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Mining an Oyster Midden

The Damariscotta River was an epicenter of oyster shucking between 2,200 and 1,000 years ago

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Midway up the Maine coast, a tidal estuary known as the Damariscotta River has long been the epicenter of oyster shucking. Shell heaps rise on both its banks—towering middens of flaky, bleached white shells discarded between 2,200 and 1,000 years ago when American oysters (Crassostrea virginica) flourished in the warm, brackish waters.

The early abundance didn’t last, probably due to predatory snails brought on by a rise in sea level, rather than overharvesting, and neither has the subsequent introduction, in 1949, of European flat oysters (Ostrea edulis, or Belons). Today, though, hundreds of thousands of native oysters are once again being cultivated by oyster farmers like Dave Cheney, who recently took me on a tour aboard his boat, the Juliza.

Below the Great Salt Bay, where the river bisects two shell middens, the western bank looks like a white sand beach below a white cliff. Upon closer inspection, the Glidden Midden is an impressive pile of oysters—a large accumulation of small things, hundreds of years’ worth of kitchen waste.

Early 19th century estimates put the sum total of Damariscotta’s middens at somewhere between 1 and 45 million cubic feet, according to David Sanger’s “Boom and Bust on the River,” and the size inspired considerable speculation. In 1886, the Damariscotta Shell and Fertilizer Company began barreling up and selling the shells in Boston for chicken “scratch.” (Eating oyster shells hardens up the birds’ calcium carbonate-rich egg shell.) Two hundred tons sold for 30 cents a pound. After questioning the practice, a reporter for the Lincoln County News observed in “civilized countries, archaeological remains are protected by civil governments and reserved for scientific purposes.”

The sole scientific observer, Abram Tarr Gamage, a local antiquary, watched the mining operation every day for ten hours a day at a day rate of two dollars per day. He too filled barrels with skulls, shells, and antlers once used as oyster knives, and sent them to Harvard’s Peabody Museum in Cambridge. By the year’s end, Gamage reported that he had little to do; the midden had nearly dwindled away. The miners never made it across the river.

Today, horseshoe crabs gather at the river’s edge. Airholes pocket the softshell clam beds and that crumbling white western bank still holds a heap of shells—their age and size at least double those cocktail oysters anyone slurps in Grand Central Terminal. Across the river, the former Whaleback Midden, now a state park, looks much like an overgrown field. While it’s hardly surprising that the Damirascotta remains an epicenter for East Coast oysters, I found it remarkable that, given the demands of poultry farmers,  that any of its middens still exist at all.

Top photo: Whaleback Midden/Damariscotta River Association collection. Author photo.

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