Christina Sampson at Weeden Island, at Tampa Bay, Florida.

The enormous shell middens at Tampa Bay, Florida, are testament to the fact that oysters and
other mollusks have been on the menu there for more than a thousand years. When UMMAA graduate student Christina Sampson decided she wanted to know more about people living there during the Safety Harbor period (ca. A.D. 900-1500), she knew she’d be looking at plenty of shells.

Sure enough, after two years of excavation at Weeden Island, a shell midden site on Tampa Bay, Sampson had amassed so many shells, animal bones, and other artifacts that the sorting and quantifying was keeping eight people busy.   

The question was how to pay for dating and analysis.

This month, Sampson got her answer in the form of an NSF grant.

“I’m very excited to be awarded this grant!” wrote Sampson by email. “The role of food collection in community organization is an important part of this research project, and the NSF will make it possible to have extensive identification and analysis of faunal and plant remains done by specialists. Like at other shell midden sites, we recovered samples of animal bone that include many elements from smaller animals, especially fish.”

Some of the shells Sampson found showed evidence of craft production—that is, they were used as tools or ornaments. She also found pottery and tools of bone and stone.

Sampson hopes to use the results of analysis and dating to figure out more about the Safety Harbor community.

“My research questions have to do with community organization; there is a general sense of political reorganization on a regional scale during this time period, but there isn’t a lot of evidence about what that meant within residential communities in terms of foodways, craft production, potential inequalities between households,” she wrote. “Data about variation in animal resources should provide a lot of information for analyzing how people structured their daily activities across the community and over time. The AMS radiocarbon dates are also really important to the project because they will allow me to build statistical models for the occupation to look at how deposits formed and create a finer-resolution picture of how people moved around the site.” 

The title of Sampson’s NSF grant was “Evaluating Hunter-Gatherer Community Organization in the Safety Harbor Period at Weeden Island, Florida.”