Author's note: To see an earlier post that lists different kinds of shells the ancient Maya used, click here.
The thorny oyster (Spondylus principens) is a creature
with a red to red-orange spiny shell that sometimes produces pearls
(another item the ancient Maya valued). Also known simply as spondylus,
it lives in the ocean around a depth where divers without expert ability
or scuba equipment would have difficulty getting to. Used in different
ways, the shell of the thorny oyster obtained elite status level by the
finish of the Classic Period.
Working the Shell
shells were altered in a number of ways. One of the ways was to rub
young thorny oysters to make the colors of the shell stand out. This
method was employed at Tikal, during the early Classic and Middle
Another method of alteration was to scrape off
the nacre found on the shell's interior sides. As to where all this
method was used, some contradiction has been found. In her book, Animals and Plants of the Ancient Maya: A Guide, Victoria Schlesinger
states that this method was used at Tikal, while Maya Art and
Architecture by Mary Ellen Miller does not state it was restricted to
A third known method was very simple indeed. This
method involved just drilling a hole through the shell. This hole was
to be used for stringing.
Things Fashioned from Thorny Oyster
prepared, the shell would then be used to decorate rulers' mantles,
shaped into tiles for mosaics, crafted into ear flares (spool-shaped
earrings) and used to make hip ornaments for women. Sometimes thorny
oyster was worn as a pendant necklace (via the one-hole method). Beyond
personal adornment, thorny oyster was also used as part of funeral goods
and in caches.
"Maya Art and Architecture"; Mary Ellen Miller; 1999
"The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives"; Heather Irene McKillop; 2004
"Maya History"; Tatiana Proskouriakoff; 2011
"The Meriam-Webster Dictionary"; 2004
"Animals and Plants of the Ancient Maya: A Guide"; Victoria Schlesinger; 2001