Native American Jewelry - Northeastern Woodlands

Northeastern Woodlands

Before European contact and at least 1500 years ago indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands produced barrel-shaped and discoidal shell beads, as well as perforated small whole shells. The earliest beads are larger when compared to later beads and those of wampum, with hand drilled holes. The use of the more slender iron drills much improved drilling.

"Wampum" is a Wampanoag word referring to the white shells of the channeled whelk shell. The term now refers to both those and the purple beads from quahog clamshells. Wampum workshops were located among the Narragansett tribe, an Algonquian people located along the southern New England coast. The Narragansett tribal bead makers were buried with wampum supplies and tools to finish work in progress in the afterlife. Wampum was highly sought as a trade good throughout the Eastern Woodlands, including the Great Lakes region.

Narragansett favored teardrop-shaped shell pendants, and the claw pendants made of purple shell were worn by Iroquois in the Hudson Valley, around the Connecticut River. The Seneca and Munsee made shell pendants with drilled columns, decorated with a circular shell called a runtee. Whelk shells were carved into bird, turtle, fish, and other shaped pendants, as well as ear spools.

Carved stone pendants in the Northeastern Woodlands date back as far as the Hopewell tradition from 1—400 CE. Bird motifs were common, ranging from the stylized heads of raptors to ducks. Carved shells and incised animal teeth, especially bear teeth, have been popular for pendants. Historically, pearls are incorporated into necklace and bear teeth have been inlaid with pearls. Seneca and other Iroquois carved small pendants with human faces, which were believed to be protective amulets, from bone, wood, and stone, including catlinite.

Iroquois artists have carved ornamental hair combs from antlers, often from moose, since 2000 BCE. The combs are topped with anthropomorphic or zoomorphic imagery. These became more elaborate after the introduction of metal knives from Europe in the late 16th and 17th centuries.

In the Northeast Woodlands and Great Lakes regions, rectangular gorgets have been carved from slate and other stones, dating back to the late archaic period.

Copper was worked in precontact times, but Europeans introduced silversmithing to the northeast in the mid-17th century. Today several Iroquois silversmiths are active. German silver is more popular among Great Lakes silversmiths.

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