Every two years a Working Group of archaeologists whose research focuses on mollusc/shell use by man since the beginning of his time. It has a Facebook page with the following mission statement:
“The International Council for Archaeozoology (ICAZ) shell working group was proposed and subsequently established after the 2002 ICAZ conference in Durham. It consists of people from around the world who have an interest in shell recovered from archaeological deposits – whether that be as evidence of past subsistence strategies, palaeoenvironments, artefact production or a myriad of other things.
At the 2012 AMWG meeting in Cairns, a Facebook page was proposed to allow archaeomalacologists from all over the world to communicate ideas, ask questions, interact and share knowledge. The Facebook group signed up to this page thus have a useful forum for informal discussion.”
And so it is that I find myself amongst a group of people, most of whom are academics working on shell remains retrieved from archaeological sites. The papers presented variously dealt with molluscan topics such as oysters, scaphopods (so-called tusk shells) from sites in India, freshwater mussels from Wisconsin, cowrie shells as currency from the Indian Ocean, shells for building materials, for beads, for purple dye extraction. And of course for food.
The highlight for me was a paper given by Maureen Moore, one time curator at the East London Museum in South Africa. She gave a biologist’s observations on the use of Mollusca by the Xhosa peoples of South Africa. A breath of fresh air because here was someone who had seen at first hand how a tribe of indigenous people living at Mbotyi in the Transkei practised fishing to supplement their meagre cattle and sheep dietary contributions.
The seas are very rough on that area known as the Wild Coast so places for collecting molluscs are few and far between. But Maureen did observe women collecting from one particular rockpool and the processing practices on the shore. Only a dozen women of around 40 years would gather the shells; no younger women or children would accompany them. This is at odds with a received belief that children would accompany women to the shore to gather seafood. It rather suggests that some status is attached to a ‘permit’ to collect molluscs.
Maureen went on to describe other methods the women used whilst gathering what she noted to be exclusively gastropods, and mentions species that were collected. Her article will appear in a forthcoming issue of the inhouse magazine of The Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Mollusc World, and I cannot wait to read it.