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Tales from the shells

By Raquel Bagnol


The volume and diversity of marine shell ornaments found in women's graves in the oldest burial site on Guam implied that women in the Marianas enjoyed significant power in their families and clans for at least 2,000 years.

But first, a trip down history lane will help us understand how the spotlight on women in society came about.

The Spanish visitors to the Marianas led by Ferdinand Magellan landed in on Guam in 1521. Coming from societies with patrilineal traditions, the Spanish were in for a surprise.

They noted that although husbands held the title as "head of the household," the wives ruled the home. This was something new to them, and they recorded their observations describing the native CHamoru people as a stratified society with matrilineal clans and how wives have had significant power over their husbands, particularly in marital disputes.

While in the Marianas in 1602, Franciscan lay brother Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora wrote his observations about the life of the early CHamoru people. If a husband was unfaithful, for example, his wife could leave him anytime, return to her family, taking the children and everything that the couple owned.

In 1668, Spanish Jesuit missionary Diego Luis de San Vitores related that a husband who abandoned his wife could be murdered by the wife and her female neighbors.

Scholars, however, noted that the accounts about the power of the CHamoru women were biased and even “potentially exaggerated as they were written by European males who favored patrilineal relations.”

To dig deeper and evaluate the documentary accounts of the Spanish visitors, archeologists Judith R. Amesbury, Cherie K. Walth and James M. Bayman conducted a study on shell ornaments dug out of an excavated burial site in Naton Beach in Guam.

The study, titled “Marine Shell Ornaments and the Political Economy of Gendered Power in the Mariana Islands,” was published in 2020. The archaeological excavation at Naton Beach from 2006 to 2008 turned up the human remains of over 400 individuals in 362 burial features.

Archeologists recovered more than 1,700 marine shell and shark teeth ornaments from 60 of the burial features --the largest number of burials with ornaments in the Marianas.

The Naton Beach cemetery burials were both from the Pre-Latte Period and the Latte Period. Pre-Latte was the period from the arrival of the first settlers to the Marianas by ca. 1500 BC to AD 900/1000. The remaining years up to the arrival of Magellan in 1521 are known as the Latte Period.

Amesbury and co-authors noted that most of the burials took place between 700 BC and AD 1521. Each set of the recovered human remains was classified as either Pre-Latte or Latte individuals.

The Naton Beach excavation indicated 435 burials, but the study was based only on the 362 burials with sufficiently intact features.  Of the 362 burials, 152 were traced to the Pre-Latte period and 210 to the Latte.

From 41 of the 151 Pre-Latte burials, archeologists recovered 1,644 ornaments, 1,294 of which were retrieved from the burial site of 19 adult females. A single young female had one ornament.

The authors’ study indicated that the 20 females were buried with 79 percent of Pre-Latte ornaments, and 76 percent of all ornaments recovered from the site.

Only 93 ornaments were recovered from the burials of nine adults while 137 ornaments were recovered from 11 remains of adults, whose genders were unknown.

From the Latte Period/post-contact burials, 19 of the 210 burials yielded 61 ornaments made mostly of Spondylus shells.

Also recovered from the rest of the Latte Period burials were Spondylus necklace beads and glass beads of European origin.

The authors noted that during both the Pre-Latte and Latte periods women were also buried with a wider variety of ornament types. While there were no restrictions for burying men with ornaments, the tradition was practiced more with women.

Archaeologists pointed out that throughout the Pacific, marine ornaments and other kinds of jewelry were more than just decorations; they were considetred considered “prestige goods” reflecting the power, status and social positions of those who wore them.

The value of a shell ornament was based on the amount of labor that went into its production and the quality of materials, such as the shell's shape, color, and luster.

Raquel Bagnol is a longtime journalist. She worked as a reporter for Marianas Variety on Saipan and Island Times in Palau. Send feedback to


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