Cataloging Cowries: A Standardized Strategy to Record Six Key Species of Cowrie Shell from the West African Archaeological Record

  • Annalisa C. ChristieEmail author
  • Alastair Grant
  • Anne Haour
Original Article


Two species of the cowrie shell, Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus, 1758) and Monetaria annulus (Linnaeus, 1758), repeatedly occur in archaeological contexts across West Africa. Despite their archaeological and ethnographic importance, these shells remain poorly and inconsistently reported in the archaeological literature. The absence of standardized data on species composition, size, and condition of cowrie assemblages, and whether and how the shells were modified, make it difficult to examine their significance in a regional and chronological framework. To address this problem, we propose a set of standardized criteria and coding system for recording cowrie assemblages—in particular, species, size, condition, and state of modification. We aim to enable nonshell specialists within the wider archaeological community to securely identify intact or modified specimens of M. annulus and M. moneta, showing how these can be distinguished from four cowrie species native to West Africa—Luria lurida (Linnaeus, 1758), Zonaria zonaria (Gmelin, 1791), Zonaria sanguinolenta (Gmelin, 1791), and Trona stercoraria (Linnaeus, 1758). We demonstrate how accurate species identification and the assessment of proportions of different sizes of shells within suitably large assemblages can provide insight into their provenance. This information can enhance our appreciation of the exchange networks within which these shells moved. We also identify five different strategies documented in the archaeological record that were used to modify cowries, detailing how these can be differentiated and classified. The aim here is to suggest a recording strategy that will enable comparisons of the use and value of cowries in West Africa and elsewhere.


Cowrie shells Recording strategy West Africa Cowrie modification 


Deux espèces de cauris, Monetaria moneta (Linné, 1758) et Monetaria annulus (Linné, 1758), se retrouvent de manière répétée dans des contextes archéologiques en Afrique de l'Ouest. En dépit de leur importance archéologique et ethnographique, ces coquillages sont souvent décrits de façon brève ou inconsistante dans la littérature archéologique. L'absence de données standardisées sur la composition des espèces, la taille et l'état des assemblages de cauris, et le manque de données sur les éventuelles modifications de ces coquillages, rend difficile toute étude de leur importance dans un cadre régional et/ou chronologique. Pour aider à résoudre ce problème, nous proposons une normalisation des critères et un système du codage pour enregistrer les assemblages de cauris - en particulier leurs espèces, leur taille, leur condition et leur état de modification. Notre objectif est de permettre aux chercheurs au sein de la communauté archéologique – même si ils ne sont pas spécialistes en coquillages – d’identifier des spécimens intacts ou modifiés de M. annulus et M. moneta, en montrant comment on peut les distinguer de quatre cauris natifs de l’Afrique de l’Ouest,plus précisément Luria lurida (Linné, 1758), Zonaria zonaria (Gmelin, 1791), Zonaria sanguinolenta (Gmelin, 1791) et Trona stercoraria (Linné, 1758). Nous montrons comment l'identification précise des espèces et l'évaluation des proportions de cauris de différentes tailles dans des assemblages suffisamment grands peuvent donner un aperçu de leur provenance et ainsi améliorer notre compréhension des réseaux d'échange au sein desquels ces coquillages se déplacèrent. Nous avons également identifié dans les collections archéologiques cinq stratégies différentes qui furent utilisées pour modifier les cauris, et nous détaillons leur caractéristiques et leur classification. L’objectif ici est de suggérer une stratégie d’enregistrement qui permettra de comparer l’utilisation et la valeur des cauris en Afrique de l’Ouest et plus largement.



We would like to thank all those who allowed us to examine archaeological cowries from West African sites: Ibrahim Thiaw for access to the collections at the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (Dakar, Senegal), Wazi Apoh and Gideon Agyare for access to the collections at the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies (University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana), and Stephanie Wynne-Jones (University of York) for allowing us to examine the cowries from Songo Mnara (Tanzania). These collections provided valuable insight into the impact of archaeological deposition on the identification of cowries. We are grateful to Suzanne Williams and John Taylor for access to holdings at the Natural History Museum and for helping us to shape our thinking about differences between living specimens of M. annulus, M. moneta, and West African cowries. For facilitating the field research, we thank the Department of Heritage and The Academy of the Dhivehi Language in the Maldives and the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology and the Mafia Island Marine Park in Tanzania. We also extend our thanks to Shiura Jaufar, Shehezine Fathimath, Liberatus Mkoki, Hatibu Shehar, and Saidi Juma for their help conducting interviews and collecting biological specimens.

Funding Information

This work was possible thanks to a research grant, Cowrie Shells: An Early Global Commodity (RPG-2014-359), awarded by the Leverhulme Trust to Anne Haour with Alastair Grant as Co-Investigator. The work for this paper was completed while Dr. Christie was a Senior Research Associate at the University of East Anglia on the Leverhulme-funded project.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University College DublinDublinIreland
  2. 2.University of East AngliaNorwichUK

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