Margaret Bruchac

Of Shells and Ship’s Nails

by Marge Bruchac
* Article Update, December 2017: This article was originally published in 2014. During the winter of 2017-18, the Yale collection of material from Fort Shantok is finally being repatriated to the Mohegan Tribe! Watch for a forthcoming research article that contextualizes this material, alongside other material excavated from the site, as evidence of a rich ceremonial complex where all of these activities–shellfishing, wampum-making, pottery-making, feasting–were integrated into Mohegan diplomacy.


An iron nail excavated from the Fort Shantok, re-worked to fit into a bow drill or pump drill. Item #10289 housed in archaeological storage at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Connecticut Tier 78, Drawer 4. Photo by Lise Puyo.

There it lies. In an archaeological collections drawer in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, in Connecticut Tier 78, Drawer 4. A single wrought iron nail (perhaps a ship’s nail) rests amidst bits of copper and other metal debris, European trade goods, clay pipe fragments, and a rusty jaw harp, all recovered from a layer of earth four centuries past. This material was salvaged from a dig at Fort Shantok (also called Uncas’s Fort, at Trading Cove), a well-known 17th century Mohegan habitation site, in the homelands of the present-day Mohegan Tribe. At first, this nail is almost too ordinary to notice…but its shape is unusual. This common nail, hammered and drawn from quarter-inch squared iron rod stock (typical of the 17th century) has been re-worked, and the point has been drawn out and narrowed into a tubular shape. Also, the head has been flattened in such a way that it would never hold a wooden seam secure. Who would alter such a good nail? To what purpose?

Stephanie Mach and Lise Puyo examining Fort Shantok collections at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Photo by Marge Bruchac.

Stephanie Mach and Lise Puyo examining the Fort Shantok collections at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Photo by Marge Bruchac.

The next drawer of material from the same site holds cracked quahog and whelk shells, pottery shards, charred corn, and evidence of feasting. There is ample evidence of wampum manufacture (well documented in 17th century colonial records) in the form of purple chunks, white columns, and the sandstone blocks used to polish them down to size. The shells are all local species: channeled whelk (Busycon canaliculatum), knobbed whelk (Busycon carica), and quahog (Mercenaria mercinaria). Similar assemblages have been found at Massapequa and elsewhere on Long Island Sound, where whelk and quahog are also abundant and wampum manufacture is documented.

"1 piece of shell wampum, perforated, Fort Shantok, Mohegan, CT." Item #10221, housed in archaeological storage at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Connecticut Tier 78, Drawer 5. Photo by Lise Puyo.

“1 piece of shell wampum, perforated, Fort Shantok, Mohegan, CT.” Item #10221, housed in archaeological storage at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Connecticut Tier 78, Drawer 5. Photo by Lise Puyo.

Although many wampum beads have been collected from digs at Shantok, this drawer holds only one. This particular white shell bead has a channel that matches the diameter of the narrrowed point of the iron nail.

A bow drill fitted with a cast-off industrial spool and an iron nail for a bit. Photographed by Lise Puyo at the Canadian Museum of History.

A bow drill fitted with a cast-off industrial spool and an iron nail for a bit. Canadian Museum of History, item #III-H-334 a-c, identified as Huron-Wendat, collected by Frank Speck. Photo by Lise Puyo.

Weeks later, at the Canadian Museum of History, far to the north, we examined two bow drills, each crafted from bent wood strung with leather cord. Before European contact, Native hand drills, pump drills, and bow drills just like these were fitted with a stone point serving as a bit to bore holes. The bit was secured in a piece of wood which was wrapped with the cord of the bow (or rubbed with the hands) to rotate it. The speed of rotation generated the necessary heat and friction to bore holes in wood, shell, stone. But the bits in these bow drills at CMH are not stone. Each is fitted with a cast-off wooden spool and…a sharpened nail.

Bow drills are an ancient technology, used for fire-starting as well as for craftwork. Bow drills with nail bits were also used by non-Natives at the Campbell Brothers’ wampum-making “factory” in Pascack, New Jersey. We examined three similar collections of salvage from the Campbell site at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, the Canadian Museum of History, and the New York State Museum. The raw material (primarily large conch shells from the West Indies formerly used for ship’s ballast) was broken up and carved into blanks for making “moon” disks, “hair-pipe” beads, and smaller wampum-sized beads. Collectors at this site have also found a few whelk columns, chunks of quahog shells and cast-off broken beads that shattered during drilling. The disks made from conch shells retain a pinkish sheen, but the beads have an overall dullness that readily distinguishes them from the ivory of wampum crafted from whelk. Once our eyes had been properly trained, we found it relatively easy to distinguish among the different kinds of white wampum beads found in various collections, whether made from whelk, conch, or porcelain.

