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Robert O. Gibson

This article originally appeared as a contribution in "Analyses of South-Central Californian Shell Artifacts: Studies from Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara Counties." Coyote Press Archives of California Prehistory 23:65-76, 1968.


As part of an archaeological mitigation program for CA-SLO-877 in central coastal San Luis Obispo County, Archaeological Consulting, of Salinas, California, submitted a sample of 1,709 shell artifacts (including 1,351 unmodified Olivella shells, 187 shell beads, and 171 fragments of broken Olivella shell) for shell bead analysis.

This study utilizes the bead classification system and temporal designations established for the Chumash nation in the Santa Barbara Channel region (C. King 1981). Site CA-SLO-877 is in territory historically occupied by Obispeño Chumash (Gibson 1983a).

The various bead types are briefly described below, along with preliminary interpretations of their temporal placement within the Chumash sequence and some of their socio-political and economic implications (Binford 1962; King 1981). When possible the Central California bead type designations are also given (Bennyhoff and Fredrickson 1967).

Bead Types from CA-SLO-877

Data on the shell bead types from CA-SLO-877 appear in the following sections.

Spire-Removed Olivella Beads, Types A1a, A1b, and A1c

This type of bead consists of various sized Olivella biplicata shells that have been modified at their spire end by grinding or chipping the spire away in a manner generally perpendicular to the long axis of the shell. Fifty-eight specimens exhibit chipping to remove the spire, with the remaining examples being ground. While about half of the medium and large diameter beads had chipped spires, only 4 of 54 examples with small diameters (less than 6 mm diameter) had chipped spires.

This type of bead is the most common and general type which was produced and traded throughout most of California and the Great Basin for at least the past 7,000 years. Various sized shells were employed in different time periods:

Size has little significance unless large numbers of beads are available. In central California small (immature less than 6 mm diameter) beads were predominant during Early Horizon and Phase 1 of the Late Horizon (perhaps because the large shells were used to make quantities of the rectangular beads in both periods [Class L in Early and Early Middle; Class M Phase 1 of Late Horizon]). Large Olivella shells (mature greater than 10 mm) were predominant in other periods [Bennyhoff and Heizer 1958:81].

Table 1. Type A1 Beads from CA-SLO-877.

TypeSize Number of Specimens 
Type A1a (small)less than 6 mm diameter54
Type A1B (medium)6.1 to 9.9 mm diameter76
Type A1c (large)greater than 10 mm diameter26

Diagonal Spire Ground Olivella Bead, Type A2

This type of bead consists of a complete Olivella shell (usually between 6.0 and 10.0 mm in diameter) that has the spire end ground down to form a steep diagonal, in relation to the long axis of the bead at approximately 45 degrees. The beveling is generally opposite the side of the callus and aperture. Three specimens were recovered from CA-SLO-877.

In central California and the Great Basin Olivella beads with the spire end ground down diagonally (Type A2) are known in quantity only from the Early Horizon. Similar temporal distributions occur in southern California. In the Santa Barbara Channel, Olivella spire-ground beads, many of which are diagonally ground, are common in Phases M1 and M2 context (ca. 2200-3500 years B.P.). They are rare during M2b and are never a very common type thereafter (King 1981:56). This type is known to occur in southern California, central California, and the Great Basin in the time period ca. 2500 to 3500 B.P. (Bennyhoff and Heizer 1958:82; Gibson 1975:116).

Olivella Spire- and Base-Removed Beads (Type B2)

This type consists of an Olivella biplicata shell with both the spire and the base ground or chipped, but not to the degree that distortion occurs to the basic shape or approximate size of the original shell. Neither spire or base is modified as much as occurs with the Olivella barrel form of bead. In 13 examples the base was slightly chipped, and in only three examples was the base slightly ground.

Although Bennyhoff and Fredrickson (1967) do not discuss chipping as a common method of spire or base (biplicata) removal, a few examples of this type of chipped spire and/or base are reported from CA-MNT-1060 (Gibson 1983b).

Patterns of spire and basal grinding have temporal significance among the Chumash. As King notes:

There is great range in shape of Olivella beads used during Phase Ey: A few have no base removal, many have ground spires and chipped or ground bases and some have chipped or ground bases. During Phase Ez (immediately following Ey) only spire and base ground beads were used in the Santa Barbara Channel and these usually have more base removed than those used during earlier phases [King 1981].

Table 2. Type B2 Beads from CA-SLO-877.

