Hahn Highlights: Marginella Shell Beads
Posted On: 01/05/2018 - 11:38am, Posted By: Tyler Swinney, NAGPRA Coordinator and Tribal Liaison
Welcome to the ninth installment of Archaeology Collections’ long-term blog series: Hahn Highlights!
Today we have a special guest post by archaeology intern, Ashley Huntley from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Cincinnati, about several interesting artifacts recovered during Cincinnati Museum Center’s Archaeology Field School at the Hahn Site: marine shell beads recovered from Feature 454 during the 2017 field season.
Located on the eastern side of the site, Feature 454 was a dense Late Fort Ancient (A.D. 1400-1650) midden deposit that measured approximately 4 meters in width and contained the largest number of marine shell beads found to date by Cincinnati Museum Center archaeologists. Feature 454 is also interesting because it was discovered above Feature 207, a Middle Fort Ancient (A.D. 1200-1400) house basin, and may have been created as Late Fort Ancient occupants discarded subsistence and habitation refuse into the depression left by the Middle Fort Ancient house.
Made from the shells of marine gastropods (Marginella apicinum) that are native to the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, marginella beads are always an exciting find at the Hahn site, but are typically found in very small numbers! Usually measuring about 9-12 millimeters (0.35-0.47 inches) in length, marginella beads probably served a decorative function and were likely used to ornament necklaces, bracelets, or clothing. They were manufactured by carefully cutting a small hole near the apex of a marginella shell with a unifacial or bifacial flint tool. Once a hole had been cut to an appropriate size, the hole was then used to thread fiber or sinew from the apex down through the aperture, or the natural opening of the shell.
Despite their relative ubiquity at many Fort Ancient sites, marginella beads are often difficult to find in the field due to their small size which allows them to pass through ¼ inch field screens. In the lab, however, marginella beads are frequently encountered in small numbers during water screening as they are caught by ⅛ inch water screens. The high comparative density of marginella shell beads found at the Hahn site tells us a great deal about the trade and the extra-regional relationships that Cincinnati-area Fort Ancient people had with other cultures in the eastern and southeastern United States. Since marginella beads must have been carried from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to this inland region, they are also important indicators of long distance trade or political relationships. Indeed, similar beads have been found at other Midwestern sites, like the Snag Creek site (Late Fort Ancient) in Bracken County, Kentucky; the Philpott site in Henry County, Virginia (Late Woodland); and the Clunie site in Saginaw County, Michigan (Late Prehistoric/Protohistoric). The geographic and temporal distribution of sites where marginella beads have been found also suggests that they may have held a place of prominence for social or economic needs. That is, based on clues from known cultural practices, marginella beads may connote elevated status or wealth.