Monday, June 15, 2015

Clam Gardens June 2015

For many years, archaeologists were unaware of the ancient clam terraces at Waiatt Bay, on Quadra Island. Author Judith Williams knew no differently until she was advised of their existence by a Klahoose elder named Elizabeth Harry (Keekus). By liaising with other observers of clam gardens in the Broughton Archipelago and conducting her own survey of Waiatt Bay and Gorge Harbour on Cortes Island, Williams has amassed evidence that the rock structures seen only at the lowest tides were used by native peoples for the purpose of cultivating butter clams. Her research does much to challenge the notion of pre-contact West Coast indigenous peoples and hunters-gatherers alone. The clam gardens whose existence she reveals here might also be unique in the world.

    I love the story of Clam Gardens and how they have become objects of study, especially because they are Indigenous creations that employ “stone walls” around a resource zone – and that they were “re-discovered” by a retired art teacher who kept pestering archaeologists about them until her "amateur" observations led to the acceptance of the whole deal. In a way it’s a similar function that I ascribe to many certain Indigenous rows of stones created to maintain certain resource zones such as certain swamps and streams (and possibly salt marshes where I often see interesting rows of stones with that “Indian Look” as I drive by at low tide), but of course obviously it’s water and not fire involved as it is in more upland sorts of places. One of my favorite Stone Terrapins sits on one of those Indigenous Rows of Stones above one such salt marsh in a Connecticut State Park in Madison CT:

    (And you know, now that I think of it, perhaps that Chaffinch Fish Weir down in Guilford CT was a combination Fish Trap and clam garden. Hmm, I’ll have to ponder on that…)
     So, yeah, these accepted clam gardens are up in Canada, on the north western coast of Turtle Island, but by chance I happened to hear of an archaeologist in Delaware who just might have come across at least one east coast clam garden, the details of which I know absolutely nothing about. So this post is also sort of a way of getting in touch with the fellow, just like my new Bio for my new band will also serve as an obituary – once I get around to actually writing it…
    I did kind of Google around for anything I could find and did come across this, not mentioning any stone walls but using the term clam garden as well as perpetrating a common thought that the Indigenous People who once lived and clammed there are long gone:
Clams and Clamming
By Gustav Kobbe
     “The boys and women of Parkertown (on the Navesink River, N. J.) practice more primitive methods of capturing clams. They rake, hoe, or tread for them. These means can be employed only in shallow water—water shallow enough for wading. The raker, or hoer, uses the ordinary implements of agriculture, but instead of cultivating a vegetable garden he is tilling a clam garden on the bed of the river, wading as he does so. Treading for clams is the special occupation of women. You will see a barefooted woman pull her boat from Parkertown half-way across the river to the little sedgy island which is part of the Sandy Hook reservation, and, having clambered over the gunwale, wade in the shallow water, towing the boat behind her. Every now and then she will reach down into the water and then throw the clam on which she has trodden into her boat. Some women who are not fortunate enough to own a boat tread in the shallows along the Parkertown shores with a tub in tow…When, in 1609, Henry Hudson anchored the "HalfMoon" in the Horseshoe at Sandy Hook, he found clamfishermen there. They were redskins of the Lenni Lenape tribe. The Lenni Lenapes have long since disappeared, but the clam-fishermen are still there. They live in little shanties built on small scows to which they tie their boats. They drift down in their shanties from Parkertown in the early spring, and drift back again in the late fall…” (Page 811 of

I did come across this site that is new to me – and that I find both really interesting and encouraging as an independent or avocational Indigenous Stonework Researcher:
      “The Clam Garden Network is a group of First Nations, academics, researchers, and resource managers from coastal British Columbia, Washington State, and Alaska who are interested in the cultural and ecological importance of traditional clam management practices and features, including clam gardens. We share ideas, research approaches, tools, and data to better inform our knowledge about how people used intertidal resources and ecosystems. We see clam gardens as a compelling focal point for a series of linked current social issues, such as food security, First Nations governance, and inter-generational knowledge sharing….
Indigenous people of the west coast of North America used a range of techniques and practices to maintain or increase the production of culturally important foods, including clams.  These practices are encompassed within age-old social, economic, and spiritual beliefs and practices of coastal First Peoples. One long-lasting and visible practice was the building of clam gardens.

