Photographs (left to right): Black Racer, Paynes Prairie, Florida; Mohave Desert, Nevada; Monhonk, New York

Wampum Belt Archive



Holland Belt

18th century


Original Size:

Length: 46.7 inches. Width: 2.8 inches








RMV 364-1; purchased from dealer Charles Jamrach, London, 1883.

“Wampum,” derived from an eastern Algonquian word meaning ‘white strings (of shell beads)’, has come to refer to white and purple tubular beads made in northeastern North America from a number of different marine shells. Fashioned into strings, belts, bracelets, collars, or caps, wampum was used for personal ornamentation, as expression of material or spiritual value, or as a mnemonic device in ceremonial and political contexts by Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples.

With the availability of metal drills after European contact, cylindrical beads replaced the previously predominant discoidal beads, were adopted as currency by the colonists, and became an important item of trade in the interior of the continent.The Dutch observed the use of wampum as ornaments and for the compensation of murder in the first half of the seventeenth century in their colony of the New Netherlands.

The Dutch referred to the beads as “zeewant” (after the indigenous designation of the loose beads). In the process of displacing the indigenous populations from the Atlantic coast, the Dutch and the English also became the main manufacturers of wampum beads, which were produced commercially for the western trade well into the nineteenth century.

Items made of wampum first entered European collections in the seventeenth century, and it is likely that this was also the case in the Netherlands. In 1719, a wampum belt was illustrated as part of the cabinet of Levinus Vincent in Harlem and described as “money from shells” (pecunia ex conchylis), although such belts were not used as currency. The use of belts as mnemonic devices in intertribal and international politics found its most complex development among the Iroquois and entailed their exchange to remind both sides of claims, intentions, or agreements. Conventionalized designs woven into the belts were associated with specific meanings, which, however, were not unequivocal and had to be remembered by specialists entrusted with their safekeeping.As the colonial agreements came to be regarded as no longer significant and indigenous communities were either pressured to or voluntarily decided to adapt to the modes of the dominant societies, most traditional tribal wampum archives were broken up and sold to dealers and collectors in the late nineteenth century. Whatever information about their meaning may have still been remembered at that time was irretrievably lost.

The belt now in Leiden obviously comes from such a source, but even if the archive were known, it would be difficult to establish whether the belt had been of local manufacture or received from others in negotiations. There are few recognizable stylistic differences in the belts of the various peoples of northeastern North America, but the size of the belt, the kind of beads used, and the use of leather bands in its construction suggest an eighteenth-century origin. Contemporary Iroquois tend to interpret designs consisting of diamonds or hexagons linked by a line as indicating alliances between towns or nations.

Christian Feest. Valued beads made from shell, called wampum, a gift of the underwater spirits, were used for rare circular gorgets and more common woven belts in diplomatic exchange. Because of their origin, and the symbolic messages the designs of differently colored beads conveyed, they were powerful gifts in the 17th and 18th century.


Hereby the link to our online catalogue entry to read about the wampum belt:  



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