by Jo Loosemore, Mayflower 400 for The Box, Plymouth

We previously shared some background information about the ‘Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America’ partnership project we’re working on with Wampanoag artists and educators in America as well as partners here in the UK. It’s an important part of our Mayflower 400 activities.

One key element of the project took place a little earlier this year and saw Wampanoag artists visit the British Museum. The purpose of the visit was to record, interpret and explore one of the world’s largest collections of historic wampum belts which reveal traditional making-patterns and designs dating back to the 1600-1800s.

The visit to the British Museum stores was the first for Linda Coombs and the second for Paula Peters who saw the pieces in 2017 – a visit which inspired the project itself. On both occasions, there were prayers given in the Wampanoag language of Wopanaak.

‘The artifacts including wampum belts and other weavings, are incredibly sacred to the tribal people of our ancestral homeland and to pray over them in their indigenous language was an important ritual.’
Linda Coombs, Wampanoag Advisory Committee

Photo of historic wampum belts from the British Museum collection laid out on a table

Historic wampum belts from the British Museum’s collection

Working with conservators, Paula and Linda were able to share their knowledge of wampum and the traditional craftsmanship involved in its creation, whilst learning about the origins and history of the collection here in England. This shared expertise is informing the design of a new wampum belt, which we’ll be touring nationally in 2020.

‘The trip was very beneficial and inspirational as the work progresses on the wampum belt in our community. It is certain to be historically and culturally very significant.’
Paula Peters, Wampanoag Advisory Committee

Photograph of two women looking at a historic wampum belt laid out on a table

Linda and Paula look at some of the British Museum’s collection of historic wampum belts

The new belt is inspired by the quest for an old one belonging to the Wampanoag sachem, or chief, Metacom. Following the war of 1675-6, his regalia which included symbolic and important wampum, was given to the English victors. It’s thought it was sent to England. The search for it continues.

‘Support for the making of a new belt is helping the Wampanoag community restore this historic tradition and begin anew. The project is engaging both wampum and artisans to produce a belt that connects our history to our contemporary times and invites future generations to contribute.’
Paula Peters, Wampanoag Advisory Committee

We’re really pleased to be working alongside Smoke Sygnals and the Wampanoag Advisory Committee to create ‘Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America’. We’ll have more to share with you about the development of the belt and the exhibition, which will tour to Lincoln, London and Southampton before arriving in Plymouth, soon.