Marine Shell Ornaments, Icons and Offerings

Along the Texas coast marine and freshwater shell were used prehistorically as body adornment, as status icons, and for burial with the dead.  These ritual usages were not necessarily restricted to coastal life-ways, however.  Archaeologists have found artifacts of prized mollusks from the Gulf of Mexico far inland in a variety of contexts—from large Archaic period cemeteries located many miles from the shore, to dry caves in Mexico.  As a desirable trade items, shells were traded along routes that stretched as far north as Canada, or south to Mesoamerica. 

The habit of wearing seashells, but also burying them with the dead (and therefore restricting the supply of them) has a long history in Texas and elsewhere, spanning thousands of years and many different cultures.  This pervasive pattern suggests that marine shells, as well as those of freshwater mussels, were not only coveted for their beauty, but also imbued with economic and spiritual significance. Shells symbolize water, creation, fertility, death and rebirth, and their use in ritual contexts was a fairly universal occurrence, especially as part of mortuary customs.  Early inhabitants of the New World may have believed that placement of shell with the dead would allow the deceased access into the spirit world.

Three species of shells found along the Texas coast were commonly fashioned into jewelry or ritual accessories, and traded widely in prehistoric times: Lightning Whelk (Busycon Perversum), Lettered Olive (Oliva sayana) and Minute Dwarf Olive (Olivella minuta).  Larger gastropod species like Florida Horse Conch (Pleuroploca gigantia) and the True Tulip Shell (Fasciolaria tulipa), as well as other cone and bivalve species, were also utilized, but not as extensively. The most diverse range of shell species used to make artifacts occurs n the Rio Grande delta area at the southern tip of Texas and northeastern Tamaulipas. Although much less common than marine shell,  delicate freshwater mussel shells, from river and estuarine environments, were fashioned locally all along the Texas coast into decorative items frequently found with burials.
From these shell types came an array of ornamental and ritual pieces, some remarkably beautiful:  pendants, gorgets, earrings, hair ornaments, beads for necklaces and bracelets, “tinklers”, musical parts, clothing accessories, and engraved shell cups associated with grave offerings.

Whelk Pendants and Gorgets:  The lightening whelk ranges in size from 6-12 inches in length, and is sinistrally spiraled (to the left). An assortment of pendant and gorget forms, made from the shell’s detached and edge-ground whorls, were often pierced for suspension, or sewn onto clothing.  Those found in graves were usually positioned near the neck or chest of the interred individual, presumably hung by some sort of natural fiber.  Pendants manufactured from whorl segments that include portions of the anterior canal and penultimate suture can be quite large and elongated, incorporating traces of the natural sinistral spiral.  Smaller pendant types vary in shape and size but are sub-rectangular or sub-triangular with occasional incised surface decoration or punctuations, and multiple, biconical perforations drilled along the long axis or apex of the piece.  

Lightning whelk terminology. Adapted from Hall 1981, Figure 44.

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Columella bead forms from the Mitchell Ridge site. Adapted from Ricklis 1994, Figure 11.1.

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Shell and glass trade bead necklace from an 18th century grave at the Mitchell Ridge site. Photo by Robert Ricklis.

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Pendants and gorgets were made from the outer or penultimate body whorl of the lightning whelk terminology. Once the artifact blank was formed by cutting and breaking off a suitable section of whorl, it was shaped and smoothed by grinding into the final form. Some gorgets were elaborately shaped and incised, but the most common modification was simply to drill suspension holes. Adapted from Hall 1981, Figure 44.

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Elaborately decorated Busycon gorget from the Hatchel-Mitchell site, a major Caddo village and mound center on the Red River in northeast Texas. TARL Collections.

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Pendants from Busycon (lightning whelk) shell from the Guadalupe Bay site. Adapted from Weinstein 2002, Figure 9-12.

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The term “gorget” is often used to describe large shell artifacts worn as chest pieces.  Gorgets have been found in prehistoric contexts throughout the U.S. Southeast and Midwest and differ somewhat from pendants in shape and decorative elements.  They are circular or slightly ovoid, frequently engraved on their concave surfaces, and usually have paired suspension holes along one edge.  Such artifacts have been found as grave offerings at Caddo sites in northeast Texas and adjacent sites. They are made from the whorls of Busycon or other robust gastropods from the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the raw materials used to make gorgets may well have been obtained along the Texas coast,

Whelk and “Conch” Shell Beads:  Shell beads were cut from the central columella portion of Busycon perversum (or sometimes from the whorl). In the archeological literature beads are commonly termed “conch” beads, a term that encompasses other gastropods as well including the true conch of the genus Strombus, although the true conch is rarely found along the Texas coast.

