Mussel shell beads on a string
Mussel Shell Beads

Ribbed mussels, known as tshecomah, were abundant in the brackish estuarine marshes around Jamestown. It appears that rawrenock (mussel shell beads) were made by Indian women living and working at James Fort. Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists have recovered evidence of each step of the bead making process, including over 5,000 of the beads themselves.

Once harvested, the shells were broken into small pieces (called perew) and formed into semi-round disks. The hole in the center was made using a stone drill (called a mananst). The grinding action reduced breakage, which was essential because shell is very prone to shatter. The drilled beads were then strung and abraded on a rock until they were approximately the same size and shape.

Shell is an organic material, so the beads themselves rarely survive in archaeological contexts. The evidence that survived in James Fort’s first well provides a unique perspective of the Virginia Indian economy. Beads were also symbolic items to exchange in a Powhatan marriage ceremony. Is this evidence that the Powhatan formally recognized the unions of English men and Algonquian women? In 1612, the Spanish ambassador to London informed his king that 40 or 50 Jamestown colonists had married Virginia Indians, but we do not know if such “marriages” were legally recognized by English officials or by the Powhatan power structure. The most famous union was between Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan’s daughter, and settler John Rolfe.

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