Inside the Collections - HOCU 2832 and 4222

Hopewell Culture National Historical Park
Sharks Teeth HOCU - 2832 and 4222

Written by James Jacobs, Archeological Technician

13 shark teeth arranged in 4 rows
13 drilled shark teeth from the Mound City Group earthwork.

NPS photo/A.Weiland

The Artifacts
The 14 drilled fossilized shark teeth that make up artifact catalog numbers HOCU 2832 (Figure 1) and HOCU 4222 (Figure 2) can be found locked securely in the park’s climate-controlled storage facility. These razor-sharp artifacts represent an incredibly dynamic history. They came from the mouths of some of the ocean’s top predators millions of years ago to the hands of the native peoples who uncovered them near the coasts of the continental United States. They then went on to the hands of people of the Scioto River Valley archaeologists call Hopewell nearly 2000 years ago, came here to Mound City, and finally to the collections at Hopewell Culture, to tell their story.
side by side photos of one large shark tooth showing front and back of tooth.
Figure 2: HOCU 4222 front (left), back (right).

NPS photos/A.Weiland

According to George Colvin, 12 of the 14 teeth are from Great Whites (Carcharodon carcharias), while Tooth 7 (HOCU 2832 Figure 1) is from a Megalodon (Carcharodon megalodon), and the species that Tooth 12 came from is unknown due to its complete fossilization. Part of what makes these artifacts so incredible is that in all but one example (Tooth 12) the enamel and serrations of the teeth are perfectly preserved! This in part is what allowed the species of shark to be identified. The artifacts were discovered by Henry C. Shetrone and William C. Mills between 1920-1921 as they were excavating Mound 7 (Figure 3), which was and is one of the most prominent Mounds at Mound City, standing approximately 19 feet tall and nearly 100 feet in diameter at the time! The teeth were not the only artifacts found, however. The 14 fossilized shark teeth you see above were found on the southeast corner of the raised platform Mills called Burial 12, surrounded by several different artifacts including necklaces of fine pearl beads, bear claws, and around 40 copper covered wooden beads.
map noting locations of mounds and earthworks
An X marks the location of Mound 7 within the Mound City Group earthwork.

NPS image

Where Are They From?
There are multiple locations along the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S. from where the teeth may have potentially been sourced. The two most likely candidates would be the Chesapeake Bay area and Southwestern Florida. Based on a study done by Darrin Lowery, Stephen Godfrey, and Ralph Eshelman, the argument for the Chesapeake Bay area is a good candidate due to the association of Hopewell artifacts found at Native American sites in the area dated to the same time as the teeth, which would be indicative of a strong trade network between the cultures. The artifacts found at these sites include flint from Flint Ridge, which was a large and well-known flint quarry during this period, located in modern day Glenford, Ohio. However, as Colvin points out in his study, nearly all the 14 teeth found in Mound 7 are those of Great Whites (Carcharodon carcharias), which is among the rarer teeth discovered in the Chesapeake Bay area. Additionally, the condition, color, and the lack of corrosion on the teeth roots all correlate with specimens found in Southwestern Florida. Although Colvin makes a strong argument for the Southwestern Florida source, we cannot say definitively which location the teeth came from unless a rare earth elements (REE) test is conducted, and even that may not be conclusive. However, based on the lack of erosion on the teeth and the pristine condition of the serrations, it is likely they were mined on land rather than found exposed in or near the ocean. This in and of itself is an intriguing realization as it would mean the organization of mining efforts in these coastal areas.
black tiangular shaped stone drill in center of photo with ruler bordering the bottom for size comparison.
Figure 4: Flint drill from the Bisantz Collection.

NPS photo/A.Weiland

One of the more amazing aspects of these teeth are the holes drilled approximately in the center of eight of them. It is likely that some, if not all, of the others were also drilled, though it is hard to determine due to the damage they have potentially sustained during the burial ritual. In Colvin’s study, it was found that the holes were most commonly drilled from both sides with the hole meeting in the middle (bidirectionally), though some may have been drilled from only one direction (unidirectionally) in either the front (labial) or back (lingual) side. Drilling bidirectionally and lining these holes up would have been a difficult task. However, it is possible that a small natural groove or hole called a “nutrient pore” in the center of the root served as a guide. This still begs the question of what tools were used? Charles C. Willoughby studied drill holes in other Hopewell artifacts in the early 1900’s, including in pearls. He concluded that copper (Figure 4a) or meteoric iron could serve to produce small holes, like the ones found in pearls. However, larger holes like the ones found in the shark teeth could have been made with flint as it is prevalent in the Ohio Valley (Figure 4b). With the hardness of flint at 7.0 on the Mohs hardness scale and tooth enamel at 5.0 it would have also been able to do the job. That’s not to say however that it would not have been an arduous and time-consuming undertaking.
serrated shark tooth drilled and attached to a wooden shaft.
Figure 5: Showing the possible method of attaching sharks’ teeth to a wooden shaft. Drew J, Philipp C, Westneat MW (2013) Shark Tooth Weapons from the 19th Century Reflect Shifting Baselines in Central Pacific Predator Assemblies. PLoS ONE 8(4): e59855.

