The lightning whelk: An enduring icon of southeastern North American spirituality

William H. Marquardt, Laura Kozuch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We describe the lightning whelk (Busycon sinistrum) and show how its shells were used among coastal peoples along the Gulf of Mexico and lower Atlantic coast. During the Middle and Late Archaic periods, lightning whelk shells were transported hundreds of km from the coasts to the Midsouth where they were made into a variety of artifacts that were interred in graves. We explore the symbolic significance of sinistral ("left-handed") snails in post-Archaic times, focusing on the lightning whelk as a metaphor of spiral/circle, fire/sun, and purification/continuity among Native Americans of the eastern United States. This particular marine mollusk shell had special spiritual significance-and hence economic and political value-for several millennia, particularly in the southeastern United States, but its ritual importance as cultural icon resonates with cultures around the globe. The importance of the sinistral whelk as both medium and message has been inadequately appreciated by American archaeologists.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-26
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Anthropological Archaeology
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016


  • Lightning whelk
  • Mississippian
  • Native American spirituality
  • Shell Mound Archaic
  • Shell artifacts
  • Sinistral spiral

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Archaeology
  • History
  • Archaeology


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