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Archaeological Evidence for Collecting Empty Shells Along the French Atlantic Coast: An Important Activity for Coastal Populations

Dupont, Catherine
Journal of ethnobiology 2019 v.39 no.2 pp. 223-239
archaeology, beaches, children, coasts, molluscs, people, France
This article discusses the importance of empty shells used as artifacts and their differences with mollusks collected for subsistence by means of three French archaeological examples. The aim is to help archaeologists consider all shells as potential artifacts. The first example considers shell ornaments of hunter-gatherer populations who lived along the Atlantic coast during the sixth millennium BC. The second example focuses on a “treasure box” belonging to a child buried between the third and fourth centuries AD. The third examines a decoration style dating from the third century AD, which consisted of decorating the walls of opulent villas with shells. The archaeomalacofaunal analysis of these examples of shell use entails a description of the physical characteristics of the chosen shells. It shows that the latter were carefully selected, but not necessarily modified before being used. It is clear that the shells were intended to be exposed, as prehistoric ornaments or elements of mural decoration. The shells that were selected differ from those selected for consumption. This is interesting, as it shows a marked division between the economic contribution of marine mollusks and the symbolic value bestowed upon the shell. One shared aspect of the three cases is that shells of deep water species were gathered from high water marks on beaches. People rarely encountered these mollusks alive, which may have held additional cultural meaning. Ultimate artifact function of shells may, thus, relate closely to activities of shell selection from prehistoric beaches.