Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Thorny Oyster

 Author's note: To see an earlier post that lists different kinds of shells the ancient Maya used, click here.

Spondylus carving of a dog from the 600s to 700s AD.
May have been attached to clothing or been a pendant.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The thorny oyster (Spondylus princeps) 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
Thorny oyster 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 Classic periods.

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 any city-state.

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
Once 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
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Canine Ornament


  1. would you consider including photos?? it would be so helpful. thanks for sharing your research. Jenée

  2. Interesting information for making the protection through shells with different methods of catchyreviews, and also a sort of way forward for those who are currently working on it.