TypeSize Number of Specimens 
Type B2a (small)less than 6 mm diameter;5
Type B2b (medium)6.1 to 9.9 mm diameter7
Type B2c (large)greater than 10 mm diameter4

Olivella Saucer Bead, Type G

This type of bead is manufactured from the wall portion of the Olivella biplicata shell. It is evenly curved in cross-section and even in thickness. The periphery is generally ground and circular and has one central perforation drilled from the ventral surface.

The smaller of the two examples from CA-SLO-877 measures 3.8 mm diameter, 0.9 mm thick, and has a 1.7 mm diameter central conical perforation drilled from the ventral side. The larger example measures 5.0 mm diameter, 1.0 mm thick, and has a 1.7 to 1.8 mm biconical perforation which is slightly irregular in outline.

In southern California, Olivella saucer beads have, in a few cases, been found in Early Period context (before 3000 B.P.). These occurrences may have resulted from mixing of collections in museums or errors in collection (natural disturbance of cultural strata, etc.) (King 1981). A small 4.6 mm diameter Olivella saucer with a 1.1 mm hole is reported from CA-SCRI-103 with a tentative date of somewhere around 4000 B.P. Burnett illustrates a number of inlaid stone objects (including gorgets?, pipes, and other items) (1944: Plates 8, 14, 48, 49). Although the authenticity of these artifacts is not beyond a shadow of a doubt, some of the stone pipes exhibit both rectangular and circular Olivella beads on the same artifact. Chester King has tentatively dated these artifacts in the M1 time period (2800-3400 years B.P.) (King 1981:197; personal communication). By Phase M2a Olivella saucer or disc beads had become the most common type of bead used in the Santa Barbara Channel and continued to be the most common type throughout the rest of the Middle Period. A wide range of bead diameters were made during every phase of the Middle Period after Phase M1 (King 1981:207). They continued to be utilized during the Late Period as well in their ground periphery form and generally after A.D. 1805 undergo changes from semi-ground and semi-chipped to chipped periphery (King 1974, 1981; Gibson 1976).

Small, Thick Rectangular Olivella Beads, Type L4

This type of bead is manufactured from the wall portion of the Olivella biplicata shell and is generally rectangular in shape with four ground edges, generally forming squared corners or in some cases slightly rounded corners. There is a single central perforation either conical or biconical varying between 1 and 2 mm diameter.

The smallest of the three rectangles recovered measured 5.6 x 4.0 (length and width), 1.0 mm thick with a conical perforation 1.1 mm in diameter drilled from the ventral side. The next example measured 5.2 x 4.8 (length and width), 1.0 mm thick, with a 1.7 mm biconical perforation. The largest example measured 7.2 x 5.4 (length and width), 1.0 mm thick, and had a 1.8 mm diameter biconical perforation.

Rectangular beads of Olivella, abalone nacre, and mussel shell have been found in Early Period context (3000 to 7000 years B.P.) in central California and the Great Basin as well as Santa Barbara Channel (Bennyhoff and Heizer 1958:63, 64). Rectangular beads of Olivella biplicata wall pieces have been found in context from all known phases of the Early Period in the Santa Barbara Channel. The beads from the Ex context at CA-SRI-3 and CA-SBA-142 have rounded corners and are similar in size and shape to rectangular saddle beads found in central California during the Late Middle Period. The Olivella rectangles from Phases Ey and Ez context usually have squared corners. Phase Ey Olivella rectangles tend to be larger than those from Ex context and are generally larger than those used during Phase Ez (King 1981:178).

A few drilled Olivella rectangles were evidently used during Phase 1 of the Middle Period (M1) (2800 to 3400 years B.P.) in the Santa Barbara Channel. In southern California rectangular beads were apparently not used after Phase M1. In central California rectangular Olivella beads were again used during the Late Phase of the Middle Period and Phase 1 of the Late Period, although rectangular beads of abalone and mussel shell were not used during these later periods (King 1981:179).

In the Santa Barbara Channel rectangular beads frequently were applied with asphaltum as applique or as sequins (King 1981:181). From a very high status grave on Santa Rosa Island that dated about 4000 B.P., Phil Orr noted:

At the back of the neck 32 rectangular Olivella shell beads of unique design resembling Gifford's X3a1 but longer were found in the field laid out end to end as though they had been sewn on to the collar of a jacket or back of a head dress. A total of 108 of these were recovered in the laboratory [1968:173].
In their discussion of the Early Horizon in central California, Lillard, Heizer, and Fenenga illustrate from site CA-SAC-56 a turtle carapace covered with asphaltum and rectangular beads of Olivella and Haliotis and further note that all the beads and ornaments in that site, with two exceptions, were found at the necks of the burials (possibly suggesting their use as necklaces) (Lillard, Heizer, and Fenenga 1939:40, Plates 11 and 12).

