Shell Implements of the Native American Indian and Mound Builders of Wisconsin
Reference: The Wisconsin Archaeologist Volume 17 Number 1
Aboriginal implements of shell include hoes, scoops, fleshers, saws, knives, gouges, celts or scrapers. In these uses, shell played a more important role in aboriginal domestic life than is generally
accorded, ranging in use from hoes and celts for agricultural work to game dressers, clay and wood shapers and for gouging out charred wood in the fashioning of dug-out canoes.
The first white explorers of the Atlantic seaboard found many of the early American Indfan tribes cultivating their maize, beans and squash with primitive agricultural appliances fashioned from
unworked shells lashed to rude handles. The large, firm valves of clam shells were most frequently used.
Many such shell hoes were used at Aztalan, for the Milwaukee public museum expedition recovered from the Aztalan site in the course of its excavations all told one
hundred and seventeen of these hoes, including fragments which were unmistakably remains of these implements.
Continuing in the words of Dr. Barrett : "Each of these perforated shell hoes was made from the halves of the heavy, ribbed bivalve, Quadrula undulata, Barnes, the large
species of river mussel, still found in considerable abundance in the Crawfish River. This species was formerly very abundant here, if we may judge from its prevalence in the
refuse pits and elsewhere at this site. This is a thick and heavy shell which grows to a much larger size than do the other species of mussels which also occur abundantly in
"Each of the hoes made from the coarser, ribbed species was carefully perforated and in most instances there was, near the hinge of the shell, a notch, quite evidently
used in binding the shell to the handle in hafting. This notch varied considerably in depth, but was wholly absent in only three of the specimens.
"The exact method of hafting these Aztalan shell hoes is a matter of speculation as was also the angle at which the shells were set to the handle. It was quite evident, however, that they were
bound to a wooden handle in such a manner as to make a very serviceable implement.
"That shell hoes were much used at Aztalan may be judged from their prevalence at the site and from the amount of wear shown by the cutting edge in a great many instances. They were
doubtless used as an agricultural implement in tilling corn and other crops and may well have served in the excavating of holes for the posts of which the stockade was built."
Exhibited at the Milwaukee museum is a perforated shell hoe, bound to a wooden handle, which in all probability shows the method of hafting these agricultural implements.
It is fashioned after the manner of a very unique specimen of shell hoe found in a rock shelter in Arkansas by workers of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.
The dry condition of the shelter had perfectly preserved the complete specimen, with its original wooden handle and its thong lashings.
W. H. Holmes maintains that the great majority of the scraping implements obtained from mounds, graves and shell heaps are simply valves of Unio or clam shells, unal tered except by use.
As scoops or gouges they were used in making dug-out canoes, the burnt portions of fired logs being gouged out with shell scoops.
In the making of pottery, unaltered shells were employed by the aboriginal potters to shape and smooth the coiled clay.
Notched shell implements include graters, saws and knives. Exhibited in the Milwaukee museum is a notched
Unio shell, with serrated lip; it apparently served the practical purpose of a scraper or grater.
With it is a shell used as a knife in the preparation of food. Knives were simply sharpened bivalve shells.
Such implements were used for scraping and digging as well as cutting. Besides their use in preparing food and in dressing game, Holmes further attributes the use of shell knives
"in human butchery, as weapons for war and the chase, and in the bloody work of scalp-taking and torture."
Serrated, that is, artificially toothed shells, were used as saws. Dr. Barrett suggests that these sharp-edged shell implements may have been used as saws to cut shell into
The Indians of Wisconsin also employed mussel shells
to prepare deerskin for tanning. Shell fleshers were used to
clean the inner surface of the hide of all shreds of fiber and
meat. The survival from aboriginal to historic times of the
practice of thus using shells is not at all astonishing, for
they served the purpose well.
Utilitarian implements of shell must of necessity include
fishing appliances, such as shell hooks, fish lures of shell and
To scale their fish, the aborigines often used mussel
shells, very practicable for this purpose because of their
Nicolas Perrot, who visited the large village of the
Outagamie at Green Bay, in 1665, found these early Wis-
consin Indians scaling their fish with mussel shells. (Wis.
ArcheoL, Vol. 20, No. 1.)
In catching fish, shell was used as a gorge hook, which
consisted of a spike of shell fastened at its middle to the
Fish effigies, fashioned from Unio shell, were employed
as fish lures. Each lure had two perforations. A line was
attached to the upper perforation, placed marginally near
the point of maximum convexity of the effigy's back. A
short segment of line with a sinker and feather fluff was
fixed to the ventral perforation. Then the effigy was bobbed
up and down by the Indian fisherman to attract large fish
within spearing distance.
Alanson Skinner, in his "Material Culture of the Mas-
coutens, or Prairie Potawatomi," describes the use of fish
lures of shell as follows:
"In the month of February, the fishermen chopped holes
in the ice and set up teepees over them. The fisher lay on the
ice under his shelter, and angled with a fish carved from
shell, weighted so that it would sink. This was attached by
a short line to a short stick held in the hand. By manipulating
the stick the lure was made to move naturally, while
with the other hand the spear was held in readiness. When
a fish approached sluggishly to seize the bait, the line was
drawn toward the fisherman, and the fish allowed to follow
within thrusting range, when the fisherman speared it."
