Shell Beads

Shell beads from western Oklahoma

Shell Beads

Shell beads are common artifacts on many archaeological sites in Oklahoma. They are associated with Archaic, Woodland and later occupations, but are most plentiful after the appearance of pottery and agriculture. They are usually made from pieces of conch shell although many other shells were used. Sometimes the whole shell was used or the shells were broken or cut into pieces and shaped into beads. The largest cache of shell beads known was recovered by the commercial diggers at the famous Craig mound near Spiro, Oklahoma, in 1935. It contained approximately 14 bushels of shell beads of many different kinds. The specimens in Figure 42 are all from this mound. The most common type of shell bead found in Oklahoma is a flat washer-shaped disk bead, usually ranging between 5 mm and 10 mm in diameter. The variation in size, however, is considerable with smaller specimens under 5 mm and larger specimens over 25 mm being known. The smaller beads appear to have been made using the method still in use by the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest. The piece of shell was roughly shaped into a disk and then it was perforated with a stone drill. After perforation the beads were strung tightly together and rubbed or rolled on an abrader to finish the edges and produce beads with a similar diameter. In some examples the flat sides of the bead were also ground smooth and flattened, but in others the flat sides of the natural shell were left without alteration (Figure 42a).

Another common shell bead is the tubular-shaped bead. The more common examples range in size from less than 10 mm in length to about 25 mm in length, but both shorter and longer examples are known (Figure 42b)



While the flat disk and tubular bead are the most common types, there are many other bead styles represented: ball-shaped beads (Figure 42c), hourglass-shaped beads (Figure 42d), biconical-shaped beads (Figure 42f), compound-shaped beads (Figure 42e), etc.

In addition to beads which have been cut from pieces of shell, small whole shells were often used for making beads. In these cases, the shell was slightly modified by grinding off part of the shell to produce a hole or perforation so it could be strung on a necklace. Figure 42g is the olivella shell which has been ground off on the spiral end; Figure 42h is the marginella shell which has been ground on one side of the spiral end, and Figure 42i is the campeloma shell which has been perforated through one of the spirals, near the center. Normally shell beads were worn as necklaces although there is some evidence to suggest that they were sometimes sewn or attached to garments. They were also worn as ear ornaments, and shell carvings indicate their use on hair forelocks, around the arms both at the wrist and above the elbow, and around the legs at the ankle and just below the knee.

Occasionally shell beads will have some incised decoration present (Figure 42a). The incised disk beads appear to have been cut from pieces of shell which had been previously decorated as the designs appear incomplete. Decorations done on olivella shells, however, were purposely incised on single shells.


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