Articles

THE MARGIN SHELL BEADS

Throughout the more temperate zones in the oceans and seas of our world, there live small gastropods in the Marginellidae family.  In the Southeast of North America, the prehistoric native people, who lived near the saltwater coastal regions, gathered these marine snails for nourishment.  These aborigines also altered the calcareous homes of these critters for use as bodily decorations – they used them to make the unique margin shell beads.

These tiny mollusks have existed in the submerged briny tidal flats and shallow oceanic grass beds, on the margins of the seas (thus their name Marginella) for possibly millions of years. They likely always have been predatory and carnivorous little soft animals that were able to exist because of the somewhat pear shaped shell that they constructed as protection from other bigger and more aggressive sea creatures.  But they were not able to hide from man by retracting inside their univalve places of residence.  As early as maybe 1500 BC and continuing until probably after AD 1700, the American Indians collected the shells containing these minute snails and boiled them for food.  The small and pulpy animals with the bifurcated heads were possibly made into stews along with assorted plants including the staple corn.  The tiny beasties, known as the Common Atlantic Marginella or Prununa spicnum, were, and still are, found in abundance in estuaries along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina southward to Florida and then further south and west in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to Texas and Mexico.  This is known because many thousands of the discarded shells have been found thorough out the marine bordering states, as well as oceanic islands, and then inland for hundreds of miles.  Since the ocean did not carry these shells very far from the seacoast, humans must have accomplished this task.

The Common Atlantic Marginella snails secrete a glandular substance, composed mostly of carbonate of lime.  This hardens into the consistency of marble thus giving each of the little animals a very durable and secure home in the roughly one half inch long size range.  These dwarf hardened lodgings are basically conical shaped with short spires though the sizes and exact shapes do vary somewhat.  The shells twist clockwise around a central core or columella in the fashion of a spiral staircase. Each complete turn is known as a whorl and this southeast maginella will always have three or four whorls. The shell surface of the recently captured Common Atlantic Marginella is glossy and porcelaneous in cream to yellow to grayish-tan colors while the outer lip is white with brown spots. The shell lips around the long and narrow apertures are thickened and denticulate meaning having tooth-like projections but they never have operculums or boney flaps covering these openings.

The ancient natives would have ground away the shell spire so a small thong or string could be passed through the shell to make necklaces or bracelets.  Or they would have altered the shells so as to sew them onto their clothing.  For that, a small hole would have been drilled on the shoulder of the whorl near the canal opening of the univalve and just a fraction of an inch below the apex or spire.  By placing this hole near the natural slit in the shell, the largest unmarred surface area was exposed after the drilled side was sewn onto a garment.  These crafts were apparently done with regularity since tens of thousands of these tiny decorative items, made and used by the Indians, have been found throughout the eastern half of our country.  As found today, these ancient beads are no longer bright and shiny but, instead, are dull and brown to grey in color due to being in the soil for many years.  A museum in England has in its collection, a robe that was supposedly once owned by Powhatan, the “King of Virginia”, in the early sixteenth century AD.   This cloak is composed of four sewn together tanned deer skins that have thousands of marginella shell beads attached onto it in the shapes of circles, animals and a human.  But all good things eventually come to an end.  After about AD 1600 the invading Europeans brought with them, and began trading to the natives for furs, deer skins and land, millions of glass and brass beads.  This eliminated the Indians need and desire for these small shell bangles.  Today, however, many people walk the southeastern beaches and pick up and collect these diminutive univalves and use them for the same purposes as did the Indians – that being sewn onto garments and strung as necklaces.  Apparently twenty-first century man is taken with, just as was his prehistoric native predecessors, the beautiful little margin shell beads.

 

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