Shell Fragment

Engraved Shell Cup – 34Lf40/1490 (written by Alyxandra Stanco)

This portion of an engraved shell cup is one of the many pieces that come from Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma. An engraved shell cup is a large shell that is used as a drinking vessel and is decorated with icons and figures. This particular piece is an off-white color, it is only a portion of a whole shell cup and 14 centimeters in length.  The inside of the piece is a pinkish-white color that is characteristic of conch shells.

Engraved shell from Spiro

Engraved shell cups were created by making cuts on the top and down the body of the columella, which is a column-like structure that rests of the top of a conch shell.  This produced a suitable drinking vessel, which was then engraved with different iconographic designs and figures. This particular piece is engraved with feathers lining the outside portion and then a petaloid motif surrounding the figure that is most likely on the missing conch pieces. According to Reilly (2007:45), the petaloid motif gets its name from its resemblance to the petal-shaped leaves that are seen on flowers. He argues that the petaloid motif that surrounds objects and figures identifies their location as celestial. The semilunar eye within each petaloid may indicate that this scene refers to the Pawnee Morning Star ceremony (Reilly 2007:45). The Pawnee belong to the Caddoan linguistic group to which the inhabitants of Spiro also probably belonged. The ceremony refers to Morning Star, who travelled through the celestial realms to defeat guardian star beasts and to reach the female Evening Star. It is possible that the engravings on the shell cup illustrate this story.

Because this artifact’s petaloid motif can be interpreted as celestial, this artifact might have been included in religious contexts such as ceremonies or rituals. According to Brown (1996: 417), shell cups have been used during rituals to consume the “black drink”, which might have been used to cure spiritual or physical ailments.

This piece of engraved shell, once part of a whole drinking vessel, is now at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Researchers or visitors to the museum collections area can view this artifact in conjunction with other materials found at this site. By studying artifacts like this, archaeologists can begin to determine what life was like for the inhabitants of the Spiro Mound site.


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