The Archaeology of the Port Hedland Coastal Plain and Implications for Understanding the Prehistory of Shell Mounds and Middens in Northwestern Australia

By Harrison, Rodney | Archaeology in Oceania, April 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Archaeology of the Port Hedland Coastal Plain and Implications for Understanding the Prehistory of Shell Mounds and Middens in Northwestern Australia


Harrison, Rodney, Archaeology in Oceania


Abstract

This paper reports the archaeological salvage, radiocarbon dating and analysis of seven shell midden sites located south of Port Hedland, and makes observations regarding the archaeology of the Port Hedland region and the Abydos coastal plain. The excavations revealed an almost continuous sequence of archaeological sites dating between 5250calBP and 50calBP years. These include some of the earliest and latest radiocarbon ages associated with Anadara granosa dominated middens, shell mounds and earth mounds from northwestern Australia. Where earlier researchers had suggested that Anadara exploitation in northwestern Australia, and particularly on the Abydos plain and Burrup Peninsula, was limited to between 4200 and 1600 BP, these excavations demonstrate that the exploitation of Anadara shell in the Port Hedland region was continuous from at least 4400calBP (and possibly as early as 5350calBP) until the early twentieth century. Based on a consideration of their contents and ages, it is suggested that the various forms of shell accumulations in the study area, including shell mounds, earth mounds, surface scatters and stratified lenses of shell midden, are likely to vary more as a result of site formation processes than Aboriginal people's past gathering practices. This finding has broader implications for understanding the place of Anadara shell mounds and middens in the prehistoric regional economy of northwestern Australia.

Keywords: archaeology, shell middens, Port Hedland, Pilbara, Anadara granosa

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In 2005 an ethnographic and archaeological survey for Aboriginal sites was undertaken by consultants Anthropos Australis (Green et al. 2006) with members of the Kariyarra (WC 99/003) native title claimant group for Fortescue Metals Group Pty Ltd (FMG), who intend to construct a Port and Load-out Facility at Anderson Point, between South Creek and South West Creek adjacent to the southwest end of the town of Port Hedland. In addition to a number of ethnographic sites, 107 Aboriginal archaeological sites were located and recorded within the area to be impacted. These sites were all shell middens or shell scatters dominated by Anadara granosa. Most shell scatters were low density surface expressions of weathered shells. The largest and densest shell scatters were located in areas closest to the coast. Green et al. noted that few stone artefacts were associated with the shell midden sites (2006: 355).

On 9th January 2006, FMG applied to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs under section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 to develop land within the proposed Port and Load-Out facility area. 71 of the 107 sites recorded by Green et al. (2006) will be impacted by FMG's proposed development and they recommended that 25 of these sites be salvaged prior to any development.

On 10th March 2006, the Minister granted conditional consent to FMG to develop the land as proposed. Consent was dependant on engaging a suitably qualified archaeologist to undertake excavation and analysis of Aboriginal archaeological sites to determine the extent, content and significance of any sub-surface archaeological material through archaeological test excavation of at least seven archaeological sites. Green et al. (2006) had divided the archaeological sites into three different site types based on their location in the landscape and assumed age. Conditions of consent specified the excavation of at least one site of each type. This study was initiated in an attempt to apply an explicit research agenda within the limits imposed by these consent conditions.

The study area

The study area lies over the northern edge of Abydos Plain. It covers an area of approximately 5 x 2.5 km commencing at Anderson Point and running south, between South Creek and South West Creek for a distance of approximately 5 km to the access road which runs along the Shay Gap railway line (Figure 1).

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