I been looking out some specimens of oyster shells that I collected from modern oyster beds on the south coast of England in the early 1980s. Way back in the early to mid 20th century, the hulls of boats were often coated with anti-fouling paint containing Tri-butyl tin (TBT). It was discovered that seawater contaminated with this chemical had an affect on some marine invertebrates. One of the noticeable phenomena was the way its presence caused the shell layers and chambers of the imported Pacific oyster (Crassosrea gigas) to wildly proliferate. Shells do in fact thicken naturally with age anyway – but in shells affected by TBT the rate of thickening is abnormal. Ultimately this unusual thickening prevented the oyster from opening up its two shell valves to feed and thus caused death of the organism.
A lot of research has been done regarding the affects of TBT on oysters. Laws have been introduced banning the substance in anti-fouling paints. The specimen illustrated in this post (with the images showing the same shell from various perspectives) is probably a rare survivor from the era when such abnormalities were fairly common. Nowadays, proliferation in shell growth of this type is more likely to be caused naturally and not chemically induced.
Some of the things that caught my eye as I walked along the beach at Studland in Dorset, England, included interesting beach stones; stranded clumps of red, green, and brown seaweeds; an empty shell of a clam just eaten by a bird; and tubes of Sand Mason Worms.
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 contentsand a copy of the application form as pdf files.
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.
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.