Emeryville Shellmound

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Temporal Period(s) [[]]

Summary Details

Location: (Emeryville, California, USA [[37° 50′ 2.4″ N, 122° 17′ 33.47″ W 37.834, -122.29263 ]])

Period: Late Paleo-Indian Period

Date Range: ~2700-700 BP (Broughton 2002:Norton and Booker 2009)

Mound Dimensions: 100x300m and 10m in depth (Broughton 2002)


The Emeryville site is significant archaeologically due to its stratigraphic preservation of over 24,000 animal bones which paint a clear picture of the subsistence of a large population in the San Francisco Bay area in the late holocene period (Broughton 2002). As the Emeryville population seems to show a fairly standard pattern of growth for this region and is located in an area which includes a variety of habitats, it acts as a model which helps us to understand the hunting and foraging patterns of the region and how they developed from ~2700BP into the historic period (Broughton 2002: Norton and Booker 2009).

Research History

Three separate areas of the mound were excavated during three independent excavations before it was destroyed in 1924 (Broughton 2002). With the exception of a small salvage excavation in 1999 (World Heritage Encyclopedia 2015). The initial excavation took place from February to early May of 1902 and was conducted by Professor Merriam, the next to conduct research was Professor Max Uhle (Uhle 1907). His excavation consisted of a lateral and vertical cut of the mound, the construction of a tunnel to explore the lower layers and establish a base stratigraphy, and a series of pits extending from the tunnel to the bayshore in order to obtain a rough base outline of the mound (Uhle 1907). Max Uhle published his interpretation of this archaeological evidence in 1907 in a book simply titled ‘Emeryville Shellmound’. It explains in great detail the type and frequency of artifacts and burials present in the mound and attempts to distinguish different phases of occupation very loosely through the interpretation of burials (Uhle 1907).

The mound was once again Excavated in 1906 by Nels C. Nelson, who was at the time completing a graduate program at UC Berkeley (Nelson 1906). His excavation built upon that previously undertaken by Dr. Max Uhle, and in his words was predominantly conducted to supplement Uhles findings (Nelson 1906). His excavation uncovered a large number of faunal remains and artifacts from all layers, and his findings, even some quite unusual such as the lack of fish bone in stratum 11, were all supported by those of Dr. Uhles previous excavation (Nelson 1906). The most recent excavation of the site was undertaken in 1999 prior to the demolition of the industrial plant which stood on the site from 1924-1999 (World Heritage Encyclopedia 2015)). Not much of material significance remained, but human remains and limited artifacts were recovered (World Heritage Encyclopedia 2015).

Current Research

Modern study of the mound has been very limited archaeologically, but evidence amassed from very detailed earlier excavations continues to be used to study the mound and surrounding area. One of the primary fields of study that has been undertaken using evidence from Emeryville is the analysis of resource exploitation using optimal foraging theory. Emeryville is a site which is uniquely qualified to provide insights into what people ate due to the composition of the mound itself. The mound is essentially a large midden used as a village platform which was built over the course of centuries (Margolin 1978). It exhibits reasonably clear stratigraphy which has allowed for archaeologists to see patterns over time (Uhle 1907). This has led to studies such as Broughtons study of resource depression using prey spatial structure and behaviour, and his study conducted in partnership with Rogers et al. which analyzed the possible selectivity of hunters when bringing back animals from farther distances (Broughton 2002: Broughton and Rogers 2001). The latter relying on the conclusion of his first paper, that a resource depression in the area led hunters to broaden their hunting range (Broughton 2002). This will be further discussed under the heading ‘Subsistence and Environment’

Occupational History

It is widely accepted that the people who constructed and occupied what is now known as the Emeryville Shellmound were members of the Ohlone of Northern California. The term Ohlone is a broad modern term used to describe the large and culturally varied indigenous population who lived (and are still living) in the Monterey-San Francisco Bay area (Margolin 1978). The cultural makeup of the area was incredibly complex and consisted of a large number of different tribes, many of whom spoke their own unique languages (Margolin 1978). They all coexisted in a small territory and interacted predominantly when trading (Margolin 1978). Their languages do share a common root and there is a lot of consistency culturally across tribes (Margolin 1978). However, it should be understood that they did not consider themselves to be one nation or large tribal entity (Margolin 1978). There were roughly 40 small tribes which all considered themselves to be their own independent nations (Margolin 1978). Ohlone can then be understood as acting as an umbrella term which groups the many smaller cultures of the region together and helps us to more easily understand and study the history of the region.