The Menominee and Ojibwa, or Chippewa, similarly used
mechanical fish lures of this type, according: to Skinner.
Shell Tempering of Pottery and Mortar
In certain foci or variants of aboriginal Wisconsin cultures, pulverized shell was added today as a pottery temper.
This was, in fact, a characteristic of the Grand River and Lake Winnebago foci of the Upper Mississippi culture phase.
In his notes on "Aboriginal Pottery," W. H. Holmes asserts that the favorite tempering materials were the powdered shells of Mohusks.
The shells were pulverized in mortars or by means of such devices as were at hand. Tempering served a useful purpose during the drying and baking of the day. Pure
day has a tendency to shrink and crack in drying, and the coarse particles of tempering material counteract this tendency by interfering with the parting movements and impeding the progress of the
cracks, whereas in a fine-ground paste, the flaw would, when once started, continue through the wall of the vessel in a direct fine without interference.
The presence of foreign particles in the day served in the distribution of the heat in firing and in the subsequent use over fire.
Further discussing shell tempering in "Ancient Pottery of the Mississippi Valley* 9 (Eth. Ann. 4), Holmes says the tempering material employed was usually a moderately fine-
ground day, tempered in a great majority of cases with pulverized shells. In many of the vessels the particles are large, measuring a fourth to even one-half of an inch in width, but in the more
elegant pots the shell has been reduced to fine powder.
Older vessels that have lain long imbedded in wet soil have the shell tempering leached out; this may also have been accomplished by the use of liquids and boiling when
being used by the aborigines. Newer vessels and those in better drained soil show the tempering to better advantage for study.
STONE DISCS - Gerald C. Stowe
Mr. A. P. Kannenberg, archaeologists of the Oshkosh Public Museum, while carrying on excavation work in an ancient shell heap on Lasleys Point on the shore of Lake Winne-
conne, found 67 peculiar, problematical, round-flat, chipped stones known to archaeologists as discs. All were found in a single day's work. This site in which the excavation work
was carried on is situated midway between the barn and house near a chicken coop on the Serstead farm located on the highest elevation on what is historically known as Las-
leys Point. The chickens in their industrious search for food and for the lime of the clam shells exposed this shell
Shell heap is a term applied to deposits of refuse resulting from the consumption of shell fish as a food by the early Indians. Kindred deposits, known ordinarily as "kitchen
middens," accumulate on all inhabited sites, and are among the most widely distributed and permanent remains left by primitive peoples. For these reasons, and because they
necessarily contain examples of almost every variety of the durable handiwork of the peoples concerned in their accumulation, they are of the highest value to the student
of prehistoric remains. In the waste resulting from the consumption of shellfish on this particular site clams of the folowing species were found : Lampsilis Gracilis, Lampsilis rec-
tus, Lampsilis tuberculata, Symphynota complanata, Symphynota costata (a very large species), Quadrula trigona, Quadrula plicata, Quadrula coccinea, Anodonta lewesii, Quo-
denta grandis (gigantia), and many more species. There are at least a half dozen such shell heaps on this farm, most of which have been disturbed and scattered by the plow.
Since the occupancy of this country by white men, the destruction of these deposits has gone forward with great rapidity. Some have been used as fertilizer, many located
on low land, have been covered over by water where artificial dams have raised the water level and many have been destroyed by others in a search for artifacts,
The shell heaps of the southern states are of greater size and depth than those of Wisconsin. The shell heaps on the Serstead farm, most of which have been disturbed by
the plow, are shallow, ranging from one foot to three feet in height and twelve feet to thirty feet in diameter. Some of these larger shell heaps are approximately homogenous
but show evidences of stratification with layers of earth and other refuse intercalated with the shells. The cultural contents of the shell heaps, used as middens, furnish a valu-
able record of the arts and industries and customs of the primitive people concerned in their accumulation. Ordinary implements of stone, bone, shell, metal and pottery are em-
bedded with the shells.
The occupants of the Serstead farm have, from time to time, picked up broken potsherds, arrows, a few bone artifacts and many stone objects, including the peculiar round,
chipped stones described in this article. All were found near and around this exposed shell heap formation. The immediate vicinity for some distance along the lake front has
been the site of a number of ancient villages as evidenced by the large amount of archaeological material unearthed from time to time by the people living here.
During the excavation work carried on in this shell heap, all the soil was carefully sieved and inspected. Besides the major find of the 67 chipped stones, many decorated fragments of pottery of the
Winnebago and ancient cultures were unearthed. The Winnebago culture type of pottery is that type which is tempered with crushed clam shells and the Woodland culture is grit tempered with
crushed granite. Many chipped stone artifacts of various types and some worked bone implements were also found.
As to the use of these chipped stones only vague suggestions and ideas have been set forth. The discs found in this deposit were all obtained within a radius of eight feet.
All have a very definite shape and are of about the same weight, which lends plausibility to the theory that these artifacts had a very definite use.
They are made from flat, round, or oval granite, basalt, gabbro, limestone, sandstone, or other hard rock pebbles.
|The Indians of Wisconsin also employed mussel shells (clams) to prepare deerskin for tanning.
Shell fleshers were used to clean the inner surface of the hide of all shreds of fiber and meat.
From collection of Brad and Mary Sutherland @2016
Shell artifacts from the collection of Brad and Mary Sutherland @2016
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