Cowrie Shell

Cowrie shell found at Monticello

Monticello's archaeological collection contains hundreds of thousands of artifacts that systematically document the changing lifeways of Monticello's residents. Among the most intriguing objects in the collection is a money cowrie shell[1] found in excavations along Mulberry Row, the street of slave houses and craft shops adjacent to Jefferson's mansion. The shell attests to the persistence of African cultural traditions at Monticello in the late 18th century.

Money cowries (Cypraea moneta) are small snail-like creatures that live in the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Their beautiful shells have been featured in ritual practices and incorporated into clothing and jewelry for thousands of years in African and South Asian cultures. Symbolically they were often associated with notions of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth. For centuries before European expansion in the 1500's, cowries were also used as a form of currency in some areas - hence the name "money cowrie." With the advent of the slave trade to the New World, cowries were among the items that Europeans exchanged with coastal West African groups for slaves. By the early 18th century, hundreds of thousands of pounds of cowrie shells were being exported from South Asia to Europe, often as "packing peanuts" in the China trade, and then re-exported from Europe to Africa. Evidence for their use in the slave trade comes from Yorktown, an important 18th-century Virginia port, where archaeologists recently found hundreds of cowries in a trash dump dating to about 1760. The dump was on the property of Phillip Lightfoot II, a merchant who was heavily involved in slave importation.

Unlike the many unmodified cowries in the Yorktown dump, the single Monticello cowrie appears to have been valued for reasons other than its potential monetary worth. The shell was found during the excavation of a subfloor pit or storage cellar beneath a building that Jefferson called 'the Negro Quarter.' The Negro Quarter was a slave house occupied from the early 1770's to the mid 1790's. A hole made in the back of the shell and two grooves, caused by the abrasions of a thread that passed through it, indicate that the shell was worn as jewelry or attached to clothing. It was probably transported to Virginia as adornment on clothing of a newly-enslaved African.

While we cannot be sure of the precise significance the Monticello cowrie shell had for the person who wore it at Monticello during the late 18th century, today it provides tangible evidence that enslaved people carried some part of their African lives and identity with them across the Atlantic and onto the plantations of southeastern America.

References

  1. This article is based on Monticello Archaeology Department, Monticello Research Report, August 2003.

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Discussion

says

This cowrie shell demonstrates a lot about why I love studying material culture. A shell from a snail-like creature native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans ends up in the storage cellar of a slave quarter on the estate of the nation's first Secretary of State. Quite a form of international diplomacy! South Asians and Africans considered cowrie shells beautiful objects of personal adornment, yet they were also used as "packing peanuts" for imported porcelain from China. European slave traders bought slaves using cowrie shells as currency. And this example, discovered during an archeological dig at Monticello, has marks indicating its owner wore it as jewelry. Objects have biographies; and while we will never know exactly how this cowrie shell ended up at Monticello, we can presume that its path twisted and turned, with individuals assigning the shell value and meaning at every step of its journey.

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