Friday, July 6, 2018

The Late Woodland Period Chesapeake Shell Trade

Marine shells were an important medium of exotic exchange among native societies of the Middle Atlantic and Upper Ohio Valley societies during the Late Woodland (1000 – 1550 AD). The recovery of shell from archaeological sites of this period is archaeologically traceable well into the Appalachian Mountains and other far flung regions of Pennsylvania’s interior. These areas are principally centered on the lower Upper Ohio Valley at sites in the Monongahela -Youghiogheny drainage of southwestern Pennsylvania -  the headwaters of the Potomac Valley that reach to the rugged mountains of Fayette and Somerset counties and; the waters of the Susquehanna above the Blue Mountain water gap located a few miles above Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Evidence of the Late Woodland shell trade in these various geographic regions of Pennsylvania becomes obvious by the locations of archaeological sites. Ornaments made from different species of marine shell are principally obtained from the Chesapeake’s intertidal and coastal environments. We should hasten to note that some later Woodland groups obtained fresh water shells from the shoals of large fresh water river systems for ornamental use. We will, however, save this topic for another time and focus on the marine species found at archaeological sites.

 Mercenaria mercenaria or “hard clam” shells collected from lower Chesapeake Bay in 2018.

There are five principal species of marine shell that made their way inland through trade from the Chesapeake region. These species are distinctive in morphology and used differentially as personal objects of adornment such as bracelets and necklaces. Among the more common, widely distributed forms, were the tiny disk-shaped beads fashioned from the thin sections of quahog a.k.a. hard clam shells Mercenaria mercenaria. Quahogs occur all along the Atlantic coast and constitute a valuable source of protein among sea food connoisseurs. Several different species of marginellas can be found from Cape Henlopen, Delaware (Lowery 2012) south to the West Indies. Both of these were popular among the lower Susquehanna Valley’s Shenks Ferry, Mason Island and Monongahela groups of the Piedmont and Allegheny Mountain/Lower Upper Ohio Valley regions of Pennsylvania (Heisey and Witmer 1964; Mayer-Oakes 1955).

Beads made from a variety of shells recovered from Late Woodland sites in Pennsylvania.

Another less common bead type found at some of their habitation sites was made from Olivella (sp?) a more southern variety of gastropod that occurs from North Carolina to Florida. These resemble the classic shape of an olive-shaped fruit, however, they are somewhat larger than marginella shells.

Busycon or whelk shell objects found in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic areas are generally considered rare objects of the Late Woodland period. Busycon contrarium or lightning whelk and Busycon canaliculatus a.k.a. canaliculatum or channel whelk are the most common and occur from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to St. Augustine, Florida, respectively - a very wide distribution, indeed.

Engraved shell gorget associated with the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (Weeping Eye motif). 

            Busycon shells were made into drinking cups and tube-shaped beads of various lengths. West and south of the Middle Atlantic region anthropomorphic/zoomorphic engraved gorgets were worn around the neck. Carved from the large dorsal cup-shaped part of the Busycon shell, these impressive shell objects are principally found in Fort Ancient and Mississippian contexts that date to the circa 1000 – 1600 AD period. The engraved Busycon shells are a principal artifact type of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (Waring and Holder 1945).

Section of a wampum belt illustrating the variety of color design combinations.

            Wampum shell beads, characterized by their short cylindrical shape, appears to be most common after the close of the Late Woodland period around 1550 AD.  Suffice is to say that the English called this type of shell bead peag, a shorter version of the Massachusetts Algonquian word wampumpeag. White, purple and, rarely black, are the principal colors of wampum with slight gradations within these colors. The Dutch and French referred to wampum as zeewant and porcelaine, respectively (Bradley 2011). These colorful beads were typically fashioned out of quahog or hard clam and whelk shells.

            The Chesapeake Bay and its inter- connected river systems was the main corridor for the spread of marine shell onto the Pennsylvania landscape during the Late Woodland period. Although adjacent states can document a longer period of use (Lowery 2012), and this probably applies to Pennsylvania as well, currently the evidence of marine shell use in Pennsylvania is limited to the Late Woodland period. Preservation of these objects is largely determined by the site’s environmental context. Unfortunately, marine shell is a material that is rarely preserved in most situations leaving few records.

            We hope that you have enjoyed reading about the different kinds of marine shells, their distribution through trade and how they were used by the Indians who once lived in Pennsylvania centuries ago. Please join us another time as we present another interesting topic relating to Pennsylvania and its archaeology.  

