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Peering into the past

Using biology and chemistry of shells for archaeological interpretation

Research | Frameworks in Action

By Jeff Green

You’ve probably heard of people reading used tealeaves to predict the future, but one Memorial researcher is using seashells to peer into the past.

Dr. Meghan Burchell, an environmental archaeologist with the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, is examining shell middens in British Columbia, which are essentially large deposits of shells created by the harvesting, consumption and disposal of shellfish. Some of these shell middens date back thousands of years.

The first to integrate the biology and chemistry of shells into archaeological interpretation, Dr. Burchell is using shells to build a precise environmental and cultural record to interpret how people lived and interacted with the environment thousands of years ago. With a PhD in anthropology—and trained in archaeology and earth sciences—she’s curious about the strategies these people employed in times of environmental and ecological change.

She uses the example of the decline of the salmon industry between 2,000-4,000 years ago on the central coast of British Columbia. The salmon disappeared from the archaeological record, only to reappear later on. She examines shells from that period to see if there’s environmental change in their chemistry, which would impact salmon—and other fish—populations.

“I’m trained in anthropological archaeology, so my questions always circle back to the people.” — Dr. Meghan Burchell

A typical research mission involves collecting living and archaeological shells and analyzing their micro-structure, daily growth lines and shell chemistry. Dr. Burchell performs this analysis with a custom-designed microscope with a mounted drill and a precision saw, among other instruments.

Just as trees lines record a tree’s life, shell lines do the same for shellfish. Shell midden sites that have built up by people over thousands of years provide considerable information about the environment, like water temperature and salinity.

From left: Anna Sparrow, Daniel Rees, Megan Webb, Dr. Meghan Burchell, Emma Culligan, Margaret Way and Natasha Leclerc.
From left are Anna Sparrow, Daniel Rees, Megan Webb, Dr. Meghan Burchell, Emma Culligan, Margaret Way and Natasha Leclerc.
Photo: David Howells

With a team of undergraduates and one master’s student in the areas of archaeology and engineering, Dr. Burchell is able to get an incredibly precise sea surface reconstruction and seasonal data from shells. This data denotes climatic and environmental change and can provide archaeologists perspective as to how and why people made the decisions they did in the past.

FunderSocial Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Anna Sparrow, Archaeology
Maggie Way, Archaeology
Emma Culligan, Engineering and Applied Science
Daniel Reese, Archaeology
Megan Webb, Archaeology
Natasha Leclerc, Archaeology

This article is part of a new bi-weekly collection of research profiles celebrating the contributions of Memorial researchers. Be sure to check back for future profiles.

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