Engraved Shell Cup – Piasa

Engraved shell cup – 34Lf40/1210 (written by Louisa Nash)

(Craig B style engraved shell cup with Piasa Concept)

This engraved shell cup fragment is one of six matching fragments that make up the remains of a shell cup. The shell is white, and black pigment has been rubbed into the engraved lines probably after excavation. It is 13 centimeters long and about 13 centimeters wide. The inside of the cup is undecorated and smooth. Engraved on the outside surface of the shell cup fragment is a creature that possesses a human head with the mouth and teeth of a feline, the upper torso of a feline, the talons and feet of a bird, and the scaly lower torso of a large snake.


Engraved shell cups, likely displayed in ceremonies and rituals, were used as containers and are believed to have held liquids. It is also possible that unengraved shell cups held clay pigments (Sievert 2011:43). Whelk shells of the genus Busycon were primarily used in creating engraved shell cups (Sievert 2011:40). The engraving was made using a sharp lithic tool. The cups were formed by cutting the whelk shell near its top and down its body. Parts of the outer wall on one side of the shell and the columella core of the whelk were removed and were later used to make shell beads and pendants. The knobs on the shoulder of the whelk shell were generally removed and ground down (Brown 1996:417).

There are six styles of engraved cups at Spiro based on two major contemporary artistic approaches. This engraved shell cup piece has characteristics of the Craig B stylistic phase. Composite animals, in addition to raccoons, birds, and spiders, have been noted as a common theme of Craig B style designs (Sievert 2011:49). This shell cup features an animal referred to as the Piasa (Phillips and Brown 1984). To be characterized as a Piasa, the depicted composite animal must have feline elements and some features from several other animals such as snakes, birds, deer, fish, raccoons, or humans. In this shell cup, the dotted single circles that cover the figure’s torso frequently appear on snakes and felines (Phillips and Brown 1984:140). There are portrayals of humans with tattoos or painted designs on their bodies found at Spiro; however, in this cup the dotted circles indicate that the body is that of a feline (Duffield 1963:221).

On the elbows, there are concentric bisected semi-circles, and along the wrists, neck and waist is a grid design depicting jewelry in the Craig B style (Sievert 2011:49). The figure wears an earspool with a beaded feather. The mouth is distinctly feline, and there is a bowknot on the tongue, which is often shown on snakes (Phillips and Brown 1984). The lower half of the Piasa’s body is covered in large snake scales. When this engraved shell cup piece is combined with the others that compose the cup, it can be seen that this creature has a long, scaly serpentine tail with raccoon bindings along its length. Many scholars believe that the Piasa is actually a depiction of the Underwater Panther (Phillips and Brown 1984:142). The Underwater Panther can be portrayed as a combination of cougar, rattlesnake, deer, and hawk. Often it is shown as a creature with a panther body, a human head, and an extremely long tail (Lankford 2007:111).

Historically, the Horned Water Serpent and the Underwater Panther have been known as the two major forms of the Great Serpent, who is the guardian of all water and the ruler of the Beneath World and the realm of the dead (Lankford 2007). Often, there is not a tremendous amount of distinction between these two forms, although the form of the Underwater Panther only appears among tribes in the central region or heartland of North America (Lankford 2007:113). In ethnographic accounts, religious specialists were said to attempt to gain the Underwater Panther’s power. However, this was a dangerous pursuit, and most of the drowning that occurred was believed to have been caused by the Great Serpent (Lankford 2007).

The Underwater Panther was a source of sacred and medicinal power that could potentially provide knowledge, assistance, and sacred objects. Warriors participated in a pre-battle ritual that used items from the Underwater Panther that allowed them to become pure and balanced. There are also mythological stories about women who were married to the Underwater Panther; in some stories, the Underwater Panther caused floods to destroy the villages of people who opposed these marriages (Lankford 2007:127). Underwater creatures also served an explanatory role for the fossil bones that would wash up on the banks of creeks and rivers (Lankford 2007).

Scholars have noted that there is a shamanistic orientation to a majority of the engraved shell cups and gorgets at Spiro. The Underwater Panther, as a form of the Great Serpent, was a major source of power and had great cosmological and religious significance as representing the ruler of the Beneath World. Engraved shells, which represented the Beneath World and its power, would have been a sacred object used in rituals (Lankford 2007). Marine shell cups were closely associated with the black drink ceremonies that were noted to have occurred in both historic and prehistoric times (Galloway 1989:72). This ceremony had an important function of providing social integration. This engraved shell cup that depicts the Underwater Panther fits into the recent theory that Craig Mound was constructed as a sacred monument to help unify the surrounding communities (Brown 2012).


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