Articles

THE OLIVES

 

Along the coastal regions of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, from North Carolina to Texas, there exist small marine carnivores that have been given the scientific name Olivella sayana.  But today many people know them by their more common name  –  the Olives.  These small predatory marine snails, or gastropods, are creatures whose home shells average about two inches in length but have been found as long as three and one-half inches.  These mollusks live in elongated olive shaped (hence the common name) shells which, as they exist in the sea, are shiny and smooth and cylindrical marine houses, each with a short spire and a narrow aperture that extends the length of the dwellings.  There is no operculum or boney flap to cover this orifice when the gastropod retracts into its calcium carbonate structure.  These Olivella animals live in salt waters near the shore and often on shallow sand flats adjacent to inlets and can be found on the beaches while and immediately after burrowing into the sand.  This they do in order to consume their prey which normally consists of bivalves and small crustaceans that are captured with their ventral foot.  The Olivella sayana is also known as the Lettered Olive because of the dark surface markings that resemble letters in our alphabet and it is reasonably common along the Southeast marine coasts.

 

While many, if not to be sure most, modern humans would probably not consider catching and eating the mollusk residing inside the olive contoured shell armor, the prehistoric and early historic natives in the American Southeast certainly did so.  These Indians would have dug the tiny animals, living in their calcium domiciles, from the beach sand and boiled them in order to extract the little edible snail.  The left-over exterior casing would have then been simply tossed aside or made into ornamental objects used for personal adornment.   To accomplish this feat, the spire end of the shell would have been ground away by using a piece of sandstone or similar abrasive in order to produce a hole that allowed access to the slit that ran the length of this durable exoskeleton.  A small cordage or sinew would have then been passed through the shell by using this hole and the lengthy vent in order to create a necklace type embellishment or so the snail carapace could be attached to a garment.  Olivella sayana coverings, so altered by the Amerindians, have been found on ancient village sites and interment grounds all along the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines and as far inland as modern Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio and other interior locales.  Olive shells adapted for human decoration were being used by American Indians during the Early Woodland Period or circa 1,000 BC (and perhaps before that during the Archaic Period) until completely replaced by glass trade beads during the times after the European exploration began few hundred years ago.  The prehistoric natives used many types of marine and freshwater animal panoplies for jewelry type items including, but certainly not limited to, conch and whelk shells, periwinkles, marginellas, anculosa, spiny river snails and olivellas.  Some of these, like the olive, would have only required a simple modification in order to become ornaments while others would have needed major cutting and polishing in order to become shell pendants or ear pins or disk or barrel beads.  All types of ancient shell decorations have been found in the Southeast which attests to just how much the natives valued these various mollusks as food items and as body embellishments.  And none any more than the unpretentious shells that are similarly shaped to the palatable relish fruit that we modern humans like to eat -  the olives.

 

REFERENCES:

Abbott, R. Tucker and Percy A. Morris                                    1995

     SHELLS OF THE ATLANTIC & GULF COASTS & THE WEST INDIES

Dance, S. Peter                                                                        1992

     EYEWITNESS HANDBOOK OF SHELLS

Hoff, Frank & Nancy                                                                2007

     SHELL ARTIFACTS

Hothem, Lar                                                                            2007

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Orchard, William C.                                                                1975

     BEADS AND BEADWORK OF THE AMERICAN INDIANS

Ward, H. Trawick & R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr.                           1993

     INDIAN COMMUNITIES OF THE NORTH CAROLINA PIEDMONT – A.D. 1000-1700

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     BEACH BOUNTIFUL: SOUTHEAST