Photo: Mary Morris.

Photo and Image: Amy Groesbeck.

     Clam gardens are ancient intertidal features constructed by the coastal First Nations of British Columbia (Canada) and Native Americans of Washington State and Alaska (USA), to enhance shellfish productivity. These features are made by constructing rock walls at the low tide line along the edges of bays and inlets, transforming naturally sloping beaches or rocky shorelines into productive, level beach terraces. While clam garden morphology, character, and setting can vary greatly, they generally consist of a well-sorted boulder wall built at the lowest tide line and a terrace on the landward side of the wall. By building the walls at particular heights in relationship to the tides (“tidal heights”), these features expand the zone of the beach where clams thrive. According to local knowledge, clamming beaches, including those associated with clam gardens, were kept clear of large rocks as another means to increase clam habitat. The flattened terrace created by garden walls can range in size from a few square meters on small beaches to well over a kilometer in length. These larger beaches are more like vast fields than ‘gardens’ in size.
Clam gardens are sometimes visible from Google Earth satellite images. Photo: Dana Lepofsky.

    There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of clam gardens that have yet to be recorded along the northwest coast. Rising or dropping sea levels, lack of surveying, and industrial development of the foreshore are among the main reasons why modified beaches are yet to be identified in some regions.  Mapping the locations of these features is slow-going. Given that most clam gardens are situated at today’s low-low tide levels, there are only about 40 to 80 daylight hours per year (May – September) when they are visible. Nonetheless, clam gardens have been recorded or observed from Alaska, through British Columbia, and into Washington State…”
      I liked this very much as well:
     "Gví'ilás" is an Heiltsuk word for customs and laws concerning the sustainable harvesting of Heiltsuk resources for sustenance, cultural, commercial and recreational use. The remarkable stone fish traps, still evident on many Heiltsuk beaches (left), are an example of how intensively salmon fisheries were stewarded. Heiltsuk archaeologist Xanius (Elroy White) presented an academic paper at the annual conference for Northwest Anthropology in April 2008, describing the use of stone traps to form holding pools for migrating chum salmon. Increasingly such ancient indigenous structures are used to prove Aboriginal Title and Rights. The presence of fish weirs and clam gardens is proof of extensive and careful management, of food resources being "gardened" rather than gathered in the "wild." This is an important change in perspective with implications for treaty negotiations and land claims. European settlers mistakenly viewed land in the new colony as wild and uninhabited and therefore up for grabs. The clam gardens at Gale Passage, between Athlone and Dufferin Islands, have been continually harvested commercially by Heiltsuk clam diggers (right). Non native forest activist Ingmar Lee describes them as "demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of stonework engineering designed to withstand centuries of continuous, albeit gentle tidal action. They absolutely abound with clams; at first glance I estimate they have increased the clam habitat by as much as 30 percent and also they enhance the ability of the clams to grow bigger and faster."
Clam gardens, Gale Passage, 2007.
Photo: Ingmar Lee

Some other links:
Large clam garden terrace in the Canadian Gulf Islands 
shows the extent of foreshore management by Indigenous people of the region. 
Image Courtesy of
Andrew and Tom. The low rock wall and flat beach of a clam garden is clearly visible. Photo © Katya Palladina

And many thanks to Mike StandingWater for passing on the name and email for Glen Mellin. 


  1. Well, I found this, at The Clam Gardens on Pot Hook Creek
    (South of Cape Henlopen, Delaware)
    Glen Mellin and Lenny Truitt that will appear in the next Issue!