Monday, July 19, 2021

Discover Native American Shell Ornaments

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.  

Other shell ornaments include effigy figures.  The forms range from Thunderbirds to fish, birds, claws, beavers, and various other creatures and include the small round disk-like runtees.  Duane Esarey was able to identify 42 categories of shell ornaments that ranged from “abstract shapes to zoomorphic figures” (Smith and Esarey, 2014).  Although shell has been used for utilitarian and decorative purposes by native people for thousands of years it is interesting that these ornamental carvings show up in the mid to late 17th century and their numbers grow through the early to mid-18th century.  Over the years, several archaeologists have suggested a connection between the arrival of Europeans and the development of the shell figures, but very little has been written on the subject.  

Around 1625 the Dutch set up the colony of New Netherland, present day New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and the southwestern corner of New York.  Approximately 10 years later the production of simply shaped shell ornaments begins.  After much research, it is Duane Esarey’s assertion that the Dutch were responsible for the manufacture of the shell ornaments to be used as trade with interior tribes like the Susquehannock and the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee for the furs so desired by Europeans (Smith and Esarey, 2014).  Esarey traced the development of the ornaments from simple shapes in the 1630’s, to what he called the “classic” period 1650s through the 1680s where the variety and quality of shapes increased.   After the “classic” period the design’s become more elaborate but the numbers seem to decrease until the early 1700s when production seems to cease.

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.

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Cowin, Verna L.

2000      Shell Ornaments from Cayuga County, New York. Archaeology of Eastern North America 28:1-13

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

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

Friday, July 2, 2021

Pots from the Past - Late Woodland Pottery – Upper Ohio Valley

In this installment of This week in Pennsylvania Archaeology (TWIPA), we are going to examine Late Woodland pottery from four site locations in the Upper Ohio Valley of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia dating AD. 400 to 900/1100. This is a poorly known period dating prior to the development of palisaded Monongahela and Fort Ancient village sites that dominated the region after AD. 1100.  Habitation sites from the Late Woodland period are found on river terraces including mound sites. Smaller, less intensively occupied sites in the uplands likely functioned as hunting and gathering places  for obtaining consumable resources and the quarrying of chert and other hard stone that is not readily available in the main river valleys. These kinds of materials were principally used by Late Woodland groups to make cutting and grinding tools that included corner notched arrowheads, knives, celts and milling stones. In contrast, clay, the principal material component for making pottery, was essentially everywhere and easily quarried from riverbanks and slack water wetlands where the soils are conducive to fine, close grained sedimentation. Late Woodland sites along major waterways were often situated close to these high-quality clay sources. Many centuries later, during the latter part of the 19th century some of these clays from the Monongahela Valley were mined for their ceramic qualities as mentioned in our last TWIPA blog post on stoneware pottery. 

Only a  few complete or nearly complete Late Woodland pottery vessels from the Upper Ohio Valley have been reported. The best examples, come from the Watson Farm site (46HK34) Hancock County, West Virginia, the Ohioview site (36BV9) Beaver County, Pennsylvania, and the Edinburg site (36LR3) Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. All, to some degree, have been reconstructed from broken pottery fragments uncovered from archaeological excavations.  

Figure 1. Watson Farm site vessel (Image courtesy of Moundsville Museum, Moundsville, West Virginia.

The Watson Farm vessel is an example of a partial reconstruction showing the rim, neck, and shoulder of the upper half of the pot. It is a collarless vessel that is tempered with coarsely crushed limestone as is most pottery from the site. Bold vertically emplaced cordmarkings on the rim and neck abruptly change to an oblique pattern of cordmarkings on the shoulder, and upper part of the body. This pot form is believed to have served as a utilitarian storage/cooking container and is typed as Watson Cordmarked (Dragoo 1956). 

Figure 2. Ohioview site vessel (Image courtesy of The State Museum of Pennsylvania).

The Ohioview site vessel is the reconstruction of an entire vessel. It is also a collarless form showing vertical to slightly oblique cordmarkings extending from the rim to the bottom of the sub-globular base. The temper is a medium to fine crushed igneous rock and at some places on the surface the temper is exposed that shows a dark brown to a white color. Other rimsherds from the site have a short collar strip molded onto the rim of pots demonstrating that vessels with this applied collar treatment were also common.  Identified by the placement of parallel oblique or opposed oblique cord impressed decorations are, also observed as a pattern on the pottery type Jacks Reef Corded Collar (Johnson and Myers 2004; Lantz and Johnson 2020: Figure 12.6). The collarless and collared pots with their elongated bodies were utilitarian forms also known regionally in the Upper Ohio Valley as Mahoning Cordmarked (Mayer-Oakes 1955).

