Digging for Shells: Recovering Indigenous Wampum Technologies in Museum Collections

Author(s): Margaret Bruchac

Year: 2017


During the salvage anthropology era, more than 400 wampum belts (woven with whelk and quahog shell beads) were removed from the hands of Native North American keepers and accessioned into museum collections. Despite the existence of a complex system of wampum diplomacy and ritual, museums often represented these belts as almost indecipherable colonial relics. The "Wampum Trail" research team (with assistance from Native knowledge-bearers and ethnographic curators) seeks to reconnect these objects with Indigenous nations, using a range of restorative methods: archival research, object cartography, material analysis, and ethnographic interviews. Close visual studies of historic belts have revealed some heretofore unexamined physical details: anomalous beads (stone, bone, clay, glass, etc.); regional patterns of twining warp and weft; evidence of repair and re-use of components; and clear distinctions among historical and modern methods of bead manufacture and belt construction. In the past, antiquarians were so intently focused on the exotic, monetary and artistic value of wampum that they overlooked details that bespeak savvy Indigenous technologies. In the present, recovery of these details resolves questions of cultural continuity, in part, by providing evidence of discernable patterns of Indigenous curation in routine repairs, re-purposing, and even re-construction of wampum belts over time.

Cite this Record

Digging for Shells: Recovering Indigenous Wampum Technologies in Museum Collections. Margaret Bruchac. Presented at The 81st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver, British Columbia. 2017 ( tDAR id: 431460)


Indigenous Museum Wampum

Geographic Keywords
North America - Northeast

Spatial Coverage

min long: -80.815; min lat: 39.3 ; max long: -66.753; max lat: 47.398 ;

Record Identifiers

Abstract Id(s): 16936