Copper and shells were both used decoratively by the Cahokians, and recent research at Mound 34 has brought to light the methods behind the craftsmanship. Understanding the artistry and symbolism of jewelry allows for a better appreciation of Cahokian culture.
Mound 34 dates to the Moorhead phase (1200 AD to 1300 AD) (Baka 2019). The area around Mound 34 is thought to be the site of the earliest copper workshops in North America (St. Louis Public Radio 2014). Copper used at Cahokia was brought from the Southeastern and Great Lakes with a small portion being glacial litter (Chastain, Matthew L 2011). Two copper workshops that predate the mound’s construction were found north of the mound. Of the features that were filled in to create the mound’s foundation, a “deposit of 7 shells, possibly once in a container or wrapped up together” was also found (Cahokia Mounds 2015). One of the shells was a local mussel species and the rest were fragments of lightning and hawk wing whelk shells (Cahokia Mounds 2015). Like copper, certain shells like whelk would have conveyed status through the implicated connection to continent-wide trade. Trade for shells was widespread with lightning whelks coming from the Gulf of Mexico as well as Florida.
Copper jewelry was made by flattening nuggets into sheets through a process of alternating heating (annealing the metal) to 700–800 °C and hammering the metal (Chastain, Matthew L 2011). Even forming the initial sheet that would subsequently be embossed to create designs took great skill and effort. Certain copper ear ornaments, “maskettes,” represented the Long-Nosed God and may have symbolized the adoption of immigrants into Cahokia (Pauketat 2010, 146). Copper jewelry served not only as a symbol but also as ritual and cultural objects.
Lightning whelk jewelry was also deeply symbolic, referencing death with the shell’s spiral acting as a “metaphor for the journey of the deceased soul” (Baka 2019). Shells were used because of their subterranean origin which allowed for a more profound connection to the realm of the dead than the world above water could (Baka 2019). Shell beads appear in many of the mounds at Cahokia most notably in the beaded burial at Mound 72 (Kozuch 2022). Unlike Mound 72, no evidence of materials holding the beads together is present, but the lack of beaded objects is probably due to the fire that occurred on top of Mound 34. Mound 34 was used for ritual ceremonies, and the beads found in the mound were likely part of ritual clothing that was stored within the mound at the time of the fire (Baka 2019). Shell beads were usually made of lightning whelk shells from the Gulf of Mexico, and Cahokia had its own artisans specially devoted to bead making (Kozuch 2022).
For those with status, copper and whelk shell decoration was an important part of ritual and identity at Cahokia, and the intricate techniques behind the art give context to how this form of decoration came to be preserved by the archeological record.
Baka, Abby S. “Shell Beads at Cahokia, Mound 34” 31 (2019): 31.
Cahokia Mounds Museum Society. “Mound 34,” October 22, 2015. https://cahokiamounds.org/mound/mound-34/.
Chastain, Matthew L., Chastain et al., “Metallurgical Analysis of Copper Artifacts from Cahokia.”C. Deymier-Black, John E. Kelly, James A. Brown, and David C. Dunand. “Metallurgical Analysis of Copper Artifacts from Cahokia.” Journal of Archaeological Science 38, no. 7 (July 2011): 1727–36. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2011.03.004.
Florida Museum RANDELL RESEARCH CENTER. “A Very Special Seashell: Loved by Florida Tourists, Used for Tools by the Calusa, and Sacred to Many Indian People of the Southeastern U.S.,” September 7, 2016. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/rrc/blog/a-very-special-seashell/.
Kozuch, Laura. “Shell Bead Crafting at Greater Cahokia.” North American Archaeologist 43, no. 1 (January 2022): 64–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/01976931211048205.
Pauketat, Timothy R. 2010. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. Illustrated edition. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
St. Louis Public Radio. “Cahokia Mounds Hosted Only Copper Works In North America,” August 1, 2014. https://news.stlpublicradio.org/arts/2014-08-01/cahokia-mounds-hosted-only-copper-works-in-north-america.
Was the jewelry produced in Cahokia, which is quite far inland? Where were the shells that were used for jewelry from, and how did they reach Cahokia?