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 .

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