Feasting with Shellfish in the Southern Ohio Valley: Archaic Sacred Sites and Rituals

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Feasting with Shellfish in the Southern Ohio Valley: Archaic Sacred Sites and Rituals. CHERYL CLAASSEN. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2010. xii, 275 pp., illus., maps, index. $49.00 (cloth), ISBN: 157233-714-5.

Between 8,000 and 3,500 years ago, people were accumulating enormous quantities of freshwater shell along portions of the Tennessee, Ohio, Green, and Harpeth rivers of the Ohio Valley. A popular interpretation of the "Shell Mound Archaic" views these heaps as villages and domestic middens of seasonally sedentary hunter-gatherers, people whose fates were determined largely by environment and demography. In Feasting with Shellfish in the Southern Ohio Valley, Cheryl Claassen prioritizes sociality and spirituality over food getting and survival to explore the formation of Archaic shell mounds. Claassen presents a compelling and multidimensional argument that the shell mounds of the Ohio Valley were not villages but intentionally constructed monuments and mortuaries where people aggregated to feast and perform public burial and renewal rituals.

Claassen is an expert on the archaeology and historical ecology of shells and shell fishing. Elements of her controversial mortuary-site hypothesis have been presented elsewhere over the years, including her chapters in The Archaic Period in the Mid-South (McNutt, ed., 1991) and Archaeology of the Mid-Holocene Southeast (Sassaman and Anderson, eds., 1996). Although Claassen does revisit and expand on some of her earlier ideas, Feasting with Shellfish is not simply a rehashing of familiar arguments, nor is it a strictly zooarchaeological study. Claassen explicitly addresses hypotheses related to the availability and accessibility of food resources, but for the first time she also compares and discusses the burial populations from shell-bearing and shell-free sites, looking at evidence of violence, burial positioning, and grave goods.

The first two chapters provide essential background information. Chapter 1, "Thinking about Archaic Hunter-Gatherers," serves as an introduction to the book and discusses the history and trajectory of huntergatherer research in the eastern United States. Chapter 2, "Archaic Shell-bearing Sites of the Southern Ohio Valley," presents a review of individual site records and summarizes the most frequently cited explanations for the appearance and disappearance of the shellmounding phenomenon.

The next three chapters present the argument that Archaic shell-mounding behavior reflected cultural decisions, not environmental stresses. In Chapter 3, "Locations of Shell-bearing Sites," Claassen argues that shellfish could have been harvested from any river in the eastern United States, yet shell accumulations are found on very few rivers. The distribution of sites does not reflect the widespread availability of shellfish resources. Next, Claassen debunks two popular explanations for the end of the shell-mounding phenomenon at the close of the Archaic period. In Chapter 4, "Overexploitation of Mollusks," Claassen uses data from "truly intensive" (p. 32) historic freshwater shellfisheries to demonstrate the prolific and resilient nature of freshwater mollusk populations and concludes that overexploitation by Archaic hunter-gatherers is an "unreasonable" scenario (p. …