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Wampum belts 1812 exhibit

What are wampums?

Wampums are visual memory keepers that help record history and communicate ideas. Beaded patterns represent a person, nation, event, invitation, shared values and understandings/agreements between two or more parties.  Traditional wampum belts were used as covenants and petitions for understanding. Words spoken during an agreement are made into wampum to be used for ceremony, teaching, and reminders of law and values.

Who do they belong to?

Wampums belong to the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee. The beads are from the Atlantic coast. The Wampanoag People along the American east coast around Boston, MA traded in Wampum with the Haudenosaunee. Ancient wampums are often replicated for educational purposes and to protect their fragility since some date back to before European contact in Canada. For example, the “War of 1812: The Chippewa Experience” is a feature exhibit at MOA on display until April 2015. It features three replica wampum belts from the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Chippewa Exhibit 1812
War of 1812: The Chippewa Experience – Exhibit on display at MOA until April 2015
1812 Chippewa Experience
War of 1812: The Chippewa Experience – Exhibit on display at MOA until April 2015


What are wampum strings?

Wampum strings can be used to invite other nations to meetings. They include the topic that the meeting will discuss based on the colour of beads and number of strings. At the end of the strings is a wooden stick with notches which tells when the meeting will take place. Notches are cut off after each passing day until none remain. This marks the meeting date.

Wampum strings can also signify a position of honour. Clan Mothers or Chiefs are passed down a special wampum string from the previous leader. Carrying their own wampum string shows their place in the community as a leader.

What are they made of?

Wampum beads are made of two different shells: the quahog and white welk shell. Quahog clam shells are purple or black in colour and represent war and suffering while welk shells are symbols of power, peace, goodness and friendship.

Shell beads are used because shells retain words spoken over it and pass these words on from generation to generation.

Beads are hand made by breaking the shell, drilling a hole, and grinding it into a tubular shape. It is  a long and delicate process.

What do they symbolize?

Today, the people who can read wampum belts are recognized as oral historians and storytellers. They have apprenticed to learn this knowledge and often how to make wampum beads.

The Hiawatha Belt

Image source: Popular Science Monthly Volume 28
Image source: Popular Science Monthly Volume 28

The Hiawatha belt is one of the most recognized wampum. It symbolizes the agreement between the 5 original Haudenosaunee nations and their promise to support each other in unity. The central symbol is a tree (representing the Onondaga Nation – where the Peacemaker planted the Tree of Peace and under which the leaders of the Five Nations buried their weapons). Four white squares from left to right represent the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Mohawk tribes. Lines extending from the tribes stand for a path which other nations may follow if they agree to live in peace and join the Confederacy.


Two Row Wampum (Kaswehntha)


This wampum is a 17th century treaty with the Dutch (when Europeans asked to live on the land). It symoblizes cooperation and serving a common interest. Two rows of purple are separated by three white rows. The white symoblize peace, a good mind, and strength. The wampum belt as a whole symbolizes one river with two vessels (the purple lines) traveling side by side. One purple line/vessel is a ship, representing the Dutch and another is a canoe, the Haudenosaunee. Inside each vessel are the people, traditions, laws, and ways of life. These two lines (or nations) are distinct and have a right to steer their own vessel without interference.

Dish with One Spoon

Wampum belts 1812 exhibit
Dish with One Spoon wampum (top left corner) from 1812 exhibit

This wampum belt is one of the most significant belts because it represents the first peace treaty made in North America between all Native nations before European contact. (Made between the League of Five Nations and its allies, and the confederacy of Anishinabek and allied nations). The dish with one spoon reminds people we only have one dish, one mother earth we can take from. We should take only what we need, leave something for others, and keep the dish clean. It also demonstrates our collective responsibility to share equally.


How can I learn more?

Wampum bead craft
Wampum bead workshop craft

Visiting groups can book a tour at MOA to learn about Wampums and make a wampum craft with a partner, learning about and creating an non-written wampum agreement.


Sources consulted:

A special Thank You to Dr. Mary Lou Smoke & Dr. Dan Smoke for their review of this information and providing further knowledge 





Lizard Pipes

In his 1914 archaeology report on Ontario Effigy Pipes in Stone, Col. Geo. E. Laidlaw writes about the unique Lizard Pipe specimens in Ontario, of which we have on display in our permanent exhibit with a unique provenance.

Lizard Pipes are ” nearly always a white or light-gray stone, [of] steatite and limestone.” Steatite pipes, being a stronger material, have held their carved features better than the softer limestone. Col. Laidlaw distinguishes two categories of effigy pipes:

“1st, Long slender stemmed pipes, with effigies, either human or lizard, clasping the front of the bowl, with head projecting above rim, and when the effigy is a lizard the tail extends along underside of stem. Sometimes only the human head is represented (in one case an animal) perched on edge of bowl.
2nd, Stemless bowls of an ovoid or vase type, with the effigies clasping, or crawling up the bowl on the opposite side of the stem hole. In this second division, so far as observed, the effigies are those of lizards, with one exception.” **

Stemmed Lizard Pipe
Stemmed Lizard Pipe
Source: Ontario Effigy Pipes in Stone.
Stemless lizard pipe
Stemless Lizard Pipe Source: Ontario Effigy Pipes in Stone.

The 1st style is on display in our permanent exhibit with the Lawson Site artifacts, accompanied by this news article:

“Rare Indian Lizard Pipe Given to the University Museum”
–  January 1943 – London Free Press news article.

