Elizabeth Moore

A Lab Full of Shells

In the archaeology lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH), I am continuing work on an assemblage from a site that I posted about for Day of Archaeology 2011 (http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/a-quiet-day-at-the-lab/), the Barton Village site. Located in western Maryland on the Potomac River, this multicomponent village site has been the subject of excavations for over twenty years by Dr. Bob Wall at the Towson University. The Barton site has yielded a large quantity of faunal remains – the boxes of bones fill an entire industrial shelving unit. When working with an assemblage this large, I generally sort, identify, photograph and capture data one bag at a time, with each bag from a separate provenience. This site has some interesting materials though that are worth removing from the rest and looking at separately. Specifically, this site has a fairly large number of mollusks.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

When a site has a lot of mollusks, I find it useful to pull out all of them and identify them all at once. When working with a lot of the same thing, I find my identifications are more accurate and consistent if I do a lot at once instead of one this week, two next week, and so on. It also reduces the number of times I have to pull out specimens from the reference collection and is more efficient with my time.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

In this photo you can see some reference material on the back of the counter and the archaeological specimens toward the front. This is a small portion of the mollusk reference material at VMNH. We have over 50 species of bivalves just from Virginia in our collection.

The mollusks from the Barton site make an interesting sample. So far we have identified almost 20 species of bivalves and gastropods – mussels and snails.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

The stack of plastic boxes in the photo is just the shells that have been sorted and identified and rehoused so they don’t get crushed. There is another entire box of shells yet to be identified. One of the specimens we have identified is from the genus Marginella, a sea snail whose closest source would be from the Atlantic coast almost 150 miles to the east. Marginella were frequently traded by Native American tribes in the east and can be found at many sites. The rest of the specimens identified so far are freshwater species and were probably gathered locally for eating or for bead and tool making. Two of the larger specimens of freshwater mussel were modified into scrapers with serrated edges. One of the species identified was thought to have been introduced to the Potomac in the late 19th century, but its context here is 17th century. I’m withholding the name here because while I have had the identification reviewed and confirmed, the publication extending the range of this species is not yet out.

If you want to learn more about eastern mollusks, you can find some great information, identification keys, and manuals at http://naturalsciences.org/research-collections/research-specialties/invertebrates/arthur-bogan.