A drowned Mesolithic shell midden complex at Hjarnø Vesterhoved,Denmark and its wider significance

Peter Moe Astrup, Jonathan Benjamin, Francis Stankiewicz, Katherine Woo, John McCarthy, Chelsea Wiseman, Paul Baggaley, Katarina Jerbic, Madeline Fowler, Claus Skriver, Geoffrey Bailey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Anthropogenic shell accumulations (shell middens), often of great size, occur in their tens of thousands around the world’s coastlines. They mostly date from the Mid-Holocene onwards and are frequently taken as symptomatic of a Postglacial ‘revolution’ involving world-wide population growth and intensification in exploitation of marine resources. However, the comparative rarity of earlier deposits may have as much to do with Postglacial sea-level rise and the loss of evidence from earlier palaeoshorelines as with genuine socio-economic trends. Here we investigate the underwater Mesolithic (Ertebølle) shellmidden of Hjarnø Vesterhoved in Denmark, one of the first underwater shell middens to be systematically verified as an anthropogenic shell deposit in a region world-famous for its many hundreds of Ertebølle shell mounds on the present shoreline. We show how a combination of geophysical survey, coring, excavation, stratigraphic interpretation and macroscopic analysis of midden contents can be used to identify underwater deposits, to unravel their taphonomic and post-depositional history in relation to surrounding sediments, and to distinguish between cultural and natural agencies of shell accumulation and deformation. We demonstrate the presence of an intact underwater shell-midden deposit dated at 5400–5100 cal BC, one of the earliest in Denmark. We demonstrate the usefulness of such material in giving new information about early coastal subsistence economies and greater precision to the measurement of palaeosea levels. We discuss the implications of our results for an improved understanding of the Mesolithic record in Denmark and of biases in the archaeological record of Late Pleistocene and Early-to-Mid-Holocene coastal contexts. We emphasise the importance of researching more fully the geomorphological and taphonomic processes that affect the accumulation, destruction, burial, preservation and visibility of underwater archaeological deposits, the need to extend underwater investigations more widely and to more deeply submerged palaeoshorelines, and the combination of methods required to advance such investigations.
Original languageEnglish
Article number106854
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Early online date19 Mar 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 19 Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

©2021 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd.


  • Sea-level changes
  • Scandinavia
  • Coastal geomorphology
  • Submerged landscapes
  • Marine molluscs
  • Taphonomy
  • Geophysical survey
  • Underwater archaeology

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