The Bead Maker's Midden: Evidence of Late Prehistoric Shell Bead Production on Ossabaw Island, Georgia

By Pearson, Charles E.; Cook, Fred C. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Bead Maker's Midden: Evidence of Late Prehistoric Shell Bead Production on Ossabaw Island, Georgia


Pearson, Charles E., Cook, Fred C., Southeastern Archaeology


In 2005, archaeological excavations were undertaken in a single shell midden at a late prehistoric Irene phase (circa A.D. 1380) site on Ossabaw Island, Georgia. The excavations were designed specifically to collect information on the fabrication of shell beads and other shell ornaments. A considerable amount of stone was recovered, almost all of which is petrified wood used specifically in the production of "microdrills" for perforating shell beads. Also recovered were large quantities of fragmented knobbed whelk (Busycon carica), the principal raw material used for shell beads, as well as examples of shell beads in all stages of manufacture. The excavations of this midden, designated the Bead Maker's Midden, produced abundant information bearing on shellworking technology, including the full range of tools and raw materials used and the sequences involved in the production of shell beads. Replication experiments were conducted to validate the archaeological findings. The collected data provide direct evidence of the process of shell bead production during the Late Mississippi period.

In May 2005, excavations were conducted at a small, late prehistoric Irene phase (ca. A.D. 1350 to 1550) shell midden on Ossabaw Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia. This work was undertaken specifically to gather information on the production of shell beads as well as other shell artifacts. The 2005 excavations were stimulated by research undertaken by the senior author in 1974 that recovered numerous fragments of knobbed whelk (Busycon carica), a few shell beads, and several small, stone "microdrills" from this midden. These small tools were unusual for sites on the island, and it was postulated that they represented drills used in the manufacture of whelkshell beads and other shell ornaments (Pearson 1979, 2001). The discoveries in 1974 led to the designation of this single midden as the "Bead Maker's Midden."

The importance of marine shell to aboriginal cultures cannot be overemphasized. Marine shell was an important item of prehistoric trade throughout eastern North America and became the most widely distributed exotic material in the Middle Woodland and Mississippi periods (Claassen 1989:18). Beads made from marine shell are the most common trade item consistently occurring in burial contexts in North America (Ottesen 1979). Shell beads have been found in numerous archaeological settings throughout the southeastern United States, and they have been studied as objects of trade, ornament, wealth, and status (see Trubitt 2003). However, less has been written about the procedures and tools involved in their manufacture.

The studies conducted in the Southeast that have dealt in detail with the processes of shell bead production have, by and large, been concerned with interior groups, particularly Mississippian societies at principal centers such as Cahokia (see Prentice 1983; Trubitt 2003; Yerkes 1989, 1991). The production of beads by coastal populations, where the raw material is present, and where one would think bead production flourished, has largely been ignored. The material recovered from Ossabaw Island in 1974 suggested an opportunity to examine the position of a coastal population in the manufacture of shell beads and it was felt that additional excavations in this midden would provide information bearing on the process of bead production and the topic of craft specialization.

The Bead Maker's Midden and Site 9CH199

The Bead Maker's Midden is located at site 9CH199, an Irene phase settlement situated on the southwestern side of Ossabaw Island (Figure 1). Ossabaw Island is the third largest of Georgia's coastal islands and measures about 13.7 km long and 6.3 km wide and contains approximately 4,800 ha (11,800 acres) of high land. The island lies about 30 km southeast of Savannah and is separated from the mainland by a 5- to 8-km-wide expanse of salt marsh interlaced by tidal streams and rivers. …

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