The 80 metre high cliffs on the east shore at Seatown in Dorset along the Jurassic Coast are subject to land slips and rock falls. Large lumps of shattered blue-grey clay are common on the beach. They come from cascades of Eype Clay Member material that forms the lower part of the cliff exposures.
I am delighted to announce the forthcoming publication of a brilliant new book called Molluscs in Archaeology – methods, approaches and applications edited by Michael J. Allen and published as part of the Studying Scientific Archaeology Series (3) by Oxbow Books. I have myself contributed a chapter on Oysters in Archaeology to this book, summarising my past research and suggesting new ways forward using latest technologies. It is available at a pre-publication discounted price for a limited period. See the details below. You can also download a list of the contents and a copy of the application form as pdf files.
A large rock that had rolled down from the top of the cliffs at Seatown in Dorset was lying on the pebbles of the beach. It was yellow and rusty coloured. At this point along the shore, called Ridge Cliff, the rocks belong to the Dyrham Formation of the Liassic/Jurassic period. The lower section of the cliff is the Eype Clay Member of pale, blue-grey micaceous silty mudstone and shale. Above that is the Down Cliff Sand Member mostly of silts and fine sands with thin lenticles of hard calcareous sandstone. On top of this is the Thorncombe Sand Member with yellow-weathering, heavily bioturbated sands, with several horizons of large rounded calcareously cemented concretions. This boulder obviously came from one of these upper sandstone layers but I cannot say which one. Its broken edge revealed lovely abstract patterns and beautiful crystals.
The beach at Seatown in Dorset comprises a series of steep pebble banks. You can see how far up the shore the last high tide has been by the line of natural debris extending along the shore parallel to the water’s edge. On this occasion the strandline was almost entirely made up of dried red seaweed which contrasted well with the pebbles. Quite a number of white cuttlefish bones rested on the weed. I am fascinated by their beautiful structure. For some reason, the shape of the more concave surface (as in image 5) always makes me think of angels.
The shingle shore at Whitstable in Kent is protected by massive wooden groynes or breakwaters. At the time of my visit, the tide was high and the flint and other mostly worm-holed pebbles were steeply banked. The flat top of the beach was stabilised by vegetation with pink and white valerian and yellow ragwort the most colourful flowers. Pale bands of white empty oyster shells (mostly the rock oyster Crassostrea gigas) were high, dry, and dull on the shingle between the groynes; while lower down splashed by waves or heaped up against the wooden sea defence structures was a great variety of other empty shells including winkles, cockles, mussels, limpets, slipper limpets, whelks, netted whelks, Manila clams, and sting winkles. These were jumbled up with wet and dry seaweed, horn wrack, small pieces of driftwood, and flotsam. There was a marked contrast in the appearance of the shells and stones between the water’s edge where the wet shells were brighter and more colourful and the upper shore where everything was dry.
Whitstable Woodgrain 1 – 9: Rust-stained woodgrain in old railway sleepers recycled as fencing at Whitstable Harbour, Kent, England.
Information boards in the harbour area at Whitstable say that in the late 1820’s a company was set up to build a railway line linking Canterbury and Whitstable and to construct a new harbour there. The railway opened in 1830 and was the first to carry passengers in trains drawn by steam power. At that time, on the hilly sections of the route, the trains were pulled on ropes reeled in by stationary steam-driven winding machines. Stephenson’s Invicta locomotive hauled trains along the flatter section of the line near Whitstable. Because of its seaside connections the railway was popularly known as the Crab and Winkle Line. The harbour was built two years later in 1832.
Eventually trade declined in the harbour and the railway closed in 1952. It is interesting to speculate whether the old timbers shown in these photographs with all their wear, rust stains, and drilled holes are the actual wooden sleepers from that old Crab and Winkle Line.
Broughton Bay is a wide sandy expanse on the north shore of the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, facing the Loughor Estuary or Burry Inlet. A small promontory called Twlc Point at the western end of the beach has an interesting geology with an exposure of Hunts Bay Oolite from the Carboniferous Period. I have written about these strata in earlier posts such as:
On this particular visit I was content to appreciate the way that pebbles of many types and colours on the upper shore were clustered around outcrops and boulders of the limestone which were often pink-tinged and sometimes fossiliferous.
I have spent a large part of my life studying oyster shells that have been excavated on archaeological excavations of sites in the British Isles dating from the last two thousand years. The shells have been found in a variety of contexts including middens which are heaps of kitchen waste including oyster and other marine mollusc shells. Strangely, I had never seen a modern equivalent until this week when I visited Whitstable on the north Kent coast. I had read all about the famous Whitstable Oyster Fishery but somehow had never got around to visiting the place.
I did not choose a very good day to see Whitstable for the first time. It was very cold, dull, and windy with the choppy sea high up the shingle beach and salt spray continuously misting my camera lens. Nonetheless, I had a great time and made some interesting discoveries – not least of which was my desire to go back ago and explore some more.
Almost the first thing I saw when I hit the shore after a coffee at the Horsebridge Gallery, was the building of the historic Royal Native Oyster Stores belonging to the Whitstable Oyster Company. It included a seafood restaurant closed at the time, and outside were two substantial heaps of empty oyster shells – middens – one against a wall and the other on the shore. A casual observer might wonder why mounds of empty shells had been left lying around and not properly disposed of. There is a good and logical reason.
The shells are being kept for cultch. The youngest form of an oyster is a free-swimming larval stage which needs to find somewhere suitable to settle down and grow. It is very particular about the type of object on which it will land and attach its embryonic shell. It has a limited time, maybe just a couple of weeks if the temperature is optimum, to find just the right place. It likes all sorts of hard substrates but it likes oyster shells best – sometimes empty ones and sometimes live ones.. Traditionally, this preference is catered for by the oyster fishermen who put down quantities of empty oyster shell as cultch on the seabed to encourage the settlement of young spat oysters. They also string old shells together to act as suspended spat catchers in the water. It is interesting to see these historic practices still in operation in an age when many oysters are bred in laboratories before being grown on in metal mesh bags on trestles covered by the tides. They use both old and new methods here.
The pictures in this post show more than one type of oyster shell. The Native British Oyster, also known as the European Flat Oyster (Ostrea edulis) is the type for which Whitstable is most famous. They also use the Pacific or Rock Oyster (Crassostrea gigas) which grows faster and is therefore a good commercial proposition, especially when in recent times the numbers of our native species have reduced.