The prehistoric American Indians made many types of ornaments and tools from naturally found materials in their environment.  During the Woodland and Mississippian Periods (1000 BC to AD 1500), they especially used freshwater and marine mollusk shells for beads and usually these personal embellishments followed simple rules of manufactured shapes.  Some few, though, were made in unusual shapes such as these bizarre shell funnel beads.

The natives in the Southeast had access to many of the estimated 70,000 worldwide species of mollusks which they used for food and their shells for artfully creating many objects.  The food items would have been the invertebrates found living in freshwater mussel and snail shells as well as marine organisms such as whelk and conch.  After these people extracted the nutriments, they would have then began altering the left over calcareous exoskeletons into individualized ornaments as well as utilitarian items such as bowls, cups, hoes and scrapers.   These soft bodied water living animals create their calcium carbonate shell homes as durable protection from predators.  The mollusk’s blood is rich in a liquid form of calcium while the animal’s body has an outer organ called the mantle that steadily concentrates this calcium and deposits it in sheets of varying thicknesses to form their chalky carapaces.   Marine as well as freshwater gastropod shells are indeed durable and very hard and tough.  An artisan today, even with electrical and battery powered tools, would probably not have an easy time cutting and shaping these animal shells.  And hundreds of years ago, the prehistoric natives certainly did not have modern power tools – only their will to succeed with their simple but sharp chipped stone drills, burins and knives.  With the whelk or conch casings, the craftsman would have slowly and painstakingly cut and removed the inner central core or columella from the animals protective shell and would have subsequently begun cutting this interior nucleus into bead size pieces or perhaps simply left the structure full size and sharpened the ends for use as an awl or chisel.  The small pieces of severed gastropod interior structure would have then been further shaped using sandstone or other abrasive rock before carefully drilling a hole in order to make a usable bead.   The ancient artisan would have also used the outer portion of the shell, called the whorl, for beads as well as pendant-like ornaments.

Many of the beads that were made from mollusk shells are more or less round in shape in at least one dimension.  Certain ones are spherical and are called ball beads while some are cylindrical and elongated and are known as tube beads.  Still others are barrel shaped and go by that name.  More distinct shapes are like modern metal washers and are called disk beads.  Even more rare ones are flat, thin, narrow and long and are known as rectangular beads.  Those basic shapes probably covered most of the beads that were manufactured from marine conch and whelk shells.  As to sizes, the ball beads vary from as small as about a ¼ inch to over an inch in diameter.   Tube and barrel beads may be only a half inch or so to several inches long and up to about an inch in diameter.  Disk or washer type beads can be almost as tiny as pin heads up to an inch or so in diameter and ¼ inch thick while the rectangular beads may be ½ inch or more in width and several inches long.  The preponderance of oceanic carapace beads will fit into the shape and size categories as described above – but not all. 

In the 1960’s, construction was begun on a piece of land in Cabarrus County, NC alongside Coldwater Creek, in order to build an airplane landing strip.  This particular parcel was also a site of an ancient Indian village that would have been totally demolished if not for the salvage excavations of some local amateur archaeologists.  The prehistoric natives had occupied this village for a period from about AD 1000 to maybe AD 1500 and they left artifacts behind that the preservationists were able to recover before the earth moving equipment completely destroyed all traces of the early town and the inhabitants.  The rescuers managed to save such objects as pipes, pottery, celts, arrow points, shell gorgets and beads before the town obliteration was completed.  Most of the shell beads were the usual (but still rare) globular and cylindrical drilled ornaments that had been strung and worn around the neck and arms and legs or sewn to the clothing of the prehistoric village residents.  But along with the more customary shapes, the artifact saviors found some very odd beads that were made from the shoulders or spires of marine whelk and conch shells.  The aborigines would have made a cut completely encircling the shell in order to remove this conical shaped top portion.  After abrading and polishing, a single hole was drilled in the center of each bead which, at that point, would have looked like a short and wide funnel.  This writer has been able to find little definitive published information concerning just what these shell artifacts were made to represent.  The few descriptions in print refer to the larger type as pendants but no publicized information concerning the smaller sized ones has been found.  Other collectors, contacted by this writer, believe that the prehistoric natives had no use for a funnel as we use them today; so the belief is that these odd shell artifacts were indeed beads or pendants. A problem with the pendant theory is that the recognized medallions of the type have one or two suspension holes near an edge so the artifact could have been easily strung and suspended from a person’s neck. Some artifacts, that are called pendants, are indeed made from the top conical portion of conch/whelk shells and some do have a small drilled hole in the center along with one or more edge suspension holes, but none of the Cabarrus County shell cones have the drilled border hole(s) – so they were probably not worn as pendants. They could have been used as ear ornaments though not one of the salvagers noted that any of the shell artifacts were found alongside ancient burial skulls during the archaeological reclamation.  Early Europeans did note many Indians wearing large circular ear ornaments attached to their ears with long shell pins through a hole in the ornament and into the ear lobes but the centered holes in these artifacts are far too small for that purpose.  Of the roughly circular shell artifacts recovered at the site, they seem to fit into two sizes.  The larger ones are about three inches in diameter and 1 ½ inches deep to the center of the cone while the smaller ones average almost an inch in breadth and about 3/8 inch deep.  One could almost envision the larger sizes being used as a funnel type tool in order to strain or filter some type of liquid because of the size and the tiny center hole but the smaller ones could have only held a few drops of any fluid material.  If they were used as ornamental objects other than ear decoration, how were they used?  Were they strung on vine or sinew as necklaces/bracelets or sewn onto clothing?   Or maybe they were arranged as breastplates on the chest of a living or a deceased village member.   Perhaps the larger ones were suspended through the center hole and worn as pendants.  The smaller beads, as shown in the attached photo, were found in conjunction with small barrel beads and because of that, the belief is that they were strung together and worn as a necklace.  Until someone with more knowledge about such unusual artifacts as these comes along, this writer will continue to believe their usage was as bead type ornaments and will continue to call them the bizarre shell funnel beads.



Benthall, Joseph L.                                                              1969



Brain, Jeffery P & Phillip Phillips                                      1996


Dickens, Roy S., H. Trawick Ward & R. P. Stephen Davis           1987


Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman                         1957


Griffin, James B.,  Editor                                                     1952


Huff, Frank & Nancy Huff                                                    2007


Krebs, W. Phillip                                                                  1986


Tucker, Abbott R. & S. Peter Dance                                                1982