Long known and coveted by collectors throughout the country, and also the subject of articles by various archaeologists in recent years, an Indian Lizard pipe of unique design has just been acquired by the Museum of Indian Archaeology at the University of Western Ontario. The pipe was originally found on the Lawson Prehistoric Village site near London, originally known as the Shaw Woods Estate. Historians have found abundant evidence of an Indian Village existing on this spot and dating back before the French explorers arrived in the 17th century. The Lizard pipe was found here by the late John Sonly, farm manager, half a century ago, while digging up a large elm root. It is of grey limestone. With the stem three inches long. The stem has a lizard clinging to it, and in front of the bowl a human head faces away from the smoker – a variation from the usual design in such pipes, where the head normally faces the person using the pipe. Col. G.E. Laidlaw, in an article on “Effigy Pipes in Stone,” appearing in the 1923 Archaeological Report, Department of Education, Ontario, says the pipe, […] is attributed to the Attiwandaron tribe. It was for many years in possession of Mr. Schreiber, of London, daughter of Mr. Sonly, who found it. It was sold by Mrs. Schreiber to W.H. Coverdale, president of the Canada Steamship Lines, who has now presented it to the University of Western Ontario where its advent is a cause of much pride to Wilfrid Jury, curator of the Museum.

** Images and further descriptions can be found in the digital version of the paper at:

Gloves or no gloves?

Glove: Fact or Fiction

To wear gloves or not to wear gloves? This is a question archaeologist and historians have been debating for decades. Traditionally gloves were used when handling all artifacts, but new evidence suggests that wearing gloves might actually do more harm than good.

Read the following statements and try to determine whether they are  fact, or just a myth! Once you have your answer, scroll down to see if you are correct!

Good luck!

#1: People have oils in their skin that can be harmful to artifact(s) they handle.

#2: You don’t need to wear gloves when handling manuscripts, touching them is actually good!

#3:  You need to wear gloves when handling all textiles and furniture, the wood and fabric will decay if you touch it.

#4:  All gloves do the same thing, and provide the same protection.

#5: Wearing gloves is necessary when handling bone

Jesuit Artifacts


#1: People have oils in their skin that can be harmful to artifact(s) they handle. Answer: Fact!

While you might not be able to see it, these oils can leave a film on artifacts that deteriorate over time and damage the artifacts. Skin secretes oils, salts, and other wastes that react with certain materials. For example, something as simple as a finger print on a piece of metal can cause corrosion and irreversible damage. The damage can take weeks, and sometimes decades! (Be careful with that coin collection!)

 #2: You don’t need to wear gloves when handling manuscripts, touching them is actually good! Answer: Fact!

The necessity of wearing gloves when handling manuscripts is a common misconception.  Manuscripts are not typically made out of paper like modern books, but rather a material called vellum.  Vellum is a form of paper that was commonly used throughout the Middle and Early Modern ages.  It is made out of calf skin and could be made into many shapes and sizes to produce scrolls, letters, and large books. The process of turning the skin into vellum involves: cleaning, bleaching, and stretching the skin into the desired shape, and finishing it with a treatment of lime or chalk to help keep the ink from bleeding. If the manuscript is made of vellum, the oils in your hands are actually good for replenishing the moisture in the material which can harden and become brittle with age. It is recommended that manuscripts are handled at least a few times per year by clean dry hands in order to help keep the pages from breaking.

Fun Fact: All declarations made by the British Parliament are still printed on vellum!

#3:  You need to wear gloves when handling all textiles and furniture, the wood and fabric will decay if you touch it. Answer: Myth!

While gloves are required for handling most textiles and wooden artifacts, gloves are not always the safest option. When dealing with small wooden artifacts, or furniture pieces, the gloves can cause the handler to lose their grip on the artifact as the make an already slippery surface even slipperier. When deciding whether or not to wear gloves one must always weigh the pros and cons; sometimes no gloves are the safest bet!

#4: All gloves do the same thing, and provide the same protection. Answer: Myth!

There are many different kinds of gloves that are used for different kinds of material, and these gloves have different purposes. The two main types of gloves used in museums and archives are:

  • Disposable vinyl or latex gloves: These are non-absorbent, making them good for objects that are dusty; they are also useful when dealing with artifacts that have a rough surface as they have no fibers that can get caught.  These types of gloves can also give the handler more grip on a smooth artifact.
  • Cotton gloves: These are good for clean objects that are not very rough or very smooth. However, there has been a shift amongst museologists and archivists recently that discredits the use of this type of glove– as their thickness and seams can restrict feeling, and the gloves don’t stop moisture and sweat from leaving the handler’s hands!

#5: Wearing gloves is necessary when handling bone. Answer: Fact!

Whenever bones of any kind are being handled it is nessissary to wear gloves, not only for the artifacts protection, but also for the handlers. Bones can contain bacteria, while most of the time the bacteria has vanished, traces can still be present which can get someone sick! Further, bones are sensitive material that can be deteriorated by the oils in your hands.


We hope you did well on the Fact or Myth and that you learned a lot about the artifact handling process. Feel free to get your (bare) hands on some artifacts with our Education Programs or our hands-on displays in MOA’s permanent exhibit.

In case you were still wondering, below is the complete list of artifacts that require gloves before handling based on guidelines set by the Museum Of London. (But remember, when it comes to gloves it is best to use your own judgment to determine what is the safest way to handle an artifact!)

  • All metals
  • Painted furniture
  • Lacquered or gilded surfaces
  • Anything made from plaster
  • Taxidermy
  • Geological specimens
  • Plastics
  • Photographic items
  • Unglazed ceramics
  • Human and animal remains