Conch shells and blanks collected from the Campbell site. Photographed by Lise Puyo at the New York State Museum

Conch shells and blanks collected from the Campbell wampum manufacturing site in New Jersey. Photographed by Lise Puyo. Courtesy New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

For decades, scholars of Iroquoia have been imposing strict timelines on the manufacture of Indigenous materials using European technology. Narrow, tubular wampum beads were (they insisted) impossible to craft with the use of stone drill bits. It should be fairly easy to recognize holes bored by stone: the openings appear conical, wider at the ends, narrower where they meet in the middle, after having been bored through from either side.

An old disk shell beads from a California site, showing a conical hole bored by a stone mux. Photographed by Stephanie Mach at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

An old disk bead from a California site, showing a conical hole bored by a stone bit. Photographed by Stephanie Mach at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Stone bits made large holes; metal bits made smaller holes. Hence (it has been argued), Native people were not able to produce uniform tubular wampum beads until after the introduction of Dutch steel drills in the 1630s. This sounded like scientific fact…until I came face to face with this iron nail. There are records of “French awls,” but have any “Dutch steel drills” ever been found in Native sites? This Shantok nail suggests that Native people had access to finer wampum making tools at a much earlier date.

Technically, beads were “bored” rather than “drilled,” using high-speed rotation and pressure to puncture the shell without shattering, and water to keep the heat and dust in check. New France journals note that by the 1610s, Native people living along the Saint Lawrence seaway were already familiar with (and specifically requesting) awls as trade goods. But the awl was not the first innovation in drilling technology. Nails from ships manned by Breton fisherman (or even Viking adventurers) could have been procured centuries earlier. A Native artisan could just as easily fit an Indigenous bow drill with an awl, or with a simple iron nail.

Old wampum shell beads from an unidentified New York site, showing a wide range of hole sizes, and showing evidence of color fading and weathering from exposure. Photographed by Lise Puyo in a private collection in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Close-up photo of old wampum shell beads from an unidentified New York archaeological site. Note the wide range of hole sizes, variations in color with the faded purple beads, and the striations, cracks, and weathering from exposure. Photographed by Lise Puyo in a private collection in Cornish, New Hampshire.

This research inspired new observations about old collections. We noted that older wampum beads tend to be smaller and squarish, with large holes. These are presumed to have been bored by stone bits. Yet, we viewed several collections of old beads from archaeological sites with wide variations in hole diameters. Were these bored by stone? By nails? By artisans with differing levels of skill? Have other nails and awls (as metal drill bits) been found in Native sites, but ignored because they were identified as “historic” and sorted into “non-Native” collections?

A chunk of purple wampum from a large quahog shell, ready to shape into blanks for making beads. Only mature mollusks produce dense purple shells. Photographed by Lise Puyo at the New York State Museum.

A chunk of purple wampum from a large quahog shell. Only mature mollusks produce dense purple shells. Photographed by Lise Puyo at the New York State Museum.

We examined purple beads that had faded to gray from being deposited in the ground. We found similar beads woven into belts that also held what appeared to be much newer beads. We noticed dramatic differences in the color density of purple shell beads, with shades varying from lavender to nearly black. Quahogs can live at least 5-6 decades, and the oldest clams produce the densest shell coloration. During the 19th century, however, the New England craze for “little-neck clams” (baby quahogs) rapidly diminished the population, and dense purple shells are now harder to come by.

Observations like these shed some light on the diversity of beads we have observed in the wampum belts surveyed thus far. The material and documentary evidence clearly indicates that wampum beads were circulated widely among Algonkian and Iroquoian nations, and that wampum diplomacy was observed and valued by European colonial leaders. Some wampum belts were made on a particular occasion for a single purpose; others were made for wider circulation or altered to fit new circumstances. We saw belts containing beads that varied in color density, condition, and size, suggesting multiple sources and multiple bead-makers. Some belts were repaired or re-woven, and some newer belts contain older beads. A variety of materials were used in wefts and warps: sinew, plant fiber (dogbane, hemp, milkweed), leather, and linen, with various modes of weaving edges and ends. There is dense evidence of Indigenous curation and repair, including older sinews worn away and patched with twine, leather warp strands re-used from a different belt, and bits of thread and other fibers used in repairs. We found a number of isolated anomalous beads, including glass (white, blue, and red), stone (steatite, catlinite), dentalium, and even bone beads. Although some of these repairs and inclusions may have been expedient, I suspect that none of these choices were accidental.

