Chimú artist(s)

Not on view

In 1572, the Spanish cosmographer Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (2007:134) noted that in the Andean region of South America, home to the Inca Empire, natives esteemed a red seashell—almost certainly Spondylus, a spiky bivalve known commonly as the thorny oyster—more than silver or gold. This collar, which would have been worn suspended from the neck by cotton cords, features thousands of tiny reddish-orange Spondylus shell beads strung in vertical rows and attached to a cotton backing. The graceful wide crescent shape of the top of the collar would have rested on the shoulders of the wearer, and the cascading step design would lie on the individual’s chest. The bold simplicity of the primary field of bright Spondyus is set off by a border of black and pale orange beads arranged in a wave design. A fringe of Spondylus shell beads hangs free below each horizontal section of the step design.

Spondylus is found in the tropical waters off the coast of what is now Peru’s northernmost territory, but more commonly it was harvested off the coast of Ecuador and points farther north. It is likely that the shell was worked into small beads (chaquiras) in these northern regions as well, and then imported or exchanged south to the Central Andes where they would be incorporated into collars, bracelets, and other ornaments. The majority of the beads on the present example were likely made from Spondyus princeps, the smaller and redder of the two species of the genus Spondylus used most frequently in the ancient Andes.

A similar collar, now in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, New York (accession number B/3174), was reportedly found at Chan Chan, an archaeological site on Peru’s North Coast, along with other beaded objects, including a second collar, a pillow, and a bag (Rowe 1984:167). Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimú empire, one of the last great polities to fall to the Incas in the second half of the fifteenth century. At its height, the Chimú Empire dominated some 800 miles of Peru’s North Coast, from just south of the modern border with Ecuador to just north of Lima. Located at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Chan Chan encompassed some 8 square miles (20 sq km) and was dominated by 10 royal compounds with massive perimeter walls (8–10 m high). These structures are thought to have been the palaces, administrative centers, and ultimately the funerary structures of Chimú kings. This rich city flourished for over 400 years, and became famed for its artists. According to archaeologist John R. Topic (1990), a striking percentage of the population—perhaps 12,000 in this city of 40,000—was engaged with craft production. Spondylus was likely at least partially worked there; certainly, its acquisition was celebrated on the walls of Chan Chan’s palaces in reliefs depicting shell divers and other figures grasping the characteristically spiny bivalve (Pillsbury 1996).

Chan Chan may have grown rich in part through its domination of the Spondylus trade. As noted above, the shell had to be harvested in the warm, tropical waters off the coast of northwestern South America. In the first millennium B.C., small quantities of the shell were acquired by inhabitants of the Central Andes, where it was closely associated with deities and supernatural powers. By the end of the first millennium AD, vast quantities of the bivalve—both whole shells and worked beads—were imported into Peru’s Lambayeque Valley and points further south. One of the first European accounts of South America describes a raft likely engaged in the Spondylus trade. In 1525, Francisco Pizarro’s expedition encountered an indigenous sailing craft off the coast of Tumbez, just south of the equator (Relación Sámano 1985:179–180). The raft was filled with objects of gold and silver, as well as wool and cotton garments, emeralds, crystals, and other valuables. To the astonishment of the Spaniards, these fine things were traded for coral-colored seashells, undoubtedly Spondylus. As late as 1621, the Jesuit missionary Pablo José de Arriaga (Arriaga 1968) noted (with some exasperation) that indigenous traders living on the coast made a profit selling these shells to people living in the highlands.

The Incas and their predecessors possessed sophisticated record-keeping systems, but they did not practice writing as we now think of it, limiting our ability to understand with precision what Spondylus may have meant to the indigenous populations of the Andes. From accounts written in the early colonial period, however, we can glean a sense of the bivalve’s symbolic associations. In Inca times, Spondylus shells, known as mullu in Quechua (the modern descendant of the language of the Incas), were called the “daughters of the sea, the mother of all waters,” and were closely linked to ideas of water, fertility, and abundance (Pillsbury 1996). It was considered a food of the gods, and was a favored item for sacrifices and offerings. Spondylus shells were deposited in agricultural fields and springs to ensure continued abundance and increase yields. As is true in many societies, materials with such strong supernatural associations were deployed in displays of royal might. As Alana Cordy-Collins (1990) has noted, a king on Peru’s North Coast had a courtier dedicated to scattering seashell dust where the monarch was to walk. Spondylus shell, carefully worked into regalia such as this fine collar, signaled the wearer’s connections to divine power and underscored his or her role as a nexus between supernatural forces and earthly well-being.

In addition to the Spondylus collar in the American Museum of Natural History, a second example, also similar in size and shape, is in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Arqueología e Historia del Perú in Lima (Lavalle 1977:126–127). Both the AMNH and Lima collars feature figural imagery: the example in Lima is richly decorated with anthropomorphic creatures and unidentified animals, whereas the AMNH example features seven figures wearing earspools and crescent headdresses and two small pelicans in profile. It is possible that the present collar once included additional figural elements, now lost, or that other collars or necklaces were layered over this one, but to date no physical evidence on the collar suggests that this was the case. Certainly the bold simplicity of this design—a design that celebrates the brilliant hues of the bivalve—would have been a dramatic and highly visible allusion to the rich symbolic complexities of Spondylus and its broader associations with fertility, abundance, and power.

Joanne Pillsbury
Andrall E. Pearson Curator
Arts of the Ancient Americas, 2018

Sources and Further Reading

Arriaga, Pablo José de, The Extirpation of Idolatry in Peru. Translated and edited by L. Clark Keating (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968).

Carter, Benjamin, and Matthew Helmer, “Elite Dress and Regional Identity: Chimú-Inka Perforated Ornaments from Samanco, Nepeña Valley, Coastal Peru,” Beads: Journal of the Society of Bead Researchers vol. 27 (2015), pp. 46-74.

Cordy-Collins, Alana, “Fonga Sigde, Shell Purveyor to the Chimu Kings,” in The Northern Dynasties: Kingship and Statecraft in Chimor: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks 12th and 13th October 1985, edited by Michael E. Moseley and Alana Cordy-Collins (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990), pp. 393-417.

Lavalle, José Antonio de, Arte Precolombino, Museo Nacional de Antropología y Arqueología (Lima: Banco de Crédito del Perú en la Cultura, 1977), pt. 1, see especially pp. 126-127.

Moore, Jerry D. and Carolina María Vílchez, “Spondylus and the Inka Empire on the Far North Coast of Peru: Recent Excavations at Taller Conchales, Cabeza de Vaca, Tumbes,” in Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy Lynne Costin (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, 2016), pp. 221-251.

Pillsbury, Joanne. 1996. “The Thorny Oyster and the Origins of Empire: Implications of Recently Uncovered Spondylus Imagery from Chan Chan, Peru.” Latin American Antiquity 7, no. 4 (1996), pp. 313-340.

Pillsbury, Joanne, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds. Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017). See especially cat. no. 55, p. 162.

Relación Sámano, in Francisco de Xérez, Verdadera relación de la conquista del Perú, ed. Concepción Bravo (Madrid: Historia 16, 1985). See especially pp. 179-180.

Rowe, Ann Pollard, Costumes & Featherwork of the Lords of Chimor, Textiles from Peru's North Coast (Washington, D.C.: The Textile Museum, 1984). See especially p. 167, fig. 172.

Sarmiento de Gamboa, Pedro, The History of the Incas. Translated and edited by Brian S. Bauer and Vania Smith (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007). See especially p. 134.

Topic, John R., “Craft Production in the Kingdom of Chimor,” in Michael E. Moