October 16, 2015: Abalone Shell Pendant
One way in which archaeologists come to understand the material culture they encounter is to make it for themselves! This is part of a field called experimental archaeology, in which researchers attempt to test hypotheses about ancient technologies through replication of artifacts or processes involved with their manufacture or use. This approach to archaeology comes in many forms and scales, from testing to see if a hypothesized method for transporting the granite blocks of Stonehenge is plausible, to measuring caloric expenditure in transporting various food resources in a burden basket which could lead to understanding foraging decisions. Experimental archaeology doesn’t tell us with certainty exactly what people did in the past, but it does help develop and refine models that help us understand past behavior.
This abalone shell pendant was made by Jeff Ferguson, a former intern of the Museum, and serves as a useful teaching tool on California shell manufacture and use. The shells from marine snails such as Olivella and Dentalium, as well as clamshells, were used to make beads that were used as currency, adornment, and decoration for basketry. Shell beads were symbols of wealth in Native California, and they were traded along vast networks reaching into the Great Basin. Abalone, which were a common food of coastal groups, however, were not fashioned into small beads, but were often used to make pendants. These pendants required specific technologies to create the eyehole in which it would be attached as a decorative item. Drills of sharp stone implements were a common technology used in such production and are often used by experimental archaeologists when recreating the process. This piece of technology comes in many forms but through experimental archaeology one can infer the most precise method in producing pendants of such fine workmanship.
Experimental tool manufacture workshops periodically occur in the UCD Anthropology Department hosted by our graduate students. While you may not leave after a couple hours with something of this quality, surely you'll leave with a great appreciation for and understanding of the work that went into making something like this! Keep on the lookout for upcoming workshops.