With many of us enjoying our summer vacation at the beach, it seems appropriate to explore the use of shell by the Indigenous peoples who occupied these lands before colonization. Native Americans utilized many natural materials such as bone, clay and stone in the course of day-to-day life prior to the arrival of Europeans. Shell was used for utilitarian, ceremonial, and ornamental purposes at least as far back as the Archaic Period (4,300-10,00 years ago) and probably further, but the organic nature of shell in the humid climate of eastern North America does not always allow for good preservation.
The shell artifacts most commonly discussed in literature are wampum. Wampum and wampum belts are often associated with trade between native groups and native groups and colonials. Originally, wampum was created from a specific type of shell bead that is seldom found prior to European arrival because their manufacture required using a small metal drill that was unavailable prior to European trade. These shell beads were drilled from the quahog clam shell and welk shells likely traded in the Chesapeake Bay. Because they were difficult to make, quantities of individual beads were used in trade and exchange. Wampum belts served to memorialize events and as pneumonic devices when giving a speech at a council meeting , for example, or when delivering a message. The various colors were assigned specific values and meanings and were used individually as strands or collectively in patterned belts resulting in beautiful designs. However, by the late 1600s, glass beads began to replace the shell. Wampum belts using glass beads continued to be used to memorialize or document treaties and other important events between Indigenous groups and colonial governments.
|This glass bead section was recovered at Conoy Town (36LA0057) and may reflect designs from earlier shell beads. Conoy Town was a colonial period Native American settlement in Lancaster County, and inhabited by the former Piscataway Indians of Maryland who settled at the site sometime between 1718 and 1719. During their occupation at Conoy Town, this group faced increasing pressure from both the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the ever-growing number of white settlers who spoiled their hunting grounds. In 1743, the residents of Conoy Town made clear their intention to abandon this location and relocate further up the Susquehanna River.|
It is an interesting example of human ingenuity during a time of enormous change. Two vastly different worlds were coming together, the Old World and the New, and people found a way to capitalize on each other’s interests and needs. If you are interested in more information, please look at the following references and as always thank you for your interest in Pennsylvania’s past.
Cowin, Verna L.
Ornaments from Cayuga County, New York. Archaeology of Eastern North America
Kent, Barry C.
1984 Susquehanna’s Indians. Anthropology Series 6. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.
Smith, Julian and Duane Esarey
2014 An Examination of Historic Trade. Archaeology 18(1):20-26