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Mildura Riverfront Path - Aboriginal Cultural Heritage
Shell middens are places where the remains from eating shellfish and other food has accumulated over time. They can contain:
- shellfish remains;
- bones of fish, birds and land mammals used for food;
- charcoal from campfires; and
- tools made from stone, shell and bone.
Shell middens tell us a lot about Aboriginal activities in the past. The types of shells in a midden can show the type of aquatic environment that was used and the time of year when Aboriginal people used it.
Where do you find shell middens?
Shell middens are found throughout Australia, usually close to a shellfish source. They are generally found on the coast, around inland lakes, swamps and river banks.
Middens are usually in the best possible spot - a pleasant place, that’s easy to get to, where there are plenty of shellfish. They are often fairly close to fresh water on a level, sheltered surface.
Types of shell middens
Middens range from thin scatters of shell to deep, layered deposits which have built up over time. Riverbank middens tend to be smaller than estuarine and coastal middens. Such small sites may show short-term occupation. They can even be the debris from a single meal.
Middens may contain evidence of stone working and stone artefacts. Stone will often have come from a very different area, showing that it was traded or transported. Occasionally shell or bone artefacts, such as fish hooks or barbs, are found in the upper layers of shell middens.
Stone artefacts are the most common form of archaeological evidence found in Australia. In areas where the landscape has not been drastically altered by European settlement, these artefacts can be found lying on the surface, often in quite large numbers. They can also be uncovered by erosion, road works or ploughing.
How were stone tools made?
Two main methods were used to make stone tools: percussion flaking and grinding. To make stone tools by percussion flaking, a suitable piece of rock, known as the core, was selected. It was struck by a second piece, the hammerstone. Smaller thin pieces of stone, called flakes, were chipped off. This process had one of two aims - to chip off a usable flake, or to shape the core itself into a tool.
Archaeological evidence of stone grinding is not as common as that of flaking. The selected piece of stone was usually shaped by flaking before it was ground. Grinding was used to put the finishing touches on the shape of a tool and sharpen its cutting edge. Dishes for milling grain or ochre were also common. These were often shaped by pecking and had ground surfaces caused by wear.
What were stone tools used for?
Stone tools were used in woodworking. Some were set into handles and used as chisels, saws or knives. Others may have been used as spear points, food preparation utensils, or tools to make nets, baskets and other implements.
Many trees along the Murray River bare the scars from removal of bark or wood by Aboriginal people. This wood and bark was used for the making of canoes, shields and other useful items. Scarred trees are one of the most common yet least understood items of Aboriginal heritage.
Published with permission of Mildura Rural City Council
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