Vol. 8, No. 46
Nov. 16-22, 2000
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... from Our Long-Lost Neighbors

Oysters eaten 1,800 years ago offer a moral for our times

by James G. Gibb

undreds of thousands of oyster shells lie buried beneath the leaf mold along the shoreline of the Rhode River, on land that is now the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater. These are not the remains of a long-forgotten oyster cannery. They are far too old for that.

These oyster shells were tossed here over a millennium ago, along with scraps of bone, ashes from campfires, bits of stone tools and shards of prehistoric Native American pottery. The shell-littered river terrace now known as the Smithsonian Pier site was an Indian oyster shuckery where generations of small bands or families returned each year to collect - but not over-harvest - oysters.

Who these people were nobody knows, for there are no written records for North America before the 1500s, several centuries after the Smithsonian Pier site was abandoned. But archaeologists have dug up some clues. Excavations yielded stone tools and pottery embedded in six-inch-thick layers of oyster shell and rich, organic soil. These artifacts are typical of a prehistoric culture that local archaeologists have dubbed Selby Bay, the name of the site on the South River where the distinctive styles of tools and pottery were first recognized. That makes them, and their bed of shell, 1,200 to 1,800 years old. They came to rest here, that means, between ad 200 and 800.

Back then, the citizens of Selby Bay hunted with spear points made of a bluish rhyolite - a stone quarried in the Blue Ridge Mountains - and stored their food in thick earthen pots made with local clay and crushed oyster shell and often decorated by impressing cords and woven nets into the wet clay before it was fired. Some thinner, more elegant pots with incised geometric decorations also were recovered. Those are the work of another culture - the Little Round Bay people - and another time: between ad 800 and 1200. Again, archaeologists named these more recent groups of people for the site on which their distinctive artifacts were first recognized.

The Smithsonian Pier site has given us more than oyster shells, stone tools, bone and pottery. It has yielded scientific information on the Chesapeake Bay and told us how aboriginal peoples used the Bay and its resources. Carbonized wood and preserved pollen reveal what the site looked like and the kinds of plants used by the Selby Bay people. Fragments of bone identify the meats that they ate and tell us how they hunted and gathered. The oyster shells combine with these other clues to tell us how these people created a sustainable niche for themselves among competing species.

Digging Up the Dirt

To find those shells, bones and bits of pottery, I led an archaeological team in excavating 22 rectangular holes, each six by three feet, and up to two feet deep. Our finds - artifacts and biological samples - were processed and analyzed by specialists. Ethnobotanist Justine Woodward McKnight of Severna Park identified plants by microscopically examining flecks of charcoal recovered from the soil. The carbonized shell fragments turned out to be hickory nuts and black walnuts along with some burned sunflower and goosefoot seeds: These may have been cooked for food. The Indians fueled their campfires, she found, with wood from American chestnut, white and red oaks, maple, pine and Eastern cedar.

More plants were revealed under the microscope of Grace Brush of The Johns Hopkins University. Washing soil samples in a series of acid baths, she extracted microscopic pollen. There wasn't much, and the grains were not well preserved, but Brush identified many species of plants. As well as confirming McKnight's charcoal identifications, she found mimosa, elm, cypress and mulberry (an introduced species). From the vegetative understory, she identified grape, lip, and cinnamon ferns; club and spike moss; and a host of species including berries, amaranth, grasses, plantains, water lily, purslane and goldenrod. She also identified two, possibly four, grains of corn pollen. These pollen grains likely derive from the later Little Round Bay visitor or from European farmers of the last three centuries. At the time of the Selby Bay people, corn was not yet on the menu in Chesapeake Country.

Together, the ethnobotanists recreate a picture of an encampment lightly forested and overgrown with weeds: not quite a vacant treeless lot in a suburban setting, but not altogether different, either.

Few bones were recovered from the oyster shell deposit, or midden - to use the archaeologists' term, a Scandinavian borrowing denoting a refuse heap – in this case dominated by oyster shell. Bone specialist Tara Goodrich identified various bones of deer - indicating on-site butchering - as well as terrapin, one or more unidentifiable birds and black drumfish. The range of species and the paltry number of bone fragments compared to the vast quantities of oyster shell all point to occasional, opportunistic hunting and fishing: These people came to the Rhode River for oysters.

The distinctive pottery of the Selby Bay people was made with local clay impressed with cords of woven nets.

