The Distribution of Cowrie Shells in Colonial Virginia

Author(s): Barbara Heath

Year: 2013


Cowrie shells (Cypraea moneta and Cypraea annulus) have been found in historic contexts associated with African enslavement on New World sites in the Caribbean, the American South, the Middle Atlantic, and the Northeast. Historical archaeologists have come to see these tiny shells as generally indicative of African presence and as specific evidence of spirituality at the sites where they are recovered.

In this paper, I examine the role of cowrie shells in the global economies of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and focus on their geographic distribution on colonial Virginia sites. While cowries are typically associated with plantations, they also have been found in numerous urban settings. These urban contexts, some associated with the houses and warehouses of merchants, may be important clues to local engagement with the transatlantic slave trade of the late 17th and 18th centuries.

Cite this Record

The Distribution of Cowrie Shells in Colonial Virginia. Barbara Heath. Presented at Society for Historical Archaeology, Leicester, England, U.K. 2013 ( tDAR id: 428657)

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Temporal Keywords
18th Century

Spatial Coverage

min long: -129.199; min lat: 24.495 ; max long: -66.973; max lat: 49.359 ;

Individual & Institutional Roles

Contact(s): Society for Historical Archaeology

Record Identifiers

PaperId(s): 467