The material evidence for both Algonkian and Iroquoian culture in the northeast suggests that the inclusion of new tools in old traditions is a marker of both material change and cultural continuity. Europeans and their tools clearly enabled, but did not invent, wampum ceremonialism. Wampum beads need not be “ancient” to be “authentic.” Beads and belts can be made and re-made, damaged and repaired, purposed and re-purposed, woven together and taken apart. These patterns of wampum use and manufacture resonate with other Indigenous traditions that have persisted from the past to the present. All of these wampum beads and belts demonstrate the rich ingenuity of Indigenous philosophies and technologies. All of this evidence deserves our thoughtful attention.

The Glass Belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary

group-picture-1024by Lise Puyo

On Tuesday, Marie Pelletier, who manages the Archives du Séminaire de Nicolet (Nicolet Seminary) welcomed us for a whole afternoon to examine the two wampum belts in their collections. One of them is entirely made of black glass beads.

Now, one might argue that if it is not shell, it is not a wampum belt. Yet, being made of glass beads does not necessarily mean the belt was not used in a meaningful way. With the wampum belts we have seen so far, we can make a few general observations about the prevalence of shell and glass. Although white shell beads are said to have been more numerous, purple shell beads are far more common than we would have expected. Glass beads were supposedly used as replacements for the shell material out of scarcity. If this is so, then the remaining collections seem to indicate that white shell beads were more scarce (or perhaps more meaningful) than purple shell beads. At Harvard Peabody, we discovered that glass beads were most often found in white designs. In the collections we visited, there were only a few belts with a white background. The sheer volume of purple shell in collections suggests that when Native wampum makers wanted to use purple shell, they had access to an abundance of this material. The selective use of glass beads seems to evoke a particular intent, and maybe sends a particular message.

At the Dartmouth Powwow, while meeting with traders and contemporary wampum makers, we learned that there are at least two types of dark glass beads resembling wampum: Czech ones, dark blue and translucent, letting the thread appear inside the bead; and French ones, either dark blue or nearly black and opaque. At Nicolet, during our first long glance, it looked like one belt was entirely made of these very dark French glass beads. This would fit the pattern of settlement along the Saint Lawrence and in Canada in general. Those beads—often referred to as porcelain in the written documents—were commonly used as trade goods to exchange for furs and other articles coming from Indigenous people.

Glass belt lit from behindAfter looking at other aspects and spending time with this belt, however, we spotted a reddish hue, coming not only from the rawhide and linen, but also from the beads themselves. There was no sign of red ochre being rubbed onto the beads (as we saw on several other belts). Was the red color just a figment of our imagination? By shining a white light underneath the belts, we realized that these beads are not exactly black: they are a very dark shade of red. If this object was intended to be held up around a council fire, picture how the shimmering light would give it a dramatic aura. The belt would simply come alive.

This close-up picture is helpful to show both the red color of the beads, and the red dye deeply soaked into the rawhide and linen warp and weft (giving them an orange hue). According to our observations so far, when red ochre is rubbed onto the belt, the warp is not tinted where pinched by the weft; it remains a pale color when the rest of the material is dusty red. Here, however, it seems that the leather was dyed before weaving the beads together, contributing to the overall reddish color of the belt.

We observed similar weaving techniques in several other belts so far: the warp is leather, the weft is plant fiber, and the long edges are wrapped with either dampened leather or rawhide so that the edge will harden as it dries, securing the weave. The ends of this dark glass belt are short and knotted together, which in wampum semiotics tends to indicate a closed, independent message, as opposed to long untied ends, which indicate that the message and dialogue can continue.

Some beads are missing on both ends. The fact that the weft is still in place, bearing witness for this bead loss, is specific to the Nicolet archives collections. In most other cases, when beads have been taken out, the weft was pulled out as well. These threads allow us to estimate the number of beads that are missing. This belt has seen no repair, unlike many of the other belts we have seen. A single black thread was added to it, but this thread does not help the weave or support any bead; it stands out, loosely tied. We believe it formerly held a collection tag, price tag, or explanation tag, perhaps added by a Nicolet curator after the 1870s.

This glass belt was clearly made with care and with intent: the weaving material reflects the color of the beads. The dark red beads have been darkened even further by the addition of a black ash-like coating that has partially soaked into the leather. It is constructed following the same Native weaving techniques observed on shell belts, but it does not use shell beads. As Dr. Bruchac observed, in wampum semiotics, the message is quite clear: dark beads (in the absence of any white beads) signal trouble, complexity, something powerful in a potentially harmful way. Those beads were apparently selected because of their ambiguity between black and red. The fact that they are foreign might indicate several things; we theorize that either it was made by Europeans, or it was made about Europeans.

