Engraved Shell Cup

Shell Cup – 34Lf40/692 (written by Laurel Lamb)

This Spiro artifact is made from what is commonly known as a conch shell.  It is very likely that the artifact was traded north to the Spiro area from either from the Florida Keys or the Gulf Coast, according to the Dr. Pulley, the Director of the Houston Museum of Natural Science (Brown and Phillips 1984:26).  However, the Huastecan culture, who lived along the Gulf Coast, had a similar tradition of shell engraving, so there is strong evidence that the shell material came from that region (Brown and Phillips 1984:27).  Whether the engraved shell cup originated from the Gulf Coast or the Florida Keys, it can definitely be surmised that there was some form of long distance trading occurring during this period.  In times before cars, planes, and trains existed, it is remarkable how great a distance Spiro artifacts traveled.


Ten inches long, this shell cup is almost complete, except for its broken tip and eroded edges.  The shell’s back spire was somehow carefully cut off, leaving Brown and Phillips (1984:vii) to believe it was done to make the object lie flat.  Despite how large the shell cup is, they have also proposed that artifacts like this could have been worn as a pendant based on the hole drilled on the top spire of the shell.  Brown and Phillips (1984:vii) have found another type of physical evidence that these shell cups were being used as pendants, on the decorations of other engraved shell artifacts that feature human figures.  These human figures are wearing large shell cup pendants, very similar in shape to this artifact.  Paying attention to the clothes and accessories figures wear on contemporary artistic renditions can be important to understanding other aspects of that society.

The figures on the shell cup are significant because of what they suggest about the beliefs people had in Spiro society.  According to George E. Lankford (2004:214), there is a figure in Southeastern Native American mythology that is often called the Great Serpent or the Horned Underwater Serpent.  The Great Serpent was thought to dwell in the Underworld and was a symbol of both great fear and power amongst people (Conrad 1989:98).  This fear and power of the Great Serpent was used by shamans as a source of power in their duties, such as helping cure illness.  The figures engraved on this shell cup are most likely associated with this Great Serpent, or at least the symbolism that went along with the being.  Easily mistaken for ears, the short stubs on three out of five of the snakes are horns.  One snake has antlers, which is important because the Great Serpent is often portrayed as a combination of different animals, such as the deer (Conrad 1989:99).  Due to the great power snakes had in southeastern Native American beliefs, it is possible that this shell cup was meant to be used, not as an everyday, utilitarian pendant, but an object in important shamanistic rituals or ceremonies.

34Lf40/692 detail
34Lf40/692 detail

This engraved shell cup passed through several hands before eventually being donated to the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History by H.W. Hamilton.  Hamilton bought this artifact from a collector on September 12th, 1946.  The Pocola Mining Company looted the Spiro Mounds in the 1930s, so this artifact most likely was found at that time, then bought and passed around by collectors before Hamilton found it.


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