January 2023: Michelle Calhoun

Michelle Calhoun

Lightning whelk is a fairly common sight on our southwest Florida, Gulf coast beaches. In fact, eastern Gulf of Mexico lightning whelk population studies show that 82% can be found between Charlotte Harbor and Ten Thousand Islands. Interestingly, the shells of this particular mollusk were sought out in vast quantities starting around 8,000-10,000 years ago, formed into various forms of what are known as gorgets, and were interred with Native Peoples as far north as Canada.

Calhoun’s presentation will discuss the significance of this carnivorous, bottom-dwelling gastropod to Archaic and subsequent Native Peoples (ca. 8,000-1,000 B.C./ 10,000-3,000 B.P. to present), the routes most likely taken by those moving the shells, and an understanding of who these people likely were and what their purpose was in transporting these shells over such immense distances. These routes snaked all across the eastern U.S., even reaching into Texas. The shell tool assemblages of Texas and Florida during the Archaic show an undeniable connection. So too do the freshwater shell mounds of the Green, Cumberland, Tennessee, Tombigbee, and Ohio River valleys (Shell Mound Archaic) to those Archaic marine shell heaps and rings of the central to eastern Gulf of Mexico.

This work is still in progress after nearly four years of almost continuous research into, first, columella and gastropod tools, then into the movement of the sandal-sole type, and also of other whelk shell gorgets across eastern North America. These insights come from a fairly comprehensive literature review spanning forty states and five Canadian provinces, dozens of academic publications, paper and poster presentations, over 200 journals-both avocational and professional, cultural resource management (CRM) reports, informants from local archaeological societies, conversations with subject matter experts, and Indigenous histories.

Michelle Calhoun received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from New College of Florida in 2021 with her undergraduate thesis titled “An Analysis of Prehistoric Shell Tools (Columella Tools and Gastropod Hammers) from Snake Island, Sarasota County (8So2336).”