Catherine Dupont

Do not Mix up Shells with Seashells: a Concept Applied from Prehistory

Humans have been interacting with things from the oceans since Paleolithic times. Archaeological sites that include molluscs that are used both as ornamental shells and for food, show that many molluscs that are eaten are rarely recycled or made into adornments. Thus, the selection of the raw material used to make objects since prehistoric times can be regarded as a separate activity than the one involving the search of food. This dichotomy in the use of the molluscs is readable in the archaeology from prehistory to today. During the Neolithic, coastal populations favoured huge beach bivalves to make tools with some of these traded inland. Later, during the 3rd Century AD, it was fashionable for rich owners of coastal villas to decorate walls with seashells, as is also fashionable in Italy today. Under such cultural influences, during the 17th Century, certain fountains were also decorated with shells to imitate nature. Throughout history, the knowledge of the processes linked to the thanatocoenosis and to the taphonomy allows us to differentiate which shells were valued as raw materials.


Keywords: archaeology, archaeomalacology, seashell, shell, raw material.

Figure: Shells used to decorate walls of maritime villas are not species that are eaten, the example from Saint-Cast-le-Guildo (France) during the 3rd century AD (© Catherine Dupont).