Coastal shell middens and agricultural origins in Atlantic Europe

Nicky Milner, Geoff Bailey, Oliver Craig, Naomi Belshaw, Eva Laurie, 2012

Data copyright © Dr Naomi Belshaw, Prof Nicky Milner unless otherwise stated

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Prof Nicky Milner
Department of Archaeology
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Nicky Milner, Geoff Bailey, Oliver Craig, Naomi Belshaw, Eva Laurie (2012) Coastal shell middens and agricultural origins in Atlantic Europe [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]


photograph of Inner Sound, Scotland

This project was funded by the AHRB from 2002-2005. It aimed to examine the role of marine resources and especially shellfish in the diet and economy of prehistoric hunters and gatherers living in Northwest Europe between about 8000 and 5000 years ago and the influence of these patterns on the spread and adoption of agriculture after about 5000 years ago.

This involved:

  • The exploration of a range of new methods including biomolecular ones for reconstructing palaeodiets and patterns of social and economic organisation from shells and other food remains found in middens and from chemical signals found in human bone and ancient potsherds.
  • Engagement in new fieldwork and collection of samples in collaboration with archaeologists working on archaeological sites across a wide geographical range in Atlantic Europe from Spain to Denmark.
  • Demonstrating that it is possible to obtain a richer and more varied picture of palaeodiet using these methods in combination rather than relying on just one, that there was greater continuity in use of marine resources during the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture than suggested by earlier work, as well as more subtle changes in the proportions of foods obtained from different environments and in the seasonal organisation of their collection and consumption.

This archive presents the database which was constructed for Naomi Belshaw's PhD project on the distribution of coastal sites in Scotland between 9000 and 3000 cal BC in relation to sea level change, resource availability and past archaeological research.

Further Information/Outcomes of the Project

This project opened up an international debate about the sources of evidence used to assess palaeodietary changes in prehistory, especially stable isotope evidence derived from human bone, through a re-assessment of the stable isotope evidence across the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Northwest Europe and a critical evaluation of the resulting generalisations that have been made about the contribution of marine resources in the different periods.

In particular, it was shown that the isotope evidence is in conflict with other archaeological sources of palaeodietary evidence, and thus demonstrated the need for a critical evaluation of all types of evidence and the need for more detailed and sensitive investigations that take account of smaller scale variations in diet, the structure, function and location of midden deposits, and the varying environmental opportunities and constraints of different times and places. More specifically, we have shown that marine resources continued to play an important role in early Neolithic economies supposedly based on agriculture, especially in Denmark, and have cast doubts on the model of a sudden and sharp replacement of Mesolithic economies dominated by marine resources to Neolithic ones dominated by agricultural products (and by extension and implication the various theories that purport to 'explain' this sharp and sudden shift).

We have successfully extended methods of seasonality and age-structure analysis, originally pioneered on the oyster remains in the Mesolithic and Neolithic deposits of the Danish shell- midden site of Norsminde, to other species (particularly the common cockle, Cerastoderma edule), and to other sites, in particular the Danish shell mounds of Krabbesholm and Bjørnsholm (both of which have substantial Neolithic shell-midden deposits as well as Mesolithic deposits).

We have also carried out new studies on stable isotope ecology (looking at the stable isotope composition of both archaeological and modern specimens of different types of marine resources), and experimented with new biomolecular methods, particularly sulphur isotopes, and the analysis of lipid and protein residues adhering to ceramics and, and applied some of these to material in a variety of archaeological contexts, in order to resolve some of the ambiguities associated with existing palaeoeconomic and palaeodietary evidence.