Ohlone Indians in a Tule Boat in the San Francisco Bay 1822.jpg

The Emeryville Shellmound is only one of many Shellmounds built by the Ohlone in the San Francisco Bay Area (Margolin 1978). These mounds were constructed alongside permanent villages occupied year round and temporary camp sites used by inland populations to exploit the abundant marine resources available on the coast (Margolin 1978). Mounds began to be constructed in the region in the late archaic period, which can be categorized by the use of harder to exploit resources like acorns (Helton). The mound was constructed over the course of centuries between approximately 2700-850BP (Norton and Booker 2009). Although there are some stratigraphic inconsistencies amongst early excavations, on average each stratum has been calculated to have taken roughly 200 years to accumulate (Broughton 2002). The mound itself is made up predominantly of shells which upon excavation were ground up quite finely and mixed with the soil, the mound is also comprised of charcoal, blackened stones, animal bones, ashes, and contains burials (Uhle 1907). The mound seems to have been consistently occupied due to a lack of formation of solely soil layers - which are visible on other mounds in the area and are thought to indicate a period of abandonment (Uhle 1907). Although it has been proposed by Bennyhoff that many cultural horizons are present in the stratigraphy of the mound due a tendency for the people of the region to frequently abandon and reinhabit sites (Bennyhoff 1986). It is difficult to substantiate this theory however due to a lack of perishable artifacts such as textiles or basketry which would better reflect cultural shifts than awls and mortars (Uhle 1907).

Burials and Material Culture

Although the mound has been an important source of information in regards the subsistence of the region, it did not simply contain faunal remains but was also used as a burial site and contains artifacts (Uhle 1907). Artifacts and burials can be found throughout the mound, with stratums II and VII containing the majority of the human burials (Uhle 1907). The only material objects to have been preserved were made of stone and shell, but the absence of objects like textiles and baskets is not presumed to mean that they were not being utilized (Uhle 1907). The stone objects found consist predominantly of mortar and pestles, which were likely used for the processing acorns (Nelson 1906:Tushingham and Bettinger 2013). Bone and antler objects were also discovered across all strata with their manufacturing not varying significantly between them, illustrating some degree of cultural continuity throughout the length of Emeryville’s occupation (Nelson 1906).

However Burial methods did change very significantly over time. The practice of burying the bones of the dead in the mound being common in strata VI-VIII but rapidly shifting in strata I, III, and IV (Uhle 1907). In the lower strata burials consisted of skeletal remains, sometimes buried in conjunction with goods and red earth, but not consistently (Uhle 1907). In the strata that follow: I, III, and IV there is evidence for the cremation of the dead along with their belongings (Uhle 1907). This has been substantiated by the discovery of ashes alongside calcined bone implements, most commonly awls (Uhle 1907). This shift is significant as it draws a clear connection between modern Californian tribes and the population of Emeryville, who have continued this practice right through to the modern period (Uhle 1907).

Subsistence and Environment

The Environment in the Bay area differed considerably from what we see there today. The landscape was incredibly swampy and rich in wildlife, both marine and terrestrial (Margolin 1978). The Ohlone who inhabited Emeryville and the surrounding area were hunter gatherers who exploited these rich resources and lived in relative abundance during their early occupation (Broughton 2002). They subsisted heavily on fish, littoral sea life, elk and acorns, with Tule deer being a predominant food source particularly in later phases of occupation (Broughton and Rogers 2001). Acorns were also a heavily exploited resource as they were easily stored all year round in stilted granaries on the mound, they made up a very large portion of the Ohlone diet and will be discussed further below (Margolin 1978). Like all hunter gatherer diets, the diet of the Ohlone was incredibly varied and included wild plants such as soaproot and clover, as well as a number of small marine and terrestrial animals like sea otters and beavers (Margolin 1978) Uhle 1907). Inter-clan trade was also exploited for resources and pine nuts from inland groups were a coveted good (Margolin 1978).


Acorns were a primary food staple for the people of Emeryville (Tushingham and Bettinger 2013). This is visible in the archaeological record through the presence of mortars and pestles, and has also been noted ethnographically amongst contact period groups (Nelson 1906:Tushingham and Bettinger 2013). Mortar and pestle technology reached the Bay area between 3000-2500BP, around the time that Emeryville was established (Tushingham and Bettinger 2013). Acorns have traditionally been seen as a low rank food source by researchers due to the high degree of processing they must undergo to become edible, yet they were used in abundance amongst west coast groups due to their ability to be stored for long periods of time. The process for acorn use first involves waiting for the acorns to fall off of trees and gathering them, next they must be ground into a fine powder, and finally they must be leached to remove tannins (Tushingham and Bettinger 2013). It should be noted that the leeching process varies across acorn species with certain requiring days of leaching and others requiring very minimal amounts of processing (Margolin 1978).

