Hawk Bells - Medieval Tools and Mississippian Trinkets

From European Falconry to American Trade Good

De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (On The Art of Hunting with Birds). Found in the collection of Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.
De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (On The Art of Hunting with Birds). Found in the collection of Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. Hulton Fine Art Collection/ Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Image

A hawk bell (also called hawking or hawk's bell) is a small round object made of sheet brass or copper, originally used as part of falconry equipment in medieval Europe. Hawk bells were also brought to the American continents by early European explorers and colonizers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries as potential trade goods. When they are found in Mississippian contexts in the southern United States, hawk bells are considered evidence for direct or indirect Mississippian contact with early European expeditions such as those by Hernando de Soto, Pánfilo de Naváez, or others.

Bells and Medieval Falconry

The original use of hawk bells was, of course, in falconry. Hawking, the use of trained raptors to capture wild game, is an elite sport that was established throughout Europe no later than AD 500. The primary raptor used in hawking was peregrine and gyrfalcon, but they were only owned by the highest ranked individuals. The lower nobility and wealthier commoners practiced falconry with the goshawk and sparrow hawk.

Hawking bells were part of the equipment of the medieval falconer, and they were attached in pairs to one of the birds' legs by a short leather leash, called a bewit. Other hawking paraphernalia included leather leads called jesses, lures, hoods and gloves. The bells are necessarily made of light material, weighing no more than seven grams (1/4 ounce). Hawk bells found on archaeological sites are larger, although no more than 3.2 centimeters (1.3 inches) in diameter.

Historical Evidence

Spanish historical records dated to the 16th century describe the use of hawking bells (in Spanish: "cascabeles grandes de bronce" or large brass hawking bells) as trade items, along with iron knives and scissors, mirrors, and glass beads as well as clothing, maize and cassava. Although bells are not specifically mentioned in the de Soto chronicles, they were distributed as trade goods by several different Spanish explorers, including Pánfilo de Naváez, who gave bells to Dulchanchellin, a Mississippian chief in Florida, in 1528; and Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, who in 1566 presented Calusa headmen with bells among other objects.

Because of this, in the southern half of what is today the United States, hawk bells are often cited as evidence of the Pánfilo de Naváez and Hernando de Soto expeditions of the mid-16th century.

Types of Bells

Two types of hawk bells have been identified within the American continents: the Clarksdale bell (generally dated to the 16th century) and the Flushloop bell (generally dated to the 17th-19th centuries), both named by American archaeologists, rather than the original manufacturer.

The Clarksdale bell (named after the Clarksdale Mound in Mississippi where the type bell was found) is made up of two undecorated copper or brass hemispheres crimped together and secured by a square flange around the midsection. At the base of the bell are two holes connected by a narrow slit. The wide loop (often 5 cm [~2 in] or better) at the top is secured by pushing the ends through a hole in the upper hemisphere and soldering the separate ends to the interior of the bell.

The Flushloop bell has a thin strip of brass for an attachment loop, which was secured by pushing the ends of the of the loop through a hole in the bell and separating them. The two hemispheres were soldered rather than crimped together, leaving little or no surficial flange.

Many specimens of the Flushloop bell have two decorative grooves encircling each hemisphere.

Dating the Hawk Bell

In general, Clarksdale type bells are the rarer form and tend to be discovered in earlier contexts. Most date to the 16th century, although there are exceptions. Flushloop bells are generally dated in the 17th century or later, with the majority dated 18th and 19th century. Ian Brown has argued that Flushloop bells are of English and French manufacture, while the Spanish are the source of the Clarksdale.

Clarksdale bells have been found in many historic Mississippian sites throughout the southern United States, such as Seven Springs (Alabama), Little Egypt and Poarch Farm (Georgia), Dunn's Creek (Florida), Clarksdale (Mississippi), Toqua (Tennessee); as well as at Nueva Cadiz in Venezuela.