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6000 years ago artists all over Europe used mother-of-pearl from freshwater mussels for dress accessories

Prehistoric shell ornaments („double-buttons“) made with freshwater mother-of-pearl. Photo: Jérôme Thomas, University of Burgundy-Franche-Comté

So-called „double buttons“ may have been pressed into leather to decorate armbands or belts

Mother-of-pearl or Nacre is sometimes used in semiprecious luxury stone-arrangements, an example is Italian Antolini’s „Shellstone“ collection. The substance is mainly composed of Aragonite (a form of calcium carbonate, CaCO3), and produced by mollusks as their inner shell or as surface of their pearls. Researchers now found that 6000 years ago a cultural tradition existed all across Europe to use freshwater mussel shells to craft ornaments.

An international team of researchers extracted ancient proteins from prehistoric shell ornaments – which look remarkably similar despite being found at distant locations in Denmark, Romania, and Germany – and discovered they were all made using the mother-of-pearl of freshwater mussels.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the ornaments, known as „double-buttons“, may have been pressed into leather to decorate armbands or belts.

Senior author of the study, Dr. Beatrice Demarchi, from the Department of Archaeology at the Universities of York (GB) and Turin (Italy), said: „We were surprised to discover that the ornaments were all made from freshwater mussels because it implies that this material was highly regarded by prehistoric craftsmen, wherever they were in Europe and whatever cultural group they belonged to. Our study suggests the existence of a European-wide cross-cultural tradition for the manufacture of such double-buttons“.

Freshwater mollusks have often been overlooked as a source of raw material in prehistory (despite the strength and resilience of mother-of-pearl) because many archaeologists believed that their local origin made them less „prestigious“ than exotic marine shells.

Co-author of the paper, Dr André Colonese, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: „The ornaments are associated with the Late Mesolithic, Late Neolithic, and Copper Age cultures. Some of these groups were still living as hunter-gatherers, but in the south, they were farmers with switching to a more settled lifestyle.

„The fact that these ornaments look consistently similar and are made from the same material suggests there may have been some kind of interaction between these distinct groups of people at this time.

„They may have had a shared knowledge or tradition for how to manufacture these ornaments and they clearly had a sophisticated understanding of the natural environment and which resources to use.“

The research was carried out by researchers at the Universities of York, Turin, Ca’ Foscari (Italy), Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Lille (France) and of Bradford (UK). Also participated the Moesgaard Museum (Denmark), the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart and the Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (Germany).

The report titled „,Palaeoshellomics’ reveals the use of freshwater mother-of-pearl in prehistory“ was published in the journal eLife.

Antolini, „Shellstone“ collection

Limestone tile with inlays of mother-of-pearl. Heda Marble company, Xiamen Stone Fair 2016.

(14.05.2019, USA: 05.14.2019)