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, June 22, 2018

Upcoming Archaeology Programs in the Nature Lab

After a long school year, for many, summertime conjures up images of long sunny afternoons spent basking by the pool, perhaps taking a leisurely hike through the woods, or, of course the quintessential road trip to the beach.

However, with each passing day, for students and parents alike, thoughts of classrooms and homework (and unfortunately some of the lessons learned throughout the year) begin to fade from memory.

But the beginning of Summer doesn’t have to mean the end of learning! Let the State Museum of Pennsylvania help you and your family flex your gray matter to combat the effects of “summer brain drain”, with the 3rd annual series of educational programs, “Meet the Experts”, in our Nature Lab.

Beginning at 11:30 A.M. next Thursday, the 28th, the Section of Archaeology staff will be offering hour-long, fun and informative presentations in a relaxed, informal setting. Topics to be covered include a flint-knapping demonstration, a review of archaeological collections recently submitted to the museum from development projects in Pennsylvania, children’s toys found on archaeological sites, and more.These programs are included with the price of general admission to the museum.

It’s important to note that many other programs, such as Lunch N’ Learn Fridays and Wildlife Wednesdays, are also scheduled throughout the summer, so be sure to check out the museum’s calendar of events web page for the complete list to choose from, and have a great Summer!

Flint Knapping -  6/28
Which one doesn’t belong? Join Sr. Curator Kurt Carr and Curator Janet Johnson to learn about what materials Native Americans used for flint knapping of projectile points and making of stone tools.

Native American Bone Tools -  7/12
Which one doesn’t belong? Join Janet Johnson, Curator of Archaeology and Callista Holmes, Archaeology Lab Manager, to discover the many ways animal bones were used everyday by Native Americans.

Who’s diggin’ PA? -  7/19
Join David Burke and Elizabeth Wagner, Curators of Archaeology, to explore new collections coming to the State Museum’s Archaeology Section from state and federal projects.

Toys through Time – 7/26
Children’s toys are often recovered at archaeological sites.  Join Elizabeth Wagner and Kim Sebestyen, Curators of Archaeology, to explore how these children’s artifacts are helping to tell the stories of those often left out of the history books. (You can also check out an archived blog post about toys found on archaeological sites by clicking the link here.)

Preserving our Past Archaeology Lab-  8/9
Join Andrea Carr and Callista Holmes, Archaeology Lab Managers, to explore how museums curate archaeological specimens to preserve for research and interpretation.

History of Digging Fort Hunter -  8/16
(photo credit: Don Giles)

Join Jim Herbstritt and Kim Sebestyen, Curators of Archaeology, to hear about their discoveries from excavations at Fort Hunter Mansion & Park. Learn how artifacts recovered at Fort Hunter help to tell the story of daily activities of Native Americans 9,000 years ago, through the colonial period to present day.

One final note – this weekend the Haldeman Mansion is celebrating the 300th anniversary of Conoytown, an early colonial trading post along the Susquehanna River. Dr. Kurt Carr will be on hand to answer questions about the archaeology of the region and the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s replica dugout canoe will also be on display. Click here for a link to Dan Robrish’s article in the E-town Advocate for more details on this special event.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, June 8, 2018

Weddings, Marriage and Cultural Traditions

As we enter the early months of summer many of us are attending or planning weddings which brings to mind the many customs and traditions practiced by various cultures surrounding marriage. One of the most basic questions asked is “what is the most popular month for weddings”? 
 In Roman mythology the goddess Juno (for whom June is named) was the protector of women and marriage. In Latin, Junius means young. June is also the first month of summer in the northern hemisphere and the month associated with rose blossoms.  Roses, especially red roses, are symbolic for their role in Greek and Roman mythology and the goddess of love, Aphrodite (Greek)Venus (Roman).