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How Were They Used?
At first glance it seems obvious these teeth would have been part of a necklace or amulet. In fact, this is exactly what Mills seemed to believe upon discovering them. This is a strong possibility, especially when you consider they were found around other artifacts typically associated with necklaces or attached to clothing, but it is not the only potential use. Lowery and his colleagues found that shark teeth themselves may have had many practical uses to the Scioto Hopewell people as well as to people all over the world around 2000 years ago. These include scraping, cutting, and being hafted to use as their natural point or serrated edge. Drilled holes such as those we see in the teeth of this collection could easily have been used to run sinew through, connecting them to a shaft to be used as a tool or weapon (Figure 5). However, during Colvin’s extensive study of these artifacts, only two were found to have light scratches, which would be indicative of tool use, none were found to have been notched, which would aid in the hafting process, and fossilized teeth would have been more brittle than modern shark teeth. If they were used almost entirely for ornamental purposes, which the lack of evidence of tool use seems to imply, they most likely represented more than just attractive jewelry. Mark F. Seeman’s research delves into the meaning behind the predatory animal teeth and jawbone artifacts found at Hopewell sites. They likely attributed the hunting skills of predatory animals to warrior prowess and by possessing the teeth or jawbones of these animals, that prowess would be linked to the individual. The people we call Hopewell would have recognized these shark teeth as having come from great predators, and so possessing them could have been a symbol of great strength and power. Again, without further evidence we cannot be sure exactly what the teeth were used for, and there were more than likely multiple meanings and uses depending on the person who possessed the teeth. Though the data point back to these teeth being worn as ornamental or sacred jewelry, it’s the job of archaeologists and the public, stewards of these artifacts, to envision the possibilities and recognize the vast potential for the lives of people in the past.
Shark teeth are found at many of the major Hopewell sites including Mound City, Seip Earthworks, Liberty Earthworks, and Hopewell Mound Group. What makes this collection of teeth particularly impressive is the uniformity of size and species of the teeth, which shows immense care was taken when selecting them. Most of the teeth in our collection are of the same relative size; although it’s important to note that due to damage, full measurements were not possible on all teeth. The majority of the teeth found in the Colvin study, which focuses on shark teeth in the Ohio Valley region, were those of fossilized Great White (Carcharodon carcharias) sharks, which is also representative of our collection. However, fossilized Great White teeth are rare finds at the possible locations of origin. These facts seem to indicate there was a specific type and size tooth in which the people of the Scioto River Valley, or perhaps the people who first uncovered the teeth, were interested.

There are many questions still left unanswered about Hopewell culture in general and about these artifacts more specifically. What compelled people of the Scioto Hopewell culture to travel such great distances? Was it specifically for trade? Or were there other reasons? Did they themselves travel for these teeth or were there successive trades made? How extensive were their trade networks and connections? Why were the teeth considered so sacred or special for them to be ritually placed in the burials? Why were the teeth usually drilled from both sides instead of just one side? Could the teeth found in the Ohio Valley have been brought from the coast in one trip or multiple trips over time? Is it possible they were seen as a trophy of some kind, or an indicator of strength and prowess? Continued diligence on the part of archaeologists may be able to discover the answers to some of these questions and more.
Brown, James A.
2017 Mound City: The Archaeology of a Renowned Ohio Hopewell Mound Center. National Park Service. Midwest Archaeological Center. Lincoln, Nebraska.

Colvin, George H.
2011 The Presence, Source and use of Fossil Shark Teeth from Ohio Archaeological Sites. Volume 61 NO. 4. Ohio Archaeologist. The Archaeological Society of Ohio. Fairborn, Ohio.

Lowery, Darrin, Stephen J. Godfrey, and Ralph Eshelman
2011 Integrated Geology, Paleontology, and Archaeology: Native American use of Fossil Shark Teeth in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Volume 39. Archaeology of Eastern North America.

Mills, William C.
1922 Exploration of the Mound City Group. In Certain Mounds and Village Sites in Ohio Volume 3 Part 4. The Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society. The F. J. Heer Printing Co. Columbus, Ohio.

Philipp, Drew J., Westneat MW
2013 Shark Tooth Weapons from the 19th Century Reflect Shifting Baselines in Central Pacific Predator Assemblies. PLoS ONE 8(4): e59855.

Seeman, Mark F.2007
Predatory War and Hopewell Trophies. In The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians, edited by Chacon, Richard J., and David H. Dye, pp.167-189. Springer, Boston, MA.

Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Last updated: July 22, 2021