Stories that old oyster shells tell – part 6

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The following is the sixth instalment of an 8 part summary of the work I have been undertaking on British Native or European Flat Oyster shell specimens from archaeological and present day contexts. You can see previous posts about the shells of  Ostrea edulis Linnaeus by clicking here for the Oyster Variations category.

 Two thousand years of eating oysters in the UK:

an archaeological perspective

Part 6


The combination of features, from size and shape to epibiont and man-made damage, provides not only a standardised way of describing a sample of shells by giving it a unique identifier but also supplies a means of addressing some of the questions posed by archaeologists regarding the point of origin of the shellfish and the mode of its exploitation. A series of theoretical models has been drawn up that identify which types of evidence from the shells are indicative of the different aspects of oyster bed location and level of exploitation (Winder 1993 Chapter 11 The conclusions and discussion: Levels of oyster exploitation pp 281- 304). These models bring together ideas about which combinations of features in archaeological oyster shells, associated species, and excavated material structures might be useful for interpretation.

Five theoretical exploitation models are described but in reality there would be a continuum of gradually intensifying activities from sporadic hand-collection from natural intertidal beds to full-scale commercial cultivation and marketing of oysters. Each element of data recorded from the oyster shells and the site can potentially contribute to our understanding of the particular type of environment in which they lived, and the level of effort involved in their exploitation. For example, infestation evidence could be used to suggest the locality of the bed, whether the bed was inter-tidal littoral or shallow sub-littoral, harder or softer substrate and also the degree of salinity. Size distributions may reflect growth rate, recruitment variability, selection preferences, and survival rates. The diagram in Figure 5 shows as an example Model 1 which is for sporadic hand collection from natural beds. 


The conceptual models described above and comparisons of size and infestation have been used to interpret the data from archaeological oysters and suggest where and how this shellfish was exploited. What can we now say about eating oysters in the past based on this archaeological evidence? This research has started to give a clearer picture about the way people have exploited oysters over the last two thousand years in Great Britain, confirmed some ideas previously held, and refuted others. It is a developing methodology that will help answer some of the questions posed by archaeologists.

Next, Part 7 will finally pull together some of the conclusions that have been enabled by the application of the methods described earlier and the results obtained from the examination of over 30,000 old archaeological oyster shells.


N.B. Please leave a comment or e-mail me directly on if you would like to ask any questions or to have a free copy of the complete article sent to you as a pdf file. This article is just a very brief summary of my archaeological oyster research. A small selection of references to publications and reports will be provided with the article.

© Jessica Winder and Jessica’s Nature Blog, 2010. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material, including both text and photographs, without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jessica Winder and Jessica’s Nature Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 Photographs in this blog are copyright property of Jessica Winder with all rights reserved

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