Prehistoric Craftsmen Used Mussel Shells Extensively
Prehistoric shell ornaments made with freshwater mother-of-pearl. Image credits Jérôme Thomas / University of Burgundy-Franche-Comté.
An international research team says that freshwater mussel shells were all the rage in Europe between 4200 and 3800 BC. The findings are based on an analysis of proteins extracted from prehistoric shell ornaments found on the continent. Despite being found at extremely far-off locations in Denmark, Romania, and Germany, the artifacts used in this study were all remarkably similar in look, the authors note — and were all made using the mother-of-pearl of freshwater mussels.
Shell we make some jewelry?
“We were surprised to discover that the ornaments were all made from freshwater mussels because it implies that this material was highly regarded by prehistoric craftsmen, wherever they were in Europe and whatever cultural group they belonged to,” says senior author Dr Beatrice Demarchi, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and the University of Turin, Italy.
“Our study suggests the existence of a European-wide cross-cultural tradition for the manufacture of these double-buttons.”
The ornaments the team looked at (known as “double-buttons”) were manufactured between 4200 and 3800 BC. They were generally found in coastal regions, which isn’t very surprising, but they were even found in those areas where plenty of other shells would have been available — which is quite surprising.
Double-buttons were likely applied to leather garments such as armbands or belts through pressing, the team notes. This implies that they were more of a stylish accessory rather than a practical one, a way to show off status or wealth through clothing. As such, archeologists rarely considered freshwater mollusks as a potential source of materials for these buttons in prehistory. They were, simply put, too local and easy to acquire to be considered flashy.
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