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  • Writer's pictureChris

Oyster Middens: human history told by oyster shells

Updated: Jan 20

Excavated Oyster Shell Midden Westmoreland County Virginia

The following article draws information from a William & Mary Center for ArchaeologicalResearch Project (Monroe & Goodrich)

Welcome to the first issue of LOC’s newsletter: In this issue, we introduce the term ‘littoral’ which designates the zone between high-tide and low-tide water marks. This ecological range is a primary habitat for our beloved bivalve and is analogous to a range of topics planned for this newsletter.


This ecological zone is fortuitous in location because it made the oyster accessible for native peoples the world over. As such, the oyster became a key food source for humans throughout history. Archeologists maintain that that discarded oyster shell mounds, called “middens” (which means trash heap), along inland shorelines is physical evidence that oysters were an inter-seasonal food staple that filled the gap between dwindling winter food stores and the more dependable diet provided by spring and summer.


Based on studies of shell fishing around the world, the most common method to harvest oysters was probably scooping oysters at low tide into baskets. In warmer weather, people may have collected oysters by diving below the surface. Sixteenth-century art also depicts natives using rakes from canoes to procure oysters from deeper waters.


In The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay, the author notes that the Nanticoke Indians were “fond of raking up large piles of fresh oysters from creek bottoms with forked sticks and indulging in feasts that sometimes lasted several days.” (1981 The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay. Tidewater Publishers, Centreville, Maryland).

LOC’s shell midden – a constantly revolving pile of shell from LOC event and member recycling efforts.

These feasts sound a little like a modern day oyster roasts don't they? The main difference today of course is that we make efforts to recycle and return shells to the water. This creates optimal surfaces for oyster population re-growth (Read about LOC’s efforts).


Due to the wide occurrence of shell middens, it is speculated that Indians would rotate through different shoreline camps, moving from areas of dwindling supply to access more productive areas. It is hard to imagine that at that time, when natural resources were so bountiful and human impacts so low, this would be necessary.


However, those that work oysters know how hard it is. Time and effort from harvest location and final destination is as challenging today as it would have been then. Imagine: harvesting with primitive clothing and tools, and bushwhacking back to camp on foot through a wild landscape with a bushel or so loaded into a basket made of grass. Once the repetitive trips from harvest to camp site became cumbersome, it would make sense to move the camp.

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