Shell Culture


The world around us feeds us. We are all part of a greater system. The lightning whelk represents the spiral of life. It was used as a sacred drinking vessel for our people.

Black drink is a strong tea made from the leaves of the Ilex vomitoria,or Yaupon Holly shrub plus other medicinal herbs.

As Florida’s environment stabilized to become the landscape we see today, the people began to explore other potential. They built cities, harvested marine resources, and developed trade.


Shells were central to building the Tocobaga and Calusa cultures.The most valued of these were Lightning Whelk.  The hard structures of shells were modified to create an assortment of tools such as axes and scrapers. Net gauges, a standard of measurement for the nets mesh, were carved out of large whelks and clams. Gag hooks for fishing were made from the center column of small lightning whelks.

Shell made a strong and readily available material for making tools. Pictured are an assortment of shell and stone hammers and axes.  Although stone tools, have been found in archaeological sites, the shell tools prove to be more durable. Stone tends to flake and crumble under pressure.

The forests surrounding the bays provided fiber for nets.  Fishhooks were carved from the toe bones of deer. Composite hooks were a blend of oak, for the hook part, and a needle, carved from a deer’s leg bone, for the barb.

Primitive technologist Bill Hicks demonstrates how our Florida Indians made a large Lightning Whelk into an axe. First a half circle is chipped out along the lip of the shell.

Next he uses a piece of shell to chipped away a hole on the back side of the shell, sized to fit a stick that will be inserted for the handle. The two holes are lined up along the columella of the whelk

A handle is inserted through the holes and fletched in place with sinew.

Having used shell axes to chop wood, we can honestly say that they will hold up much longer than a stone axe.