519-0
- Shell middens
- Sado Valley
- Human activities
- Formation processes