Unmodified Olivella Shell

These consisted of Olivella biplicata shells that had been collected and brought into the village/camp site. They usually appeared white to ivory color, not the fresh, bluish white appearance of modern shells. This may have been due to cooking or bleaching the shells by some form of heat (Gibson and Fenenga 1978). It is also unknown if natural conditions during the past five millennia would have also bleached these shells.

Only 446 of the approximately 1,351 shells were individually examined and measured. They consisted of 83 or 22% large size (greater than 10 mm diameter), 175 or 47% medium (6-10 mm diameter), and 113 or 30% small (less than 6 mm diameter. In all, 75 exhibited recent irregularly broken edges, probably from the backhoe or shovels.

It is very interesting to note that size distribution of the Olivella spire-removed beads is very similar to the size distribution of the unmodified Olivella shells in the site.

Table 3. Comparison of Modified and Unmodified Olivella Shells from CA-SLO-877.

Unmodified shells22%47%30%
Spire- or base-chipped beads   83%52%12%

This would seem to suggest that most or all of the Olivella shells collected and brought into the village or camp area were destined to become beads.

The table also shows that a greater percentage of the larger sized spire-removed Olivella beads exhibited a chipped spire. This form was duplicated during replicative experiments when the bipolar percussion using the spire tap technique was used initially to break the shell but the striking blow was not firm enough to entirely split or break the shell. The result was a crushed spire (and sometimes a crushed base as well) similar to the chipped spire and base forms noted from CA-SLO-877.

Olivella Bead Debris

After discarding the recently mechanically-broken Olivella shells, 171 fragments were identified as by-products of shell bead manufacture. These fragments were generally grouped according to the area of the Olivella biplicata shell from which the fragment originated. The spire is often intact after the Olivella shell has been broken. This indicates that the shell was broken by laying it on its side and striking it probably in an area near the callus. Also there is an apparent low frequency of wall fragments (28 of 171 pieces, or 16%). These wall pieces would be the ones used for manufacture the rectangle beads.

A general observation about the distribution of Olivella bead debris indicates most fragments came from Units 2 and 4 (separated by approximately 15-20 meters). There appears to have been a fairly even density of fragments from 0 to 50 cm, corresponding to the upper component (ca. 5,000 to 5,400 B.P.).

Clam Disc Beads

Three examples of an unidentified species of white clam were manufactured into disc beads being slightly irregular, circular in outline, and planoconvex in cross-section owing to the natural curvature of the clam shell. The beads vary in diameter from the smallest of 7.5 to the largest of about 10.5 mm. All examples exhibit grinding on both dorsal and ventral surfaces and two examples exhibit probable wear from being strung in one portion of the perforation. While the two thinner examples exhibited white smooth surfaces with no growth lines of the natural shell evident, the thickest example does show some growth lines on the dorsal surface, suggesting the possibility that the shell may be Tivela stultorum. The thickness of the finished bead (2.5 mm) suggests that the shell would have been from a fairly young individual. It is also possible the example may be a worn Tresus shell.

During the Early Period clam disc/cylinder beads were the most common type of shaped shell beads in the Santa Barbara Channel region. King notes that the clam disc-cylinders have a small uniform size (5 to 7 mm diameter?) in Ex, while in Ey the discs become thinner and possibly less standardized? In the later half of Ey, they become larger and more standardized. By Phase M2 clam disc and cylinder beads were no longer being used in the Santa Barbara Channel. Thus, it is suggested that the three clam disc beads from CA-SLO-877 probably originated from the upper shell stratum ca. 5000-5400 B.P.

Early Period Chumash Organization

During most of the Early Period clam disc/cylinder beads were the most common type of shaped shell beads used in the Santa Barbara Channel region. Clam disc and cylinder beads were, however, apparently not used in central California or Nevada during the Early Period (Bennyhoff and Heizer 1958:65).

It appears that during the Early Period clam thick disc-cylinder beads may not have been used outside the area historically occupied by the Chumash [King 1981:175-176].

King states that during the Early Period there is "the change from highly variable shapes and association with many burials to standardized shape and association of most beads with fewer burials is here interpreted as the response to a shift from an egalitarian society in which many people could obtain wealth to one in which wealth was controlled by the inherited political leaders" (King 1981:177).

