Thursday, January 16, 2014

Shells for Appearances

From personal adornment to ritual use, left whole or cut into shapes, the ancient Maya utilized different kinds of shells in their artistic and religious endeavors. Shells that we know the Maya used include the shell of the thorny oyster, the oliva, the conch and the pecten, among others.

Thorny Oyster
This oyster has a spiny shell, whose specific shade ranges from a red to a red-orange. The ancient Maya used the thorny oyster to make a whole range of items, from jewelry to cloak decorations. It became a more elite level shell by the Classic Period's close.

Oliva
Ancient Maya kings used the oliva shell in a certain kind of costume in which they wore strands of them -- these strands are thought to have made noise as they moved. For example, Yikin Chan Kawil (also spelled Yik'in Chan K'awiil), a king of Tikal during the 700s AD, can be seen in Tikal's Stela 5 wearing oliva shells. In contrast to the thorny oyster, by the Classic period's close the oliva shell was utilized by non-elite Maya in their adornments.

Conch
When it comes to the conch, the ancient Maya used several species for their shells. One species they turned into a kind of trumpet via altering the shell's lip, and then decorated -- by carving it, for example. Two other species have been found at sites carved into discs -- possibly items of personal wear. Like the oliva shell, at the finish of the Classic Period, conch shells were also a shell used by non-elites in their adornment.

Pecten
This shell's appearance is that of the quintessential scalloped clam shell. Introduced from Central Mexico, pecten shells were in favor in the Early Classic Period. Examples of pecten shells in art can be seen on Stela 4 at Tikal, in which the ruler is wearing a necklace of pecten shells -- an item seen in Teotihuacan art.

Other Shells
Two other kinds of shells were used, at least by the Classic Period's finale, by people of the non-elite class. These are the shells of freshwater mussels and pearly oysters, used by people of non-elite status for personal adornment.

Consideration
There are instances where, though a site is near a large body of salt water, the site's residents seem to have favored another body of salt water. One example of this is that most of the shells and other saltwater items at Tikal come from the Gulf of Mexico, not the Caribbean Sea. Another example is at Copán, where the Pacific Ocean seems to have the been preferred source of saltwater items.

References:
"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

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