dauphin island shell mounds

The Dauphin Island Shell Mounds, now a park and bird refuge, date from the Mississippian Period (AD 1100 to 1550). They were visited for centuries by Indians who gathered and roasted oysters and fished in Little Dauphin Island Sound off the Gulf of Mexico.
From excavations carried out in 1990, University of South Alabama archaeologists learned that the shell mounds were probably not occupied year round. We suspect that Indians visited the site according to a seasonal schedule, probably most often in the late winter and spring. The oyster shells, themselves, may provide evidence of seasonality. Shells grow in thin layers (which resemble tree growth rings), more quickly in some seasons than others.

When viewed in profile (as in the photo above), the shell mounds are also seen to contain many layers, some thick ones made up mostly of oyster shells, and some thin intervening layers with lots of wood charcoal, fish bones, and potsherds. This pattern was produced by repeated visits to the same location by small bands of people over many centuries.

On each occasion, a family or two would build a fire in which they roasted oysters; this not only cooked but also opened the pesky creatures (a handy trick in the days before oyster knives). As the oysters were shelled, and the meat probably dried for storage, the shells were tossed aside. This activity created a high pile of shells surrounding the work area around the fire. The next family to visit the spot might shift the location of their fire, and over many years a complex series of overlapping layers would be produced.

Few artifacts are found in the shell mounds, apart from the pieces of cooking pots broken by prehistoric occupants. Stone tools are particularly scarce, perhaps due to the difficulty of finding good kinds of stone in the coastal plain. Although some stone was imported into the region, the Mississippian peoples of the northern Gulf also seem to have used sharpened canes in place of stone for arrowheads and knives.

In 1990 a mapping team from the University of South Alabama produced a contour map of the Dauphin Island Shell Mounds. That project was funded by the National Science Foundation's EPSCor program.

Copyright © 2013 by The University of South Alabama
Last Updated:
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 2:57 PM