Analyzing that mountain of oyster shells was the job of Smithsonian technicians Timothy Steelman and Margaret Kramer. Oysters, they found, were popular. Many species - sponges, boring clams, mudworms and drumfish - were competing with humans for the pleasure of dining on oysters. Fifty-five percent of the oysters had been attacked, though not necessarily killed, by sponges, which leave the many small perforations you can still see on the outsides of oyster shells today. Sixty-five percent of the oysters had been attacked by mudworms, which leave small, barely perceptible scars on the shell interiors. Shell-crushing by drumfish cannot be distinguished from other sources of damage, but two black drum teeth (about the size and shape of a thumbtack head) leave no doubt that these predators frequented the Rhode River.

Examining the hinge portion of the oyster shell - the point at which the two shells, or valves, of an oyster come together - Steelman could even read back all those thousands of years to the ages of the oysters and the seasons at which they were harvested. These hinges reveal growth layers much as do the rings of a tree. Periods of rapid growth during the warmer weather can be distinguished from periods of slow growth during the winter by the color, thickness and density of the rings.

Reading the ring sequences, he determined that the oysters were harvested during both cold and warm months and that, on average, the oysters were between five and six years old when they were harvested, substantially older than the approximately two-year-old oysters harvested today.

From Eaten to Eater

Volunteer Gretchen Seislstad screens soil for artifacts, bits of charcoal, bone and oyster shell.

The Selby Bay people did not live at the Smithsonian Pier site the year round. Their characteristic pottery and stone tools turn up throughout coastal and interior Maryland. And their use of Blue Ridge rhyolite indicates that these people either moved back and forth between the coast and the mountains or traded long distance with interior tribes. Shucked oysters, preserved through smoking, drying or packing in animal fats, may have been traded for this blue stone and other items.

These nomads of the first millennium ad appear to have periodically visited the banks of the Rhode River and other tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay periodically, processing as much oyster meat as they could use or carry, then moving on to some other resource: game-rich forests; narrows of streams where they could net spawning fish; groves of nut-bearing trees; marshes with edible roots and meadow edges with ripening berries.

The Selby Bay peoples, and their Little Round Bay successors, on and off occupied the Smithsonian Pier site from as early as ad 200 to as late as ad 1200. In a millennium, their pattern appears unchanged. Plant remains suggest little interest in gathering nuts, fruit or seeds, and the field team did not find any of the stone grinding tools aboriginal peoples generally used to prepare plant foods.

The few spear points and stone knife fragments - together with the few pieces of deer, terrapin and bird bone - indicate that they hunted a little. The field team found neither bone nor shell fishhooks, nor the shaped pebbles found on other sites and presumed to have served as weights for fishing nets. But some fish bones, hard- and soft-shelled clams and a couple of crab shell fragments suggest that they occasionally caught fish and shellfish other than oysters.

Lessons of Selby Bay

Recovered at the Smithsonian Pier site, stone spear points used to hunt local game by the Selby Bay people more than 1,000 years ago.

Through the many facts we archaeologists amassed at the Smithsonian Pier site, we learned a lesson - one that has as much to tell us about our own world as about the long-ago world we uncovered. The Selby Bay people were able to use a particular resource - the oysters of the Rhode River - year after year without affecting the oyster population's ability to reproduce itself. Remember, the Indians consistently harvested mature oysters: nearly 100 percent were between the ages of three and eight years, and nearly 50 percent were between five and six years. Had they over-harvested, we would have expected to see younger and smaller oysters across the site.

We do not know, at this point, whether the Selby Bay peoples and their successors consciously applied a conservation ethic. Perhaps their limited transportation - they had no horses or wheeled vehicles - and need to harvest other, more far-flung resources kept them from over-harvesting. Whatever the reason, these people contrived a stable relationship with the environment and the species with which they shared that environment.

Much of the Smithsonian Pier shuckery is now gone, but in its place has risen the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center's environmental education building. There the site continues to teach its lessons, and there scientists and educators work together to teach visitors about the Bay and its tributaries, the surrounding lands and the plant and animal communities with which our human community must achieve balance.

Jim Gibb, a long-time writer of archaeological detective stories for Bay Weekly, conducts archaeological investigations throughout Maryland. A more detailed report on the Smithsonian Pier site by Gibb and Anson H. Hines, published in Volume 33 of the magazine Maryland Archeology, is archived at the Maryland Historical Trust in Crownsville, Maryland.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly