A Modern Oyster Shell Midden

Oyster shells in a heap at Whitstable for use as cultch for collecting oyster spat

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.