Friday, September 14, 2012

Artifacts of the Seven Site: "Clam Shuckers"

There’s been some web chatter recently about two ferrous metal “clam shuckers” found at the Seven Site on Nikumaroro.  Here’s some elaboration.

First off, we don’t know that the things were clam shuckers.   We suspect that one or more of them may have been used in a (probably unsuccessful) effort to open some Tridacna clams because:

1.       1. There are two clusters of Tridacna valves on the site.  We call them “Clambush 1” and “Clambush 2” because of a joke someone  (Gary Quigg?) offered when we found them – that the clams were there because they had crawled up to the site to ambush the Coast Guardsmen from the Loran station.

2.       2. Clambush 1 was close to the crest of the Seven Site surge ridge, roughly oval in shape, with the valves fairly scattered.  Nineteen whole (both valves) or half (one valve) Tridacna were found in Clambush 1.  Seven of the valves were broken, typically with single breaks across their midsections, shattered into multiple fragments (some of which couldn't be found), some apparently smashed with heavy objects (breakage patterns radiating inward).  Several small coral rocks suitable as hammerstones were found nearby.   

3    3. Of the seven broken valves, three had unbroken mates; in two cases both valves were broken, and in the other two cases the matching valve could not be found.  Among the broken and non-broken specimens, some are chipped on the hinge side as though someone had tried to insert a tool to pry them open.

Clambush 1

3.       The valves of Clambush 2 were laid out in a rather linear fashion, parallel to the southeast side of the SL fire feature and about 25 cm. from it.  Clambush 2 contained 24 complete clams (both valves present). None of them are broken or chipped along the hinges.

Clambush 2 under excavation by Lonnie Schorer

4.       The first of the two “clam shuckers” was found in 2007 about 10 meters north of Clambush 1; the second, found three years later, was in the same general vicinity.

5.       The tip of the first “shucker” fits in the wound in one of the Tridacna valves where it appears an attempt was made to open it from the hinge side.

“Shucker” and wounded Tridacna (U.S. quarter for scale)

6.       Analysis by Ric Gillespie has shown convincingly (to me) that the “shuckers” represent fragments of the steel rim of a barrel (probably also steel), some 22” (55.88 cm.) in diameter; this is the diameter of a standard steel drum used to contain fuel oil and a wide variety of other substances.

7.       There is one steel drum on the Seven Site, but it is of smaller diameter.  Fragments of standard steel drums are found in the colonial village, on the Nutiran mudflat, on the Nutiran reef, at the Aukaraime Shoe Site, and at the Loran station.  They were certainly used by the colonists and coast guardsmen, and there is photographic and other evidence of their use by the 1939 New Zealand survey party.  There is also every reason to believe that they were aboard the Norwich City when she grounded in 1929 on the Nutiran reef, exploded and burned.

So – We can’t demonstrate that the pointy ferrous objects on the Seven Site were clam shuckers, and we certainly don’t suggest that they were effective clam shuckers, but they were found fairly close to a cluster of clams that looks very much like someone tried to shuck by prying on their hinge sides with something whose tip resembled that of the shuckers, and when he or she failed to do so, bashed them with rocks.  

Who might that person be?

·         Probably not a colonist; they all had knives with which to shuck, and their typical documented practice was either to harvest the meat out of a clam by cutting its adductor muscle while it was still in the water, thus keeping it from closing, or by laying the clams out in the sun or next to a fire until they opened naturally (This appears to be what someone did to produce Clambush 2).

·         Probably not a Coast Guardsman.  Those we’ve interviewed say they didn’t do it, but besides this, they had knives that would have been far more effective shuckers than the barrel lid fragments.

That leaves the putative castaway as the most likely shucking-attempter.  The castaway might not have had an effective knife to apply to the endeavor, and might not have known that clams would open if exposed to heat.  

If the castaway had experience collecting oysters and clams in the eastern United States, he or she might have applied that knowledge to the Niku clams; a recommended practice with Eastern U.S. oysters and clams is to pry them open from the hinge side.

Where would the castaway get the “shuckers,” since they apparently did not occur “naturally” at the Seven Site?  My guess – which I stress is only a guess – is that they were part of the Norwich City wreckage, broken into more or less their present shapes by the explosive oxidation associated with the explosion and fire, picked up because they looked potentially useful, and carried to the Seven Site with no particular use in mind, then applied to the clams of Clambush 1 when the need to open them became apparent.  

Obviously the “shuckers” are not smoking guns, but in the context of Clambush 1 I think they’re evidence suggesting – and I stress, only suggesting – that someone not indigenous to the South Pacific spent time at the Seven Site trying to live off the local fauna.

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