The Team

  • Nicky Milner and Geoff Bailey were co-PIs on the project.
  • Oliver Craig was a Post-doctoral Research Associate with a specialism in bioarchaeology
  • Eva Laurie: PhD student. Her PhD focused on cockle seasonality from Danish shell middens (graduated 2006)
  • Naomi Belshaw: PhD student researching coastal sites in Scotland (graduated 2007)

International collaborators:

  • Prof. Søren H. Andersen (Denmark)
  • Dr Anders Fischer (Denmark)
  • Dr Eva Koch (Denmark)
  • Eva Schaller Ahrberg (Sweden)
  • Dr Becky Nicholson (shell midden on Shetland)
  • Dr Nigel Melton (shell midden on Shetland)
  • Prof Melanie Leng (shell midden on Shetland)
  • Dr Alan Saville (Scotland)
  • Dr. James Barrett (Quoygrew fish midden)
  • Prof. Carl Heron (Bradford)
  • Dr. Jose Rolaõ (Portugal)
  • Dr. Donna Surge, (Iowa State University)
  • Bernd Schöne (Frankfurt)
  • Prof. Peter Woodman (Ireland)
  • Dr Lydia Zapata Pena (Spain)
  • Dr Igor Guterriez (Spain)
  • Professor Karen Hardy (Barcelona)
  • Caroline Wickham-Jones (Aberdeen)