Their use in later more sedentary periods is likely not a coincidence, as the use of acorns as a resource staple would have allowed for group mobility to decrease (Tushingham and Bettinger 2013). Acorns began to become an important resource in the early and middle pacific periods when people in the area began settling into more permanent village sites (Helton). They became even more important however in the late pacific period when group mobility decreased significantly and they became more dependant on stored goods (Helton). Resource Depression

Resource Depression

While resources may seem like they were in abundance, it has been theorized that the population which inhabited Emeryville did experience a temporal resource depression in its later years of occupation (Broughton 2002). Using optimal foraging theory and an analysis of the faunal remains found in the mound Broughton believes to have proven that in the later years of occupation the ecosystems surrounding the mound began to become depleted of key prey species (Broughton 2002). He states that this is visible in the stratigraphic distribution of bones throughout mound which shows an increase in deer bone (an animal with a much larger habitat range) in upper levels alongside a decrease in large marine life and other large mammalian prey, such as white sturgeon and elk who could only be found in areas adjacent to the mound (Broughton and Rogers 2001). In his second paper on similar subject matter he goes on to further substantiate this theory by analyzing the parts of deer found in the mound (Broughton and Rogers 2001). He concludes that while there isn’t much available in the way of archaeological evidence, what is there does support that there were choosing which parts of the deer to bring back from the hunt which likely means the hunting grounds were farther from the mound as opposed to in its immediate vicinity (Broughton and Rogers 2001).

Recent History and Controversy

There has been considerable controversy surrounding the Emeryville site, particularly in last decade and a half. The site was first built on in 1877 when it was used as a platform for a dancehall which was part of an amusement park (World Heritage Encyclopedia 2015). The mound itself, while certainly not untouched was not totally destroyed in the destruction of the dancehall and was able to be excavated by Merriam, Uhle, and Nelson in the early 1900’s (Uhle 1907:Nelson 1906:Margolin 1978). However it did not remain in tact for long as in 1924, coincidentally in the midst of the prohibition, the amusement park went out of business and the land was sold (World Heritage Encyclopedia 2015). The mound was then levelled and replaced by an industrial factory which stood on the site until 1999 (World Heritage Encyclopedia 2015). Just after the demolition of the factory there was a brief excavation followed by considerable controversy (World Heritage Encyclopedia 2015). People were not keen on the area being redeveloped, but despite protests and after the salvage excavation, the area was redeveloped once again and is now home to a shopping mall (World Heritage Encyclopedia 2015). The only nod to the monument that once stood underneath the sunglass hut is a small memorial park located outside of the mall (World Heritage Encyclopedia 2015).

References Cited

Bennyhoff, J. 1986. The Emeryville Site (CA-ALA-309) Viewed 93 Years Later. Coyote Press Archives of California Prehistory, 6, 65-74.

Helton, C. N.d. Section 8.3 Cultural Resources. In Small Power Plant Exemption Application. Richmond, California.

Margolin, M. 1978. The Ohlone way: Indian life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area. Berkeley: Heyday Books.

Nelson, N. C., & Broughton, J. M. 1996. Excavation of the Emeryville Shellmound, 1906: Nels C. Nelson's final report. Berkeley: Archaeological Research Facility, University of California at Berkeley.

Norton, A., & Booker, M. 2009, May 1. Visualizing Sea Level Rise and Early Bay Habitation, 6000 B.P. to Present: The Emeryville Shellmound. Retrieved November 15, 2015, from https://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/viz.php?id=89&project_id=1005

Rogers, A., & Broughton, J. 2001. Selective Transport of Animal Parts by Ancient Hunters: A New Statistical Method and an Application to the Emeryville Shellmound Fauna. Journal of Archaeological Science, 28(7), 763-773.

Tushingham, S., & Bettinger, R. 2013. Why foragers choose acorns before salmon: Storage, mobility, and risk in aboriginal California. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 32(4), 527-537.

Uhle, M. 1907. In The Emeryville Shellmound (1st ed., Vol. 7). Berkeley: University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnography

Emeryville Shellmound. 2015. Retrieved November 17, 2015, from http://self.gutenberg.org/article/whebn0002634727/emeryville shellmound, World Heritage Encyclopedia

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