Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

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

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

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

Article excerpt

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. Ossabaw Island consists of two principal physiographic segments, a Pleistocene aged "core" comprising the western twothirds or so of the island, and a more recent Holocene-age segment of accreted beach ridges comprising the eastern one-third. Site 9CH199 is situated on the Pleistocene portion of Ossabaw Island, as are the vast majority of the island's known prehistoric sites.

This site was first reported by Chester DePratter (1974), and in the summer of 1974, the site was mapped and tested by Charles Pearson (1979, 2001). The 1974 mapping showed the site consists of a cluster of 30 individual shell middens and several areas of scattered shell. These middens extend in a slight arc for a distance of about 500 m along a flat portion of the Pleistocene landform about 40 m south of a freshwater drainage that flows into a small cove on the western side of Ossabaw Island (Figure 2). Most of these shell middens are roughly circular in shape and range from 2.5 m to 10 m across and from a few centimeters to approximately 65 cm high. The Bead Maker's Midden is located at the eastern end of the site. …

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