Archaeology Terms

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Shell – Drilled

Worked shell Freshwater mussel shells found at archaeological sites in southwest Wisconsin are often quite fragile. This shell, from near the top of a feature at a late precontact Oneota site in Onalaska, was removed along with surrounding soil to support it and only cleaned on top so it wouldn’t crumble into powder. It was identified as a possible Wabash pigtoe (Fusconaia flava) mussel. One complete and one partial circular hole had been drilled through the shell. Drilled shells are often associated with the historic pearl button industry, but it seems more likely that this one dates to the precontact Oneota occupation. Although drilled shells have been found in nearby La Crosse, where there was a pearl button factory, none have been found to date in Onalaska. The feature where the shell was found did not look disturbed, and no historic artifacts were found in it. This shell also looks smaller than the ones usually used in the button industry. If the shell was drilled for beads in precontact times, a bead blank probably would have been cut out by rotating a hollow cane with a bow drill and placing sand at the end of the cane to grind through the shell, leaving a symmetrical hole.