Blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) are prevalent in the Chesapeake Bay area and are commonly excavated from early colonial contexts. Although we call it crab “shell,” crabs are actually protected by a very thick exoskeleton made of chitin. The claws are the most robust part of these crustaceans and are the most likely to be recovered archaeologically, although we do occasionally find other parts of the exoskeleton as well. Even the claws, which are not as durable as bone or mollusk shells, are very fragile and only likely to survive archaeologically if they were burned. While we do find some using traditional screening methods, many of our crab claws are found in water screening samples because of their small size.
Crabs are historically harvested primarily during the summer months in the Chesapeake region, with more limited activity in the spring and fall. In his General History, John Smith mentions that the inhabitants of Jamestown lived on crabs and sturgeon from May to September in the first year. Due to their fragile nature, the number of specimens the collection contains may not be an accurate reflection of the role that crab played in the colonists’ diets. However, the presence of these claws still provides archaeological proof that the settlers consumed crab during specific periods of the development of James Fort.