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Paleolithic shell Headdress; The head gear of a Godess?

Updated: May 9, 2022

The burials of the upper paleolithic give a tantalising glimpse of the richness of the cultures that existed at that time. The best examples are the burials at Sunghir- two children and an adult man buried with thousands of beads made of teeth and ivory, and a wide range of artefacts and tools. But the burial that has caught my attention more recently is this one; Arene candide. It particularly interests me because of the similarity of this mans head dress, to the carved head dresses on several Paleolithic Venus carvings, such as the Venus of Willendorf.

Venus figures rarely have any detain on the face, some are stylised to the point of having a smooth ball. But more than one have a carved design which looks remarkably similar to the shell cap from this burial and others.

The man who was buried with this decorated hat must have been High status- procuring and drilling the shells ( several hundred) is a long job. Each shell only takes a few seconds to drill, provided the drill is sharp, but from experiments I have found that the drill has to be retouched ( re flaked to give a new edge) approximately every 3-4 shells. Otherwise you have to apply more pressure than the shell can take and it simply fragments. Each drill only lasts 3-4 retouchings. So this piece will have used many drills. I used a hand drill- a flint tool set in a straight handle ( 1cm diameter) which was twirled between the hands just as it would be for fire lighting. This does mean you have to have a way of holding the shell still; the easiest way is obviously to get another person to hold it for you! But out of necessity I did experiment with bluetac, pine resin and rings of soft leather. The pine resin wasn't ideal, because the heat generated by the drilling cases the glue to soften and leaves a residue on the shells. The best option by far was an extra pair of hands.

There is no way of knowing what kind of base the shells were attached to on the original hat- though it was obviously shaped carefully to the head of the wearer- it could have been leather panels, it could have been any number of other things. I decided to use a netted base because it is visually interesting, flexible and an interesting experiment in its own right. I used Lime bast primarily; this is the inner bark of lime that has been retted in a local river to break down the layers of the inner bark. It makes a very fine, strong cordage material. The start point was a fixed loop, diameter 1.5cm. Half hitch loops were added around that. From them on it was a spiral, increasing ' the number of 'stitches' by adding two loops onto single loops of the previous row. Because the line has to be pulled through to create each loop its not practical to make the whole length of cordage required in one go before beginning. Instead I made the cordage as I went, creating about a metre at a time, then looping until it was all gone, then adding on more. That meant there are no knots on the piece. Bands of subtly different colours were created by adding in different fibres, including nettle at one point to give a band of green. (it won't be visible once the shells are added, so it was a 'just because I can' feature.

Adding the shells;

This took more experimentation. I am not sure exactly what shells were used in the original, but they look like small winkles. These range in colour from reddish brown to orange and rarely bright lemon yellow. Originally I wanted to use these beautiful yellow and orange winkle shells, but they are not available on my bit of the UK coast. I have a few, which I may use as a trim. The more common brown and brown grey winkles were very fragile and I decided not to use them as I want this replica to last a long time! So instead I decided to use Netted dog whelks ( Nassarius Retiulatus) which are fairly small, pretty and robust. Topshells ( the small stripey ones) are usually found damaged and although they are pretty, I decided not to use those either, and save them for jewellery. The purple clam shells are very pretty as well, but from using some on a necklace that I wear frequently I know they break easily too- also not available on my part of the coast, though they can be found on the south coast of the UK- Cornwall and Devon in particular. I am unsure of the type of shells used on the original headresses, but I've read that they were some distance form their source indicating perhaps that they had been traded over a reasonable distance, and must therefore have ben considered valuable.

I wanted the shells to lie neatly in rows with the points nestled together. Sewing them on individually cases them to twist and lie awkwardly. I found that the best way was to thread several onto a main line ( I used linen, because my RSI was playing up from all the cordage making!) the main line was then sewn down onto the looped base.

I did initially extend the back and sides of the looped base down into long points which would touch the shoulders- based on the extra strands of beads on the burial, But I'm not convinces about the way it looks, so once the rest of the cap is 'shelled' I will see how I feel about it!

Stay tuned for updates! Prehistoric Experiences offer immersive school visit days all over East Anglia, London and Kent. Take your class back to the stone age without leaving school grounds!

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