The separated valves of bivalve molluscs, certain gastropods, and many brachiopods closely resemble the regular geometrical form known as the shell. The packing concentration of natural accumulations of such organic shells may be placed within bounds with the aid of packing models making use of ordered arrangements of equal geometrical shells, either conical, cylindrical or spherical. The low packing concentrations, comparable with 0·1–0·2, indicated by these models are confirmed by experiments using the shells of four common British species of bivalve or gastropod mollusc. Packings of these shells have a substantial intrinsic strength, and experimentally appear able to support without failing sedimentary overburdens equivalent to loads comparable with 1000 kg mass/m2. The observed and predicted low packing concentrations suggests that natural shell beds can hold relatively very large amounts of pore fluids or mineral cements. The resistance to compaction of the packings means that the high original porosities of natural shell beds have a good chance of being permanently preserved.