Cannel Coal Beads of the Ft. Ancient Indians

During the last five hundred or so years prior to the European exploration of Eastern North America, the natives developed several distinct civilizations including one that is today called the Ft. Ancient Culture.  This large and dispersed group, centered in the Ohio River Valley, made and used triangular arrowheads, pentagonal shaped knives, small effigy pipes and unusual artifacts made of cannel coal.

Cannel coal is a terrestrial type of hydrogen sulfide rich oil shale that is technically called sapropelic coal.  The name cannel is a corruption of the word candle because it burns with a bright smoky flame like a candle.  It is a reasonably rare soft type of bituminous coal composed primarily of micrinites and the inorganic materials clay, siderite, iron sulphides and sparce quartz.  Cannel coal is found in many parts of the globe but in our country, it is natural to the contemporary states of eastern Kentucky and western Pennsylvania.  This dull black and greasy luster coal normally is located in veins no more than two feet thick at the upper and lower zones of the more common anthracite or hard coal and has been used by ancient peoples throughout the world for ornamental objects because it is soft and easily carved and does not soil the hands when being handled.

The Ft. Ancient people lived in the modern states of southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and northwestern West Virginia from about AD 1000 to AD 1650.  This group probably developed from the more ancient Hopewell Culture (100 BC to AD 500) and is named for the Ft. Ancient Site near Lebanon, Ohio. Unlike the societies of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, the Ft. Ancient groups probably lacked political centralization and elite social structures with each village being a self governed unit through election of the most competent leaders.  They did, though, build large and sometimes elaborate earthen mounds in the Ohio River region that could have been used as temple mounds as well as interments of tribal members.  And they flourished until the culture died out primarily as a result of the waves of epidemics brought forth by the European arrivals in the eastern part of our country.  But during the six hundred plus years that the Ft Ancient Culture thrived, they made, used and traded unique arrowheads, pottery and ceremonial objects including items made of cannel coal.  This black material was carved into pendants, gorgets, birdstones, boatstones and small and often strange shaped beads.  The bead category included flat washer type beads, long tube beads, round beads and especially beads that were apparently made to simulate bird and animal claws and/or teeth. The claw/teeth effigy beads are normally small being in the roughly one inch long range and each had a hole drilled so they could be suspended on a necklace or sewn onto clothing. There could have been millions of these beads made but since the cannel coal is such a soft material many of them have probably exfoliated meaning the seams or folia of the stone separated and disintegrated because of regional soil acidity and modern agricultural chemicals.  Of the beads that have survived, many are broken, again because of the softness of the coal.  All this makes one ask the question of just why did these Ft Ancient people make artificial claws/teeth?  There would have been many birds and animals available to kill and remove these horny feet structures or fangs.  Were these people so in awe of the area birds and mammals that they did not want to slay them?  Or perhaps the making of these symbolic animal appendages showed their respect and admiration for the wildlife. Or did the wearing of false animal parts give the hunter a spiritual advantage when trying to bring home dinner? As is typical with ancient Indian artifacts, the questions are many and the answers are few. These art objects have been found from New York south into North Carolina and westward into Tennessee and back north through Illinois into Michigan showing that the Ft. Ancient trade network was extensive.  Some of the villages along the rivers of western Virginia and North Carolina were perhaps important trading partners with the Ft Ancient people based on the quantity of serrated arrow points and soft black claw/teeth effigy beads found in the region but might, in fact, have been satellite settlements of the culture.  The ornaments and beads made by these people are somewhat rare in the VA/NC mountainous areas but have been found in considerable numbers in certain areas. We will probably never know if trade or territorial living conditions were the driving forces of these natives artwork to be in our mountains but we can certainly appreciate that they left behind some of the beautiful Cannel Coal Beads of the Ft. Ancient Indians.



Bickle, James                                      1999

            “Cannel Coal – A Rare Ornamental Material”, PREHISTORIC AMERICAN,

            Vol. XXXIII, No. 1

Greensmith, J. T.                                1971


Muller, Jon                                         1986


Potter, Martha                                                1968


Tatsch, J. Hugo                                   1980


Wagers, Charlie                                   1994

            “Cannel Coal Claw Pendants”, PREHISTORIC AMERICAN, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1