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New 3-D tool a first to predict the size of coastal shell middens

May 25, 2022

Coastal shell middens are a common kind of archaeological site found along shorelines worldwide that show historical human and animal activity. In a new study, UVic anthropology PhD candidate, Robert Gustas, invented a 3-D geometric tool – first of its kind – to accurately measure the width, length and depth of an area. With support from Tseshaht First Nation and the Hakai Institute, Gustas developed this new method focusing on sites in the Broken Group Islands on western Vancouver Island, Canada.

“We tested the model and found the amount of shell midden material was far greater than previously recorded,” says Gustas, “leading to more questions about the extent of human activity along the coast and the size of Indigenous populations at the time.”

Despite their importance in informing the cultural and environmental histories of Indigenous peoples, research on shell middens has largely not sought to address the physical extent of these cultural deposits, which requires estimating shape, depth, and volume.

“Archaeological research like this improves understanding of the intensity of Indigenous habitation of coastal environments and hope this method is applied at other places in Coastal British Columbia and even internationally,” says long-time Tseshaht First Nation archaeologist Denis St. Claire, who recorded many of these sites in the 1980s and led several excavations.

Tseshaht First Nation Elected chief councillor Ken Watts shares that the Nation is keen to explore how this knowledge can inform decision making in the present.

“This new, innovative, and advanced work from data in our territory is exciting step for our First Nation”, says Watts.

“Archaeology is a key window to understanding past human activity and environments,” says Gustas, “our study charts a new path for measuring the intensity of Indigenous use of coast environments.”

The researchers hope their study and the new tool are applied to other shell midden sites around the world, such as, South America, Europe, Australia, and Africa among other places thus giving their work global significance.


This study made possible due to the generous support of Tseshaht First Nation, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the Hakai Institute, Social Sciences and Humanities and Natural Sciences and Engineering Councils of Canada.

Gustas Robert H., Iain McKechnie, Quentin Mackie, Chris T. Darimont. 2022. Estimating Coastal Shell Midden Site Volumes Using Geometric Solids: An Example from Tseshaht Territory, Western Vancouver Island, British Columbia Canada. Advances in Archaeological Practice 10(2): 200–214.

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