Cataloguing cowries: a standardised strategy to record six key species of cowrie shell from the West African archaeological record

Annalisa Christie, Alastair Grant, Anne Haour

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Two species of cowrie shell, Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus 1758) and Monetaria annulus (Linnaeus 1758), occur repeatedly in archaeological contexts across West Africa. Despite their archaeological and ethnographic importance, these shells remain poorly and inconsistently reported in the archaeological literature. The absence of standardised data on species composition, size and condition of cowrie assemblages, and whether and how the shells were modified, make it difficult to examine their significance in a regional and/or chronological framework. To address this, we propose a standardisation of the criteria and coding used to systematically record cowrie assemblages – in particular species, size, condition and state of modification. We aim to enable non-shell specialists within the wider archaeological community to securely identify intact or intact but modified specimens of M. annulus and M. moneta, showing how these can be distinguished from four cowries native to West Africa (specifically Luria lurida (Linnaeus 1758), Zonaria zonaria (Gmelin 1791), Zonaria sanguinolenta (Gmelin 1791) and Trona stercoraria (Linnaeus 1758)) that occur in assemblages from West African sites. We demonstrate how accurate species identification and the assessment of proportions of different sizes of shells within suitably large assemblages can provide insight into their provenance, and through this enhance our appreciation of the exchange networks within which these shells moved. We also identify five different strategies documented in the archaeological record that were used to modify cowries, detailing how these can be differentiated and classified. The aim here is to suggest a recording strategy that will enable comparisons of the use and value of cowries in West Africa and more widely.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)479–504
Number of pages26
JournalAfrican Archaeological Review
Issue number4
Early online date3 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019

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