Friday, August 5, 2011

Some Shell Objects of the Late Woodland

Adorning the human body with ornaments has a long history throughout the world. Here in Pennsylvania, however, shell objects generally appear in archaeological contexts of the Late Woodland and Contact eras. While shells represent a plethora of different types their common use appears to have been in the manufacture of pendants, necklaces, bracelets, or less frequently as patterned designs attached to clothing.

Beginning around AD.1050 people of the Monongahela, Shenks Ferry and Susquehannock cultures of the Upper Ohio and Lower Susquehanna valleys used variously shaped shell objects as personal items of adornment. Typically, marine shells from the eastern seaboard, and others possibly from the Gulf of Mexico, were traded into southern Pennsylvania and other regions of the Northeast and Middle Atlantic where these Native American groups once lived. Listing the species of marine shells traded were Busycon (various species) commonly referred to as “conch shell”, Littorina spp. (Periwinkle), Mercenaria mercenaria (Hard- Shell Clam, Quahog), Crassostrea verginica (Eastern Oyster), Marginella spp., (marginella shells), Olivella spp., olive shells, among others.

assorted shell beads and pendants

Freshwater shells found in most of the rivers and larger streams of Pennsylvania were collected and made into tiny disc-shaped beads that were worn around the necks and wrists of individuals. Pieces of the freshwater shell Elliptio spp. were fashioned into oval-shaped pendants and suspended, singularly or in groups, around the neck and waist sometimes accompanying small wafer thin disk- shaped beads no larger than a half centimeter (roughly 3/8 inch) in diameter.

replica of the Penn Treaty belt

Wampum-peag or seewan was the main material of barter among many American Indian groups. The small barrel shaped pieces of wampum were difficult to manufacture using native made tools, however, the task became much less burdensome with the arrival of European iron tools. Peace belts and small strings of wampum were used on special occasions such as the Requickening Address, one of two of the morning rituals performed during the Condolence ceremony. To this day the ritual is performed after a person’s death, by Iroquoian groups in New York and on the Grand River reservation in Canada.

The colors of wampum include white, gray, purple and black. The purples and blacks were more desirable depending on the individual’s preference. Variously colored wampum was incorporated into designs commemorating specific events such as Penn’s Treaty with the Indians.

shell tempered Monongahela pot from Foley Farm (36Gr52)

Shell was also an important material as a temper medium to make Monongahela and Susquehannock pottery. Throughout the Monongahela and Susquehannock continua shell tempered pottery was the main ware used for the daily preparation of cooked foods. We know this by the presence of organic residues remaining on the insides of pots where the food was exposed to high heat. Analyses of charred pot residues from sites in New York show that corn was one of the foods boiled and consumed by prehistoric Native Americans. The more massive size pots were typically used for storing dried foods while the insides of smaller size vessels were sealed with animal fat or other appropriate materials and used to carry water.
serrated shell from Foley Farm (36Gr52)

Unmodified shells collected directly from their watery environments made excellent hand-held digging tools that the Indians used during the late spring planting season. There were other occasions when shells became useful materials in tool making. such as when the Monongahela Indians modified freshwater shells (Unio family) into saw toothed cutting tools for rendering and processing plant and meat foods. Such tools were also used to press a dentate-like design onto the rims of pottery and smoking pipes to give them an artful appearance.

So, when you find a shell at the beach this summer or when simply spending some leisure time hiking along the river’s edge, remember how they might have been utilized by, and how important they were to, the Late Woodland Indians.

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

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