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Shell Beads and Pendants of the Eastern Forest

Before European contact and at least 1500 years ago Native Americans produced barrel-shaped and discoidal shell beads, as well as perforated small whole shells. Prehistoric beads were more robust and had a larger, tapering drilled hole than that of historic wampum. Adoption of slender iron drills over the wider prehistoric stone drills made bead making much more efficient.

Wampum "Mints" were located among the Narragansetts and other Native Americans of the southern New England coast. Narragansett called the white shell beads Wómpam (from the whelk) and called the purple shell beads Suckaúhock (made from the quahog shell). Narragansett bead makers were buried with wampum supplies and tools to finish work in progress elsewhere.

Shell bead manufacture occurred in winter for employment. Finished wampum was strung onto cord with great attention to quality and sorting. Quahog shell was more scarce and less easily worked than whelk shell, so purple wampum was worth twice the value. Although attempts at imitations included beads of stone and other materials, Native-made wampum was so distinct that it was not easily counterfeited. Narragansett, Wampanoag and other coastal Native American women had huge shell tubes three to four inches and longer, smaller beads were made in the shapes of ovals, barrels, circles, cones, diamonds, triangles, squares, and wavy edge shaped beads.

Pendants depict effigies of animals, turtles, birds, ducks, bear claw or bird talon forms, and drilled crescent shaped pendants. Narragansett wore teardrop shaped shell pendants. Purple shell claw pendants were worn by Seneca, in the Hudson Valley, in the Middle Connecticut River Valley and were worn by coastal New England tribes as well. Seneca wore whole drilled columnar shell pendants, large and small, as well as decorated circular, disk-shaped shell ‘runtees’.

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© 1994-1999 Tara Prindle.