In geological terms, the "mantle" represents the layer of the earth between the crust and the outer core. In relation to mollusks, such as the nautilus, it is the layer that secretes the shell. In ceremonies, a "mantle"is a garment symbolizing preeminence and authority. The distinct spiral shape of this monument was chosen specifically from three sources:
- Powhatan's Mantle - a historic deerskin cloak, decorated with shell-beads sewn in spiral clusters, believed to have belonged to the great Indian chief and now at the Ashmolean Museum in London. The designs on the mantle are thought to represent the 34 members of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom and the balance of powers among these Chesapeake tribes.
- Labyrinth - a sacred symbol. Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter, in their cross-cultural study of tribal symbols, "Patterns that Connect: Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art," assign various meanings to the labyrinth, including a sacred path to the home of an ancestor, "...many (New World) Indians who make the labyrinth regard it as a sacred symbol, a beneficial ancestor, a deity."
- Nautilus – the nautilus is a living fossil which has been replicating itself for 500 million years, carrying in its chambers the memories and knowledge of times past. The spiral shape of their shells consists of a series of ever-larger chambers, each of which the creature lives in until it outgrows that particular space, moving on to the next one. The shape of the nautilus shell suggests that it can keep growing forever. It is also considered as a symbol for strength, as the shell can withstand very high pressure and is a symbol of perfection and beauty, having remained unchanged for centuries. In addition to the symbolism associated with the nautilus, many fossils of this shell can be found throughout the floor of the Capitol building!