Old Boundaries and New Horizons: The Weipa Shell Mounds Reconsidered

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper develops an alternative interpretation of shell mound phenomena at Albatross Bay, near Weipa on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula. Past researchers have interpreted these distinct mounded middens as functional edifices, constructed to enable small family groups to camp closer to resources during the late wet season. Here I propose that the mounds at Weipa were associated with relatively large groups of people intensively exploiting the shellfish Anadara granosa. This argument is based on a range of factors, including the biological characteristics of Anadara, a species that makes up over 90% of the composition of shell mounds, as well as archaeological and ethnographic evidence.

The shell mounds of the Albatross Bay region, near Weipa on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, have been the subject of archaeological research for almost 30 years. Past interpretations of these phenomena have been subject to little criticism from archaeologists, and so this paper reviews the dominant arguments for mound formation and use. Based on a review of archaeological and ethnographic data, as well as the biological characteristics of Anadara granosa, a dominant shellfish species found in mounds, it is proposed that the mounds were the result of irregularly held social gatherings. There is strong ethnographic evidence to suggest that pre-contact Aboriginal populations on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula commonly held such gatherings, and that these gatherings made use of particularly abundant resources. In this paper it is proposed that Anadara granosa may have been well suited to exploitation in this manner, given that it is occasionally available in specific locations in extremely large quantities.

Background

The first archaeological investigations of the Weipa shell mounds were undertaken by Wright in the 1960s (Wright 1971). He undertook excavations and argued that the mounds occurred because it was "... culturally desirable to dispose of shells in heaps, taking care to keep the area of disposal constricted" (1971:135-36). Perhaps more often associated with the Weipa shell mounds is the work of Bailey (1975, 1977, 1983, 1993a, 1993b, 1994, 1999) who recorded 304 of an estimated 600 mounds believed to occur in the area. As part of his research he also undertook a small excavation on a shell mound at Kwamter (Figure 1), the mound previously excavated by Wright.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Based on Bailey's research it is clear that the mounds are commonly composed of over 90% of the cockle shell, Anadara granosa, a claim that is partially supported by my own recent fieldwork on mound groups on the north Mission River (Morrison 2001. See Figure 1). Mounds have been noted to occur in a variety of locations including within mangrove forests, on exposed sand dunes and beach ridges, but more commonly on the fringes of Eucalyptus tetradonta woodlands and on open samphire plains and saltpans. In terms of their physical nature, the mounds range from as low as 0.20 m in height through to massive, almost monumental ridges of shell several hundred metres long and up to 13 metres high. More commonly mounds are around 2-6 metres in height, and occur as parts of clusters containing up to 15 other mounds.

Bailey has consistently argued that shell mounds were the result of small groups of people exploiting the local environment on a yearly basis during the late wet season (Bailey 1975, 1977, 1983, 1993a, 1994, 1999). He suggested that these groups deposited shell in mounds in order to provide themselves with dry campsites that were above the waterlogged or flooded ground common in coastal areas during the late wet season. He believed that mound distribution was determined by the desire of people to camp as close as possible to the resources they were using. However, it was the way these groups adapted to prevailing environmental conditions that influenced precisely where they would camp. …