Mississippian-Era Jewelry: A Piece in the Puzzle of Pre-Columbian American Culture

Throughout history, jewelry and other decorative items have been unquestionably important symbols of culture, whether it be to showcase wealth, social status, or religious affiliation. For years, archaeologists have discovered jewelry dating back to the pre-Columbian era of North America, noting a few prominent materials: stone, shell, bone, and clay. Cahokia, as well as other Native American societies, commonly manufactured mass amounts of beads from such materials, giving archaeologists a glimpse into everyday productivity within pre-Columbian civilizations in North America. 

The city of Cahokia’s peak influence occurred roughly around 1100 AD, and it is characterized as the largest city Pre-columbian city in North America. Not only is it deemed so influential because of its sheer size, but largely due to its vast cultural outreach as well (Thomas and Perkins 2016). Upon the discovery and excavation of the Cahokian mounds, archaeologists discovered a number of burials, some of which were surrounded by thousands of shell beads (Figure 1). One bead material, in particular, lightning whelk shells, are thought to have symbolized many significant ideas in Cahokian culture. Due to their unique spiral shape, lightning whelk shells are thought to have symbolized the cycles of life and death, as well as served as a symbol of wealth, seeing as they were harder to obtain (Kozuch 2021). In addition to the symbolic importance of the shells, even their general quantitative discovery proved important to archeologists because it meant there was some form of a mass manufacturing system in Cahokia. While this argument is, for the most part, widely accepted, whether or not the beads were the result of specialized full-time labor or part-time domestic activities is still up for debate (Kozuch 2021). 

Figure 1: Marine shell beads discovered in the mounds of Cahokia. Retrieved from Illinois State Museum.

While Cahokian beaded jewelry mainly consisted of marine shell materials, others utilized stone and bone materials due to their more inland geography. Originally found in what is now Illinois, archaeologists discovered Mississippian-era stone beads, made from grinding and drilling rock with stone tools until the bead reaches its desired shape (Illinois State Museum 2000). Similarly to the manufacturing process of stone, necklaces made from hollowed bird bones were discovered at the Spiro Mounds located in Eastern Oklahoma. The specific necklace depicted below was a total of 34 inches in length and is estimated to be from between 900 A.D. and 1450 A.D. (Sanderson 2021). While many aspects of American culture have changed following the Mississippian Era, it is clear that the decorative and adorning qualities of jewelry have remained entirely relevant throughout society today.

Figure 2: Necklace made from hollowed bird bone discovered at the Spiro Mounds in Eastern Oklahoma. Retrieved from Museum of Native American History.


Kozuch, Laura. 2021. “Cahokia’s Mound 72 Shell Artifacts.” Southeastern Archaeology 40 (no.1): 33–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/0734578x.2021.1873057. Accessed 21 November 2022.

“Mississippian Economy Clothing.” Illinois State Museum, 2000. https://www.museum.state.il.us/muslink/nat_amer/pre/htmls/m_clothing.html. 

Sanderson, Jazlyn. 28 January 2021. “Spiro Mounds Bone Bead Necklace.” Museum of Native American History. https://www.monah.org/artifact-blog/2020/10/31/spiro-mounds-bone-bead-necklace. Accessed 21 November 2022.

Thomas, Jonathan, and Tyler Perkins. 19 April 2016. “Shell Bead Production at Cahokia.” the Digital Archaeological Record  https://core.tdar.org/document/404597/shell-bead-production-at-cahokia. Accessed 21 November 2022.

Additional Resources: 

  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277638682_Shell_Symbolism_in_Pre-Columbian_North_America 
  2. https://www.academia.edu/24646883/Bead_Production_and_Cultural_Complexity_at_Cahokia 
  3. https://www.academia.edu/84217720/Crafting_shell_beads_at_East_St_Louis_and_Greater_Cahokia 

The Discovery of the Rosetta Stone: The Key To Deciphering Ancient Egyptian Symbols

Napoleon Bonaparte is a man who is known for being many things: a political leader in the French Revolution, a prominent military figure, but also, less knowingly, indirectly discovered the first Egyptian Hieroglyphs. In 1799, during his Egypt campaign, a group of Napoleon’s army engineers found a slab of stone inscribed with the same message three times, repeated in different languages (Figure 1). The stone’s inscription consisted of Demotic, similar to hieroglyphs but more casual; hieroglyphs, which were mainly used by priests and in formal settings; and ancient greek. Due to the stone containing ancient greek, something which scientists and archaeologists could already understand, the Rosetta Stone became a crucial component in deciphering ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs (The British Museum 2017).

Figure 1: A reconstructed image of what the entire Rosetta Stone is believed to have looked like. Retrieved from britishmuseum.org

In addition to its clues regarding human literacy, the Rosetta stone aided archaeologists in the significance of symbols and what they have been used for throughout human history. In September of 1822, Jean-François Champollion expressed his achievements in translating the Rosetta Stone, announcing the different hieroglyphs used to identify non-Egyptian rulers. This discovery, along with the fact that alphabetic symbols were used for both Egyptian and foreign names, was vital in the process of being able to read the stone entirely (Scalf n.d.). 


Due to the work of Jean-François Champollion, the stone was eventually deciphered and deemed a decree made by a royal council of priests. The decree is part of a succession of sentiments confirming the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V in 196 BC, the first anniversary of his coronation (Scalf n.d.). According to the stone’s inscription, it was meant to be placed in every temple of significance across Egypt (Figure 2). With the knowledge of these sentiments, the stone can be sorted into two different archaeological categories of symbols: establishment of place and regulation of human relations with higher powers (The British Museum 2017). As the stone was meant to be installed inside temples, it provides evidence of the symbolic value the stone holds. In addition to this, rather than solely marking a town or community center, the stone specifically marks places of religious importance, showing its connection to a higher ruling power, specifically royal cults (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 260). 

Figure 2: An alphabetic translation drafted by Jean-François Champollion. Retrieved from britishmuseum.org

In a society, written symbols are used by individuals to regulate and communicate with people, describe surroundings, organize the whole of society, and pass on accumulated knowledge (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 273). The significance of the Rosetta Stone revolves around language and, therefore, cognitive ability. Symbols of depiction throughout history provide us with one of our most clear understandings of an individual’s or society’s cognition during pre-literate periods (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 272). In biology, a human’s ability to use literary symbols is what cognitively separates us from other species, and this discovery significantly bettered our knowledge regarding the origins of more complex forms of language and literary symbols.










“Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Rosetta Stone.” The British Museum. Accessed October 1, 2022. https://www.britishmuseum.org/blog/everything-you-ever-wanted-know-about-rosetta-stone.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2018: 252-275. 

Scalf, Foy. “The Rosetta Stone: Unlocking the Ancient Egyptian Language.” ARCE. Accessed October 1, 2022. https://www.arce.org/resource/rosetta-stone-unlocking-ancient-egyptian-language.