Jewelry and Decoration Found at Mound 34

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.

Figure 1. Copper fragments from Mound 34 examined by Chastain et al.

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.

Figure 2. Lightning whelk shell. Photograph from Florida Museum courtesy of Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

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.

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.

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.

Kozuch, Laura. “Shell Bead Crafting at Greater Cahokia.” North American Archaeologist 43, no. 1 (January 2022): 64–94.

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.

Further Readings:

Dating Mound 34

Fire Usage in Bead Making

The History of Corn’s Domestication

Understanding the history of corn’s domestication is key to the possible usages of the maize crop today. The search to understand the domestication of corn is an ongoing process, and a major challenge to the story of modern corn’s evolution was discovered as recently as 2018.

The accepted history was that maize began as the wild grain teosinte 9,000 years ago in what is now considered southern Mexico and that 6,500 years ago the grain was brought to southwest Amazon and Peru (Smithsonian Institution 2018). From these two facts it was deduced that teosinte came from Mexico, was domesticated over a span of 2,500 years and then was transported southward to stay in a similar form until its adoption by European colonists (Smithsonian Institution 2018). However, the discovery of 5,000 year old proto-corn in Mexico destroyed the linear timeline of corn’s domestication in Central America down into South America.

Figure 1. Image of teosinte plant compared to maize. Image by T. Ryan Gregory

One of the main ways to determine the evolution of maize is by finding fossil evidence of corn pollen which is typically “wind dispersed” and like all pollen grains has a “durable outer wall (exine)” (Bryant, Vaughn M. 2007). The issue with using pollen is that proving that a given grain belongs to human cultivated maize rather than a wild crop is complicated by the fact that the pollen found near a settlement could have traveled from a wild type neighboring the site. Adding in the genetic information found in phytoliths, silica “derived” from plant cells (“plant opal”), can confirm that genetic material belongs to corn evolving under human influence rather than wild teosinte (Renfrew 2018: 183).

Using the knowledge that in Mexico domestication was ongoing from 9,000 to 5,000 years ago lends to the conclusion that maize was domesticated separately at several times in different locations to have full kernels and soft kernel casings (Smithsonian Institution 2018). The distinct domesticated species of maize then “diffused” together over thousands of years to form the maize that Columbus would have encountered (Smithsonian Institution 2018). 

Figure 2. Corncobs found in mounds from Paredones and Huaca Prieta, Peru

The historical convergence of maize varieties tells a different and less static story than that of corn coming from Mexico domesticated down to the Amazon. In fact, the peoples of the southwest Amazon developed their own variety of domesticated corn earlier than what has been found in Southern Mexico (Smithsonian Institution 2018). One reason for this may be found in the fact that the modern wild teosinte of Mexico is so genetically similar to maize; perhaps there was more breeding (intentional or unintentional) of proto-corn during domestication back with wild teosinte in order to help the grain adapt to the climate. Because maize as a crop will never stop evolving, whether it be to better fit human consumption or to thrive in the changing climate, learning the history of corn through archeology is central to how corn will be in the future.

Bryant, Vaughn M. “Microscopic Evidence for the Domestication and Spread of Maize.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 50 (December 11, 2007): 19659–60.

Grobman, Alexander, Duccio Bonavia, Tom D. Dillehay, Dolores R. Piperno, José Iriarte, and Irene Holst. “Preceramic Maize from Paredones and Huaca Prieta, Peru.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. No. 5 (January 31, 2012).

Piperno, D. R., and K. V. Flannery. “The Earliest Archaeological Maize (Zea Mays L.)  from Highland Mexico: New Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Dates and  Their Implications.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 98, no. 4 (February 13, 2001): 2101–3.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson.

Smithsonian Institution. “Scientists Overhaul Corn Domestication Story With Multidisciplinary Analysis.” Accessed September 22, 2022.

Gregory, T. Ryan. “Artificial Selection and Domestication: Modern Lessons from Darwin’s Enduring Analogy.” Evolution: Education and Outreach 2, no. 1 (March 2009): 5–27.


Further Readings: 

Chapter “Archeology of Maize” 

Article on the Genetic Differences Between Teosinte and Corn