  • Bailey, G.N. and Milner, N. 2003. Coastal hunters and gatherers and social evolution: marginal or central?, Before Farming: the Archaeology of Old World Hunter-Gatherers. 3-4 (1), 1-15.
  • Bailey, G.N. and Milner, N. In press. The marine molluscs from the Norsminde shell midden. In S.H. Andersen (ed.) Stone Age Settlement of the Norsminde Fjord, Jutland, Denmark.
  • Bailey, G.N. and Milner, N. 2008. Mega-molluscan archives from European prehistory, In A. Antczak and R. Cipriani (eds.) Early Human Impact on Megamolluscs. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports International Series.
  • Bailey, G.N., Barrett, J., Craig, O.E. and Milner N. 2008. Historical Ecology of the North Sea Basin: an archaeological perspective and some problems of methodology. In J. Erlandson and R. Torrey (eds.) Ancient human impacts on marine environments: a global perspective. University of California Press, 215-242.
  • Craig, O.E. 2004. Organic analysis of food crusts from sites in the Schelde valley, Belgium: a preliminary evaluation. Notae Praehistoricae 24: 209-217.
  • Craig, O.E., Biazzo, M., Tafuri, M. 2006. Palaeodietary records of coastal Mediterranean populations. Journal of Mediterranean Studies 16, 63-77.
  • Dürrwächter, C., Craig, O.E., Collins, M.J., Burger, J., and Alt, K.W. 2006. Beyond the grave: variability in Neolithic diets in southern Germany? Journal of Archaeological Science 33: 39-48.
  • Craig, O.E., Forster, M., Andersen, S.H., Koch, E., Crombé, P., Milner, N., Stern, B., Bailey, G. and Heron, C. 2007. Molecular demonstration of marine and freshwater products in prehistoric pottery from Northern Europe, Archaeometry 49 (1), 135-152
  • Craig, O.E., Ross, R., Milner, N. and Bailey, G.N. 2006. FOCUS: Sulphur isotope variation in archaeological marine fauna from Northern Europe, Journal of Archaeological Science 33: 1642-1646.
  • Demarchi, B., Rogers, K., Fa, D., Finlayson, C., Milner, N., and Penkman, K. (in press) Intra-crystalline protein diagenesis (IcPD) in Patella vulgate. 1: Isolation and testing of the closed system. Quaternary Geochronology doi:10.1016/j.quageo.2012.03.016
  • Fenger, T., Surge, D., Schöne, B. and Milner, N. 2007. Sclerochronology and geochemical variation in limpet shells (Patella vulgata): A new archive to reconstruct coastal sea surface temperature, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 8,
  • Gutiérrez-Zugasti, I., Andersen, S.H., Araujo, A.C., Dupont, C., Milner, N. and Monge-Soares A.M. 2011. Shell middens in Atlantic Europe: state of art and new perspectives for future research. Quaternary International 239 (1-2), 70-85
  • Heron, C., Craig, O.E., Forster, M., Stern, B., and Andersen, S.H. 2007. Residue analysis of ceramics from prehistoric shell middens: initial investigations at Norsminde and Bjørnsholm. In. N. Milner, O.E. Craig, and G.N. Bailey (eds.) Shell middens in Atlantic Europe. Oxford: Oxbow.
  • Milner, N. 2009. Mesolithic middens and marine molluscs: procurement and consumption of shellfish at the site of Sand. Scottish Archaeology Internet Publications 31.
  • Milner, N. 2009, Consumption of crabs in the Mesolithic: side stepping the evidence? Scottish Archaeology Internet Publications 31.
  • Milner, N. 2012. Human impacts on oyster resources at the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Denmark. In V. Thompson and J. Waggoner (eds.) The Archaeology and Historical Ecology of Small Scale Economies. Florida: University of Florida Press.
  • Milner, N. 2012. Destructive events and the impact of climate change on Mesolithic coastal archaeology in North West Europe: past, present and future. Journal of coastal conservation 16 (2), 223-231, doi:10.1007/s11852-012-0207-2
  • Milner, N. and Barrett, J. 2012. The Maritime Economy: Mollusc Shell. In Barrett, J. H. (ed.). Being an Islander: Production and Identity at Quoygrew, Orkney, AD 900-1600. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 105-115.
  • Milner, N. and Craig, O.E. 2012. An Corran, Staffin, Skye: a Rockshelter with Mesolithic and Later Occupation: Isotope analysis, Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports 51.
  • Milner, N. and Craig, O.E. 2009. Mysteries of the middens: change and continuity across the Mesolithic Neolithic transition. In Allen, M.J., Sharples, N. and O'Connor, T. (eds.) Land and People. Papers in Honour of John G. Evans, Prehistoric Society Research Paper No 2, 169-180. Oxford: Oxbow
  • Milner, N., Craig, O.E. and Bailey, G.N. 2007. Shell middens in Atlantic Europe, Oxford: Oxbow
  • Milner, N., Craig, O.E. and Bailey, G.N. 2007. Shell middens in Atlantic Europe. In N. Milner, O.E. Craig, and G.N. Bailey (eds.) Shell middens in Atlantic Europe, Oxford: Oxbow
  • Milner, N., Craig, O.E., Bailey, G.N., Pedersen, K. and Andersen S.H. 2004. Something fishy in the Neolithic? A re-evaluation of stable isotope analysis of Mesolithic and Neolithic coastal populations. Antiquity 78: 9-22
  • Milner, N., Craig, O.E., Bailey, G.N., Pedersen, K. and Andersen S.H 2006. A Response to Richards and Schulting, Antiquity 308, 456-457
  • Milner, N and Laurie, E. 2009. Coastal perspectives on the Mesolithic Neolithic transition, In McCartan et al (eds.) Mesolithic 2005 volume, 134-139. Oxford: Oxbow books
  • Milner, N., Welsh, J. and Barrett, J. 2007. Marine resource intensification in Viking Age Europe: the mollusc evidence from Quoygrew, Orkney. Journal of Archaeological Science 34, 1461-1472.
  • Milner, N. and Woodman, P.C. 2005. Combler les lacunes. L'événement le plus étudié, le mieux daté et le moins compris du Flandrien. In G. Marchand and A. Tresset (eds). Unité et diversité des processus de néolithisation sur la façade atlantique de l'Europe (7e-4e millénaires avant J.-C.). Monographie de la Société Préhistorique Française,
  • Milner, N. and Woodman, P. 2007. Deconstructing the myths of Irish shell middens, In. N. Milner, O.E. Craig, and G.N. Bailey (eds.) Shell middens in Atlantic Europe, 102-110. Oxford: Oxbow
  • Surge, D. and Milner, N. 2003. Oyster shells as history books, Shellfish News 16, 5-7.
  • Zapata, L., Milner, N and Roselló, E. 2007. Pico Ramos cave shell midden: Mesolithic-Neolithic transition by the Bay of Biscay, In. N. Milner, O.E. Craig, and G.N. Bailey (eds.) Shell middens in Atlantic Europe, Oxford: Oxbow