Jessica Roberts – Past, Present, and A Shark’s tooth

Over the past five weeks, the UMW archaeology field school, under the direction of Professor McMillan, has been conducting Phase I and II survey work with Dr. Julia King and her crew from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. While we have dug up many interesting items over the past few weeks, I found something most intriguing while excavating my first unit along the Rappahannock River. We were digging test units at what was once a contact-period Virginia Indian village. The artifact that spiked my interest was a halved shark’s tooth, maybe from an ancient Megalodon, due to its size. It is half the size of my hand and was broken by an unknown cause. As for the other half of the tooth, we did not find it in the unit. Some hypotheses as to why this shark’s tooth was discarded is that it could have been damaged if used for hunting, fishing, or protection purposes.

Photo by Scott Strickland, courtesy of SMCM

We may never know the true usage of this shark’s tooth. However, one thing that should be noted is what was also found with the shark’s tooth. Along with the shark’s tooth, we found red clay pipe fragments, many Native clay ceramic fragments and pieces of European wares. On some of these red clay pipe fragments there were small dotted markings on the bowls of the pipes. Using the Law of Association, I can assume that the shark’s tooth may have had a purpose related to the red clay pipes with the dotted marks. One interpretation is that this shark’s tooth may have been used as a decorative tool for the pipes, as evident by them both being found in the same context and based on pipe examples pound elsewhere in this region. This again is just one possible use, so it is still open for interpretation.

Another hypothesis for this damaged shark’s tooth is that it was more than just a tool for the Virginia Indians who possessed it. First thing that should be mentioned is how the shark’s tooth made it to this site. It was not likely that this tooth was found along the Rappahannock River near site that this Indian group lived at. No, most likely this tooth came from further up the Rappahannock River or from Westmoreland County along the Potomac River; this is the closest location where an abundance of shark’s teeth wash-up on the shores from the cliffs. It is possible that this was obtained through trade with Virginia Indians living near the Potomac River, or someone brought it with them after visiting the Potomac River. My point in mentioning this is that it seems like a lot of trouble and effort to get this shark’s tooth for tool purposes alone. We found tons of flakes and shatter at the site that give evidence that there were other tools being used and made already. So why would the Virginia Indians go through all the effort to get a more fragile object for just a basic tool?

One possible answer is in the present, drawing on the concept of Uniformitarianism. You can see people today scouring the beaches in Westmoreland County and all along the Potomac River. These people, like myself, are looking for sharks’ teeth. We don’t look for them for logical or basic tool purposes, but because they are so fascinating. I believe the Virginia Indians were just like us. Fascinated by the teeth and whose mouths they came from. Like us today, there may have been Indians who were amazed by sharks’ teeth and collecting these teeth just as a hobby. The shark’s tooth found in this unit could have been a great story telling device, or maybe from somebody’s private collection, in addition to possible tool use. It’s hard to say, but to be honest, I like this interpretation more, because it shows that no matter how much the times change, human curiosity and the desire to collect what fascinates us is something that will never die, unlike the sharks these teeth came from.


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