King notes that clam disc and cylinder beads, and Olivella spire-removed beads are indicative of economic activity developing during the Early Period in the Chumash nation. He further notes the absence of these bead types, with the increased frequency of rectangular beads and abalone ornaments, as suggesting increased emphasis on political organization in central California (including Monterey County, at CA-MNT-391). It is suggested by King that Chumash territory contained many resources scattered throughout the territory and that the importance of an economic subsystem would be to facilitate movement of these resources throughout the population in the most efficient manner. Conversely, central California populations had fewer but larger resources, such as an annual salmon run or acorn collecting time, etc., and that political organization can better manage fewer but larger resources, often involving the collection of larger groups of people to harvest/process resources when available (King 1981:187). King, in his discussion of Phase Eyb (3700 to 4500 B.P.), notes that the settlement pattern during the Early Period may have been composed of major village centers with smaller subsidiary settlements. He notes a number of sites from Santa Rosa Island containing rectangular Olivella shell beads and bone hairpins, while at the same time period a smaller site apparently did not contain rectangular beads. He infers that:

. . . the types of artifacts used in social interactions during the Early Period and their distribution in cemeteries as indicating that during the Early Period, compared with later periods, political, economic and religious institutions were not as clearly differentiated from each other. Political power probably resulted largely from ability in obtaining and using religious knowledge. Differences between cemeteries of large Early Period centers such as SCRI-3 and smaller Early Period settlements such as SCRI-162, however, indicate that access to political control positions at least during Phase Ey was variable depending on the settlement where people lived. The larger settlements probably controlled the most important ceremonies and membership in these communities was probably necessary to acquire the most important positions [1981:189].

King further notes that during the Ey time period, the society was probably organized in such a manner that inheritance of large food stores or large amounts of wealth were not possible.

The simplest explanation for this observation is that wealth was commonly buried with its owners rather than being disposed of in other ways such as trade and sacrifice at shrines [1981:190].

This sheds some light on these individuals at the major village centers, and their function within the community.

Phil Orr notes two separate instances of burials eroding from Santa Rosa Island in his "Early Dune Sites Phase" (ca. King's Phases Eya and Eyb). The first of these eroded from a dune at Garnon point 131.1:

This burial was exposed by wind action . . . a complete skeleton of an extremely large male which lay flexed face down with head to the northwest and which was accompanied by an assortment of 224 artifacts listed below.

Some of these were purely decorative as represented by various finished and unfinished shell ornaments, but the remainder were utilitarian objects of bone and shell and included bone awls, gouges, many chips of stone, and nine rocks of no apparent use, as well as three lower jaws of the Island fox. There was also one asphalt basket mold. Among the bone tools were some twenty-three large tools made from whale ribs and are the general type known from Gifford as "D". Some of these reached a length of five feet and graded down to the normal sizes of abalone prize bars, but the entire collection much resembled a disassembled set of automobile springs, and the strange assortment of "junk" as well as the man's tremendous size, which is well over six feet, suggesting the name "Village Blacksmith" for this ancient workman [Orr 1968:143-144].

At SRI-41 in Cemetery X . . . a lone burial was found in 1961 weathering from the seaward face of a thirty foot sand dune. The skeleton is that of an extremely large male buried in clean wind-blown sand face down head to the west in a tightly flexed position and accompanied by 340 artifacts of bone, shell, and stone of which the most significant may be twenty-four Gypsum Cave type points and some sixty-five pieces of unworked Chalcedony and chert of the same material as the points, suggesting that the former owner may have been the "village blacksmith". This supposition is supported further by the presence of bone and shell as well as a surprising number of finished but unique artifacts . . . present are hematite, large shells, molded cake and chunks of pure paint, asphalt is plentiful as lining for the basket, cement for the projectile points, and shapeless globs. Fifty-eight Chalcedony and Jasper chips, two bone prize bars and two water-worn pebbles were all cemented together with asphalt . . . bone tools, abalone ornaments and shell beads, and stone donuts were all in contact with one another, some overlapping the others and all cemented together with asphalt and cemented red ochre . . . . 41 G1b Olivella beads (Olivella barrels) were found. In two cases they appeared in double rows where they lay across donut stones in such a way that it is possible that these were decorations on a buckskin or cordage bag which contained many, if not all, of these artifacts. At the back of the neck thirty-two rectangular Olivella shell beads of unique design resembling Gifford's X3a1, but longer, were found in the field, laid out end to end as if they had been sewn onto the collar of a jacket or perhaps the back of a headdress. A total of 108 of these were recovered in the laboratory.

Bone tools were numerous with a total of 34 found. Among these are the usual types of awls and pins . . . [Orr 1968:172, 173].

The skeleton is that of a very large and powerful male very similar to that noted from the Granon site . . . . Both men stood more than six feet tall and were very powerful, possible "bull-necked" with very powerful shoulders. There are many parallels between these two sites (separated by many miles) in the assortment of junk of pebbles, chipped flints and unworked shells which suggest that both may have represented the "village blacksmith" not so much as by their size as by the variety of tools and products used . . . apparently both graves were in apparent isolation away from the main part of the village [Orr 1968:175].