Athenian vase depiction of the procession of a married couple on the way to their new home.
Ca. 550-530 B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art   

The idea of June weddings also comes from the Celtic calendar. On the Cross-Quarter Day of Beltane, or May Day (May 1), young couples would pair off to court for 3 months and then be wed on the next Cross-Quarter Day (Lammas Day, August 1). Youths being impatient, the waiting period was shortened to mid-June, and the popularity of June weddings was ensured.
Marriage and the significant role that women played in Native American societies of North America were equally important to these tribes. Creation myths often center around women as do myths relating to food- the three sisters, and those involving mother nature. 
Marriage was necessary for the survival of the tribe and occurred as early as 12 or 13 years of age. Girls had already learned many of the skills necessary to operate the household or longhouse. In Delaware and Iroquois societies, the social organization of a household was matrilineal and matrilocal. The husband moves into the home (longhouse) of her clan and he follows the decisions of his wife’s family, especially those of the clan mother and grandmother. (Kraft)

Matrilineal social organization aids in breaking up male rivalries and in part keeps order and peace in the village. Anthropologists have analyzed the organization of matrilineal and patrilineal societies to understand the dynamics of these communities. In patrilineal societies which is the order of most households, the man brings a woman into his family and she accepts his family traditions. Patrilineal groups tend to be more aggressive internally, arguing amongst themselves with less outward aggression against others than in a matrilineal society. Matrilineal groups are often more aggressive towards outsiders, thus better able to expand regionally than patrilineal groups. (Snow)  

The Iroquois tradition of wedding bread “Goniataoakwa” involved the baking of twenty-four corn cakes.  A young girl’s maternal grandmother presented the bread at the door of the maternal grandmother of a young man. If the receiving grandmother approves of the union, she tastes the bread and tells her daughter that her son is to marry the young girl.  Other versions of the ceremony involve the young woman bringing the cakes to her future mother-in-law as a symbol of her skill in cooking and in turn she received a food offering of meat or fruit to give to her mother. An exchange of food and a symbol of the man providing meat or fruit was a simple ceremony or ritual.  Marriage was necessary to ensure that there was a young man capable of hunting and procuring meat. Women tended the gardens and harvested food crops but relied on men for hunting and fishing. When the new bride and her husband joined the family in the longhouse, an addition was added on to essentially extend the longhouse and provide living space.   These arranged marriages were also important in insuring marriage outside of your clan.

The concept of marrying from outside of one’s family lineage is an important tool for survival of the tribe or clan. Marrying outside of your blood relations was likely a reason for the origin of arranged marriages by so many cultures.   It was, and is, in modern society considered a taboo to marry within your lineage.

The wedding traditions that have carried over into modern day can be traced to some of these early practices- approval of the mother in the selection of a husband or wife, the offering of food, specifically cakes or bread parallels with our modern wedding cake. The veil is sometimes associated with the arranged marriage traditions in that the bride and groom would meet on their wedding day. The veil covered the features of the bride until the ceremony was complete to insure the groom couldn’t change his mind.  Arranged marriages are still the practice of some cultures and the use of veils and head coverings is important.

Karakachan (Bulgaria) bride with elaborate veil

Late Woodland cultures were aware of the benefits of many plants and herbs and would incorporate these into medicine, cooking and scents to ward off evil spirits.  Our desire to incorporate flowers in wedding ceremonies can again be traced to some of these early cultural practices. Research into the need for new garments was not discovered in Late Woodland cultures. However, once exposed to European practices there does appear to be a desire for new beadwork and moccasins associated with marriage.  A beaded cloth skirt of the 18th century would have been an appropriate garment for the occasion. Wedding attire is a cultural preference, but clearly the desire to look nice and to present yourself to your new spouse is widely practiced.

Delaware beaded moccasins

The common theme among all marriage and wedding traditions is community.  Late Woodland groups married as part of their social organization to ensure survival of community and clans. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians placed importance on marriage to insure the continuation of aristocracy and control. The coming together of communities to celebrate the union has been depicted in early paintings on vases and pottery vessels, signifying the importance of these events to societies.  Celebrating life and family are important in our acceptance of other people, cultures and customs.

We hope you have enjoyed learning about the traditions of marriage in Woodland culture groups and that it will inspire you to research your own cultural traditions as they relate to your heritage. Preserving the past is important in understanding human behavior and predicting how societies will adapt and change in the future, it begins with us individually and collectively it spreads to our communities. 


Ember, Carol R., Melvin Ember, Cultural Anthropology, Hunter College of the City University of New York, Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey,1973.

Kraft, Herbert C. , The Lenap-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 B.C. – A.D. 2000, Lenape Books, 2001.

Morgan, Lewis H. League of the Iroquois, Dodd, Mead and Co.,New York, 1904.

Snow, Dean R., The Peoples of America, The Iroquois. Cambridge, MA; Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .