Oysters Abound in the South End, Especially Underground

By Seth Daniel

There is no shortage of places to find oysters in the South End these days, but few might have thought one of the most prolific oyster spots is between five and 10 feet underground.

No one except a few choice historians and a good many neighbors on Warren Avenue who have discovered large layers of ancient oysters layered in the ground under their street.

Patricia Kennedy of Warren Avenue was one of the neighbors who discovered the strange find this month with workers from Umbro Construction who have been digging up the street since earlier this summer in a protracted water-line replacement project.

Kennedy said she became curious about the project when a worker told her they were replacing a line that had been about 10-feet underground since 1889.

As interesting as that was, Kennedy said her curiosity was really piqued when she looked down into the trench and saw at least three separate layers of large, old oyster shells – thousands upon thousands of them at depths of between three and 10 feet deep.

“I was looking down there and asked one of the guys what those white circular things were,” she said. “He said they were oysters. You could literally see layer upon layer of oyster shells under the dirt – large white shells.”

Workers on the project told the Sun that the layers of shells have been present all the way down Warren Avenue, and they believed they could be all through the streets.

Kennedy said it was pretty exciting to think about.

“I was incredibly curious on where all these shells came from and that they were there,” she said. “I don’t think anyone would have ever thought that right under their feet were thousands and thousands of oyster shells, but the South End is filled in land, and this was obviously something they used as fill. I think all of the landfill aspects in the South End are fascinating. The old water pipe was one thing, but the way we filled in the land is really interesting to me.”

City Archeologist Joe Bagley said just about anything is possible when talking about fill in the South End and Back Bay. He said there have been a few times when digging in the modern era has reached the ancient tidelands of what is now the South End and Back Bay. The current project is not one of them, but likely has something to do with the old water uses.

“Warren Avenue was built on an area of land created by filling between 1850 and 1870,” he said. “If the water line was less than 15 to 20 feet deep, the shells themselves were brought in as part of that fill. If they were deeper, they represent oyster beds that used to exist in the former Back Bay, before it was filled.”

Many years ago, he said archeologists discovered fishweirs (or traps) more than 3,000 years old.

“In 1913, archaeologists discovered 3,000 to 5,000 year old fishweirs, a fishing trap, created by Boston’s Native people, the Massachusett, in the former Back Bay,” he said. “Today, the fishweirs are nearly 40 feet deep under 18 feet of Charles River sediment and 20 feet of brought-in fill…Much of the South End may have fishweir remnants buried deep below its current surface. Only the very narrow stretch along Washington Street was land in the 1630s.”

For Kennedy, it’s a fun distraction amidst a project that is somewhat intrusive.

“I just find it fascinating,” she concluded.

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