According to the curatorial records at the Nicolet Seminary, this belt was given by the Blackfoot of Alberta to l’Abbé Georges-Henri Laforest during his sojourn in First Nations territory far to the west of Nicolet. This appears to be an early belt, using a style of glass bead common in the east, but uncommon in the west. If this belt originated in a region where wampum making is more common (the Northeast Atlantic coast, the Saint Lawrence seaway, or Haudenosaunee territory), it would have carried a very recognizable message that transcended language barriers: trouble is coming, involving foreigners. Since glass beads were common trade goods, the origin of the beads might identify which group this message would refer to: could a French bead represent the French?

Marie Lise Stephanie phone on the belt 1024

With this belt, as with all the others, we are following Dr. Bruchac’s guidance in what appears to be a unique research approach. Our method is to examine every bead, every thread, every repair, and every bit of dirt and other material evidence while we talk around the belts, creating a visual and verbal thick description. Since we are coming with fresh eyes, and since we have familiarized ourselves with the various materials—quahog, whelk, conch, glass, sinew, brain-tanned leather, rawhide, hemp, linen—we often notice details that might have been overlooked before. The curators look on, and we invite them to share insights on how each belt has been handled and cared for, on other items it might relate to, and on any other information needing an inside eye. Only after close visual analysis do we turn to the examinations of provenance data and historical research that might track the movement of each belt from a community or event to its current environment. Since we only have a few hours to spend at each location, we gather as much data as possible while we are present with the wampum, and leave the written reports for our long debriefing sessions.

At each locale, museum curators have been delighted to hear stories about our previous discoveries and the insights gained from all of the different communities we’ve talked to: Indigenous wampum-keepers, wampum makers, antiquities dealers, and other museums. This has been a very collaborative effort so far, resulting in exciting new insights. However, as Dr. Bruchac reminds us, we need to recognize that our research may raise concerns, since museum wampum collections have been so carefully guarded, so poorly understood, and so hotly contested. She notes: “We are shining light into some dark corners of museological collections and recovering some provenance data that has been long missing. We have discovered evidence of Indigenous wampum-making techniques and messaging that both transcend and incorporate European materials. We expect to encounter contested Indigenous patrimony, and hope that we can encourage productive conversations about what each wampum belt has to tell us, and which Indigenous communities these belts are linked to.” All of us hope that our new museum colleagues will be as excited as we are that this restorative approach to research might hold the potential to solve some old mysteries, and heal some old wounds.

Talking with the Belts at Harvard Peabody

Group picture storage rooms(From left to right: Margaret Bruchac; Patricia Capone, Museum Curator and Director of Research and Repatriation; Lise Puyo; Stephanie Mach; Susan Haskell, Curatorial Associate and Research Coordinator)

by Lise Puyo

When we entered the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, I thought looking at the belts would be a courteous visit before we can delve into the real work: rummaging the archives, looking at collectors’ correspondence and accession ledgers. When we passed the storage doors, stepping on a sticky carpet to leave our dust outside, Susan Haskell said “We don’t have much data,” and I thought I would soon be able to take off my gloves and chill out before lunch. Four hours later, we were still talking with excitement, taking notes and pictures as fast as we could.

For the time being, we cannot share our pictures of the belts and collars we paid a visit to, but we can share our impressions (and you can see the collections online).

I thought we would soon be done with looking at the objects because I trusted the pictures: I had seen those belts and collars, I knew their designs and the number of rows, I knew their inventory cards. Looking at them more closely, however, new insights began to surface. One collar was entirely woven on linen threads of a reddish brown color and a deep green color. That’s unusual! The constructions allowed us to differentiate artists, styles, and maybe regions of production, so maybe different uses as well. Whether the collar is worn or held, the ends are not tied the same. Sometimes sweat has soaked into the leather, giving this specific shine to it, indicating how often it was worn.

We are also starting to notice glass beads. Since those are in the white designs, it is hard to tell in photographs if you do not know what you are looking for. They do not shine, they are somehow greyer than the shell beads and more regular. Now, we are looking for glass beads in every belt we meet! Some of them have none, some of them have some, and some of them have an unexpectedly large number.

Group ic with Emily cropped 1024(With Emily Pierce, Curatorial Assistant and Academic Partnership)

On our second day at Harvard, Emily Pierce showed us the material from the Campbell factory, which was great for comparing the shells that beads were being made from. With the debris from the site, we were also able to reconstruct step by step how they would turn a full shell into tiny beads. We realized that they were not only making wampum on the Campbell site; they were also making long beads for breastplates and abelone ornaments.

Going forward, we are now aware of the increasing complexities of wampum manufacture. We are looking for: glass, quahog, whelk, conch beads; brain tanned leather, rawhide, sinew, hemp, linen, cotton; sweat, red ochre, and dirt (the list is still growing).

All of the above are indicative of artists, intents, and relationships.