Temporal Placement of Shell Beads from CA-SLO-877

The slightly thinner forms of clam disc bead probably date to the earlier portions of the upper deposit. They probably thus extend back to the Ex Phase, ca. 5500 B.P., as confirmed by the radiocarbon dates from this general stratum.

It is assumed that most of the barrel beads, rectangles, and spire-removed beads from the backdirt piles were originally from the upper deposit of CA-SLO-877 dating ca. 5000 to 5400 B.P. and corresponding mainly to King's Phase Eya and earlier.

However, the presence of several beads from the backdirt pile appear to be considerably later in time, and possibly originated with the burials that were partially excavated by the backhoe during construction excavation and deposited in the backdirt pile. The possibly later types include the two Olivella saucers 3.8 and 5.0 mm in diameter with a 1.7 mm perforation and the three examples of the small diagonally or obliquely spire-ground Olivella, which commonly occur during Phase M1 from the Santa Barbara Channel and also during Phase M2a and possibly into Phase M3, although in lower frequencies when compared to Phase M2. It appears as though there was probably a portion of the cultural deposit previously removed, possibly during the house construction in the 1940s for the original Schmitz residence. This upper component would have been the component contemporaneous with the burials partially excavated by the backhoe and presumably responsible for the Olivella saucers and obliquely spire ground beads found in the backdirt pile. This missing upper component may also have contributed some later period beads into the 5000 to 5400 B.P. component via bioturbation or aboriginal cultural activity (excavation of storage pits, etc.). King has observed (personal communication 1987) that in the Santa Barbara Channel some sites are occupied from Phases Ex through to Phase M1, which may well have been the original extent of occupation at CA-SLO-877.

Based on the sample of shells, bead debris, and beads recovered from CA-SLO-877, a number of general conclusions can be suggested.

References Cited

Bennyhoff, J.A. and D.A. Fredrickson. 1967. A Typology of Shell and Stone Beads from Central California. Ms. on file, Cultural Resources Section, California Department of Parks and Recreation, Sacramento.

Bennyhoff, J.A. and R.F. Heizer. 1958. Cross-dating Great Basin Sites by Californian Shell Beads. Reports of the University of California Archaeological Survey 42:60-92. Berkeley.

Binford, L.R. 1962. Archaeology and Anthropology. American Antiquity 28(2).

Burnett, E.K. 1944. Inlaid Stone and Bone Artifacts from Southern California. Contributions of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation XIII. New York.

Gibson, R.O. 1975. The Beads of Humaliwo. The Journal of California Anthropology 2(1): 110-119.

Gibson, R.O. 1976. The Study of Beads and Ornaments from San Buenaventura Mission Site (VEN-87). In: The Changing Faces of Main Street, R. S. Greenwood, ed., pp. 77-166. Submitted to San Buenaventura Redevelopment Agency, Ventura.

Gibson, R.O. 1983a. Ethnography of the Salinan People: A Systems Approach. Master's Thesis, California State University, Hayward.

Gibson, R.O. 1983b. Preliminary Results of Shell Bead Analysis from CA-MNT-391 and CA-MNT-1060, Monterey County, California. Ms. on file, Archaeological Consulting, Salinas.

Gibson, R.O. and G. Fenenga. 1978. A Preliminary Analysis of the Shell Beads and Ornaments from CA-SCL-128. In: Archaeological Investigations at CA-SCL-128, the Holiday Inn Site, J.C. Winter, ed. Submitted to The Redevelopment Agency, San Jose.

Gifford, E.W. 1947. Californian Shell Artifacts. University of California Anthropological Records 9(1):1-114.

King, C.D. 1974. The Explanations of Differences and Similarities Among Beads in Prehistoric and Early Historic California. In: 'Antap, California Indian Political and Economic Organization, L.J. Bean and T.F. King, eds. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers 2.

King, C.D. 1981. The Evolution of Chumash Society: A Comparative Study of Artifacts Used in System Maintenance in the Santa Barbara Channel Region Before A.D. 1804. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Davis.

Lillard, J.B., R.F. Heizer and F. Fenenga. 1939. An Introduction to the Archaeology of Central California. Sacramento Junior College, Department of Anthropology Bulletin 2.

Macko, M.E. 1978. Bead Manufacturing Detritus and its Interpretive Significance. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for California Archaeology, Yosemite.

Macko, M.E. 1984. The Economics of Olivella biplicata Shell Bead Production and Exchange in Southern California. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Oregon.

Orr, P.C. 1968. Prehistory of Santa Rosa Island. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara.

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