Reconstructing the size and glacial style of past ice-sheet advances requires interpreting complex glacial sedimentary facies. We use diatoms, a major component of Antarctic continental shelf deposits, to infer the physical conditions under which these deposits were emplaced. The degree of diatom fragmentation and the presence of diatoms of varying stratigraphic age in glacial sediments provide means to qualitatively gauge glacial mixing and transport. Here we report an experimentally calibrated index of diatom fragmentation that provides a simple but objective method of assessing the degree of subshearing imparted on marine glacial sedimentary deposits. By using a ring-shear device to subject diatomaceous sediment to stresses comparable to those beneath the Ross ice streams, we quantitatively assess patterns of diatom comminution resulting from compaction and from progressive shear stress. Elongate pennate diatoms are found to break disproportionately to discoid centric diatoms when subjected to shear stress; thus, a simple ratio of unbroken centric to pennate diatoms provides a reliable gauge of past shearing. Comparison of ring-shear results with a suite of previously analyzed sediments that represent a variety of glacial, glacial-marine, and hemipelagic settings of the Ross Sea and subglacial Ross Embayment demonstrates that this index can be employed for estimating relative subglacial stresses in this setting.