Figure 3. Edinburg site vessel (Image courtesy Gartley, Richard T., Jeff Carskadden and James F. Morton, 2016 The Edinburg Site, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 86(1):2-38.)

The Edinburg site vessel is also a complete reconstruction. Like the Ohioview site vessel, it is collarless with boldly emplaced cordmarkings running vertically down the exterior of the rim and neck then obliquely onto the shoulder terminating in an all over criss-cross pattern on an elongated sub-conical body. Again, the temper is of a fine to medium coarse grained igneous rock. Some of the other rimsherds from the site exhibit crushed limestone as the principal temper type.  Many of these rimsherds have parallel oblique and opposed oblique cord impressions on an added-on collar rim strip containing cord impressions stamped into the lip. Lip decorations are also present at the Ohioview site and at other Late Woodland habitation sites in the Central Allegheny/Beaver River valley. In addition, there are examples from Edinburg that are decorated with a series of parallel horizontal cord impressions encircling the necks of some vessels. Considered a container for food consumption and/or storage, the Edinburg site vessel is typed as Mahoning Cordmarked (Gartley, Carskadden and Morton 2016).

Figure 4. Mahoning Cordmarked a.k.a. Jacks Reef Corded Collar (Image courtesy of Lantz, Stanley W. and William C. Johnson, 2020, The Late Woodland Period in the Glaciated and Unglaciated Appalachian Plateau Province of Northwestern Pennsylvania. In: The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania Volume 2. Edited by Kurt W. Carr, Christopher A. Bergman, Christina B. Rieth, Bernard K. Means and Roger W. Moeller. Elizabeth Wagner, Associate Editor).

Late Woodland vessels from the Upper Ohio Valley are remarkably similar in size, shape and cordmarked surface treatment. When present, these attributes, along with the inclusion of the simple cordwrapped stick decorations on collarless and collared vessels are distinct hallmarks. The attributes were widely embraced and represent a ceramic tradition that was shared by groups throughout the Upper Ohio Valley between ca. AD. 400-1000.

Archaeologists examine the varieties of pottery recovered from excavations as a tool to identify the culture groups who created them. The Late Woodland was a fascinating period of social organization and change for indigenous peoples who occupied our pre-Commonwealth borders. Our ability to identify these various culture groups stems from decades of research and comparison of thousands of broken pottery sherds to identify these distinct pottery types, which are important in helping us to understand the activities of the potters who made them.   Understanding past human behavior, is important in preparing for the future, and our ability to adapt and change.

We hope that you have enjoyed this brief introduction into Upper Ohio Valley Late Woodland pottery. Future TWIPA blog posts will present more on the topic of Pre-Contact period  pottery of the Upper Ohio Valley and other regions of Pennsylvania where they are found.


Dragoo, Don W.

1956      Excavations at the Watson Site, 46HK34, Hancock County, West Virginia. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 26(2):59-88.


Gartley, Richard T., Jeff Carskadden and James F. Morton

2016      The Edinburg Site, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 86(1):2-38.


Lantz, Stanley W. and William C. Johnson

2020      The Late Woodland Period in the Glaciated and Unglaciated Appalachian Plateau Province of Northwestern Pennsylvania. In: The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania Volume 2. Edited by Kurt W. Carr, Christopher A. Bergman, Christina B. Rieth, Bernard K. Means and Roger W. Moeller. Elizabeth Wagner, Associate Editor. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.


Mayer-Oakes, William J.

1955      Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley: An Introductory Archaeological Study. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 34, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Johnson, William C. and Andrew J. Myers

2004     Population Continuity and Dispersal: Cordage Twist Analysis and the Late Woodland in the Glaciated Allegheny Plateau of Northwestern Pennsylvania. In Perishable Material Culture in the Northeast, edited by Penelope Ballard Drooker, pp. 87-128. Bulletin 500. New York State Museum. Albany. 

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