Disc beads are defined as having a wider diameter than length; the opposite defines cylindrical beads whose lengths are longer than the diameters. It is not unusual to find multiple sets of shell beads strung together as necklaces and bracelets, or sewn onto clothing.  Heavy cylindrical types exhibiting the spiral grooves are most frequently associated with Late Archaic deposits, while the smaller, finely ground cylinders and square shaped disc beads are typically found in Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric contexts.

A distinct chronological difference in columella bead form, degree of grinding, and changes in bore technology can be seen among the grave goods the Mitchell Ridge site on Galveston Island.  The columella beads found in early graves (initial Late Prehistoric, ca. AD. 700-1200) are thick-walled, with deep, spiraling grooves indicating a lack of grinding along the long axis.  The bore-holes are drilled biconically with a narrowing of the bore channel towards the middle. Over time columella beads become more varied and narrower with thin walls, ground surfaces, and straight bores.  By the Protohistoric period (16th and 17th centuries), columella beads were more narrow, short and discoidal-like with a fair degree of grinding on their surfaces.  Many have bore-holes drilled from one direction, creating a funnel-like bore channel towards a smaller non-beveled hole on the opposite end. Lathe-turned cylindrical beads made by Euro-American traders were found in several of the 18th century graves at Mitchell Ridge; these have straight bores, no spiral grooves, and were strung with glass beads.

Columella Bead Technology:  After detaching the whorl from the columella (via breaking, percussion, cutting, or groove and snap techniques), cylindrical beads were cut or sawn using an abrading tool into the desired lengths.  To make shell beads (and other ornaments and tools) workers used stone tools including flint flakes, thin side scrapers, chisel-like gravers, and sandstone abraders. Columella beads, abraded to a point where the segments were easily snapped off, were then shaped, drilled, ground, and polished.  The drilling process commonly involved the use of hafted chert drills to bore either end of the cylindrical bead.  In the Rio Grande delta region, a variety of hammerstones, sandstone cutters, used flakes and bifaces, and stone and bone drills have been found at shell ornament manufacturing  locales.

Olive Shell Beads and “Tinklers”:  Whole olive shells (Oliva sayana and Olivella minuta) provided a handy source for easy-to-assemble beads.  Found along the length of the Texas shore, they were pierced and strung together, or sewn into clothing once their spires were lopped off.  Most oliva and olivella beads exhibit little workmanship except for removal of the spire above the shoulder.  The smaller Olivella minuta are fairly thin, so removal of the spire by light grinding or rubbing on a stone was all that was necessary before being strung together—and more expedient than cutting.  The larger Oliva sayana have thicker shells and required cutting and abrading. Strands of spire-lopped oliva and olivella have been found associated with burials at Mitchell Ridge, Galveston Island.  

Oliva Sayana were also used to make “tinklers,” small ornaments with suspension holes. Commonly, the spire has been cut off just below the shoulder with holes drilled or cut in the body, usually near the anterior canal.  A horizontal cut perpendicular to the long axis of the shell is sometimes seen.  In burial features in the Rio Grande Delta, tinklers have been found nestled with perforated canine teeth, presumably to achieve a clapper effect when suspended.  Burying the dead with tinklers is widespread, especially in Central America where tinklers are associated with burials, caches, and midden deposits.  Some have been found carved in the shape of a human face or “death’s head”.  In Texas, the occurrence of” tinklers” from archaeological deposits is not as common, but their presence signifies a technological link or shared ideology with regard to very specific treatment of the shell.  The importance and ritualistic use of olive shell ”tinklers” in Texas is probably related to Circum-Caribbean and Mesoamerican practices where similar artifacts are known.

Slender chert drill found in a Protohistoric grave (late 16th or early 17th century) at the Mitchell Ridge site along with 41 short tubular conch shell beads, such as the two shown here (in side view and silhouetted cross-section). As indicated by the dashed lines, the tip and lower edges of the drill are worn smooth from use. As can be seen, the diameter of the drill tip almost perfectly matches the interior diameter of the beads, which were all drilled mainly from one end. Adapted from Ricklis, 1994, Figure 8.17.

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Flores (flowers) of discoidal shell beads strung on fiber cords found in mortuary contexts at Cueva Candelaria in southern Coahuila, Mexico. From Avelerya et al. 1936, plate 23.

Olive shell bead headband and Olvella shell bead necklace from graves at the Mitchell Ridge site. Photograph by Robert Ricklis.

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Olive shell beads from the Guadalupe Bay site on the central coast. Adapted from Weinstein 2002, Figure 9-15.

Oliva shell tinklers of similar design. The drawing is of a specimen found at the top of the head an adult male in a grave dating to the early 18th century at the Mitchell Ridge site on Galveston Island. The specimen in the photograph was found on the surface of a site along the lower Guadalupe River, some 125 miles away. Adapted from Ricklis 1994, Figure 8.44 and photo by Steve Black taken at the Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria.

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Oliva tinkler found in an early 18th-century grave at the Mitchell Ridge site. TARL Collections.

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Other Shell Beads, Ornaments, and Offerings:  Various other shells such as sunray venus (Macrocallista nimbosa), quahog (Mercenaria sp), giant Atlantic cockle (Dinocardium robustum), and ark (Anadara sp) sometimes were broken and fashioned into beads and bead blanks.  Smaller valves with naturally occurring perforations were most likely picked up and used with no other modification.

Spire-lopped Atlantic Marginella (Marginella Prunum) strung as necklace are sometimes mistaken in the archaeological literature for olivella.  They are about the same size but the marginella is broader across the shoulder with a short spire and longer aperture.  Its range in the Western Gulf is from Port Aransas to the Yucatan and is commonly found in archaeological contexts, especially in south Texas and Mesoamerica. The famed burial cave Cueva Candelaria in northern Mexico yielded elaborate clusters of shell beads bound together in fiber coils in what have been called flores (flowers). These ritual objects have marginella shells or  discoidal shell beads of Busycon attached to them.

At two sites along the lower Guadalupe River, Morhiss Mound and the Linn Lake site, small caches of five or six purposefully stacked giant Atlantic cockles have been found. This may represent ritual offerings, although they could also have been cached for future use as raw materials for the manufacture of ornaments or shells. 

Freshwater and estuarine mussel shells were also used for both decorative and functional purposes. Mussel shell scraping tools are a fairly common trait for both south coastal Texas and the Tamualipas region of Mexico, and highly decorative pendants or earrings, some with serrated edges and perforations, have been found throughout Texas.  At inland sites, away from the coast, access to pearly river mussel provided the raw material needed for body decoration and burial ritual.

Contributed by Meredith L. Dreiss.


Avelerya, Luis, M. Maldonado-Kordell, and Pablo Martinez del Rio
1956    Cueva de la Candelaria. Instituo Nacional de Anthropologica e Historia, Mexico, D.F.

Hall, Grant D.
1981    Allen's Creek:  A Study in the Prehistory of the Lower Brazos River Valley, Texas.   Research Report 61. Texas Archeological Survey, University of Texas at Austin.

Ricklis, Robert A.
1994   Aboriginal Life and Culture on the Upper Texas Coast: Archaeology at the Mitchell Ridge Site, 41GV66, Galveston Island.  Coastal Archaeological Research, Inc., Corpus Christi.

Weinstein, Richard A., editor
1994    Archaeological Investigations Along the Lower Lavaca River, Jackson County, Texas: The Channel to Red Bluff Project. Coastal Environments, Inc., Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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These five unmodified giant Atlantic cockle shells were found by Bill Birmingham stacked one atop the other at the Linn Lake site along the lower Guadalupe River. A similar cache of six cockle shells was found farther upstream at Morhiss Mound, suggesting that this pattern may represent ritual offerings. Photo by Steve Black, Museum of the Coastal Bend.

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This pair of triangular shell ear ornaments was found in an early 18th century grave of a young adult man at the Mitchell Ridge site on Galveston Island. They are made of very thin, fragile pieces of freshwater mussel and have (had) drilled suspension holes at the apex of each piece and partially drilled punctations at the other corners. TARL Collections.

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These examples from the Rio Grande delta in northeastern Tamaulipas show how shell sections were transformed into beads in steps from rough blanks, to drilled blanks, and to finished beads. A.E. Anderson Collection

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