Seasonality of Weipa shell mounds: Implications for current archaeological models in northern Australia

Author: Chantal Wight

Wight, Chantal, 2022 Seasonality of Weipa shell mounds: Implications for current archaeological models in northern Australia, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

Terms of Use: This electronic version is (or will be) made publicly available by Flinders University in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. You may use this material for uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material and/or you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact with the details.


This thesis presents the results of an investigation into the seasonality of shell mound use at Weipa in Albatross Bay, far northern Queensland. Shell mounds are an important part of the Holocene archaeological record and have been a focus for coastal archaeologists in northern Australia for more than fifty years. Debates on their use and the socio-cultural practices that led to their formation have included discussions on seasonal occupation, but this is difficult to test using conventional archaeological approaches. This research has investigated the season of death of 12 Marcia hiantina shells using oxygen isotope analysis. The research question focuses on when phases of mound accumulation occurred, specifically, how this is reflected within the structure of the mound.

Oxygen isotopes provide the opportunity to test seasonality but have rarely been applied in Australian archaeology. Oxygen isotope values recorded the ratio difference between the isotopic weights of 16O and 18O (presented as a δ18O value). The samples from SM:88 span three stratigraphic layers and a period of ~300 years. Spot sampling was conducted across the outer shell layer from the mid-point to terminal margin along the direction of growth.

The δ18O analysis suggests predominantly dry season exploitation of M. hiantina, with a transition to wet season occupation in the uppermost excavation unit that coincided with a marked decrease in shellfishing activity. The dominance of dry season occupation contrasts with many of the current models of occupation and subsistence practices, since they favour coastal wet season exploitation. Further investigations should include a systematic investigation of a larger number of shell mounds at Weipa, as well as more broadly within other regions, to gain a clearer understanding of subsistence practice across northern Australia, or if we need to revisit existing models considering this new and emerging field of data collection.

Keywords: archaeology, shellfish, Weipa shells

Subject: Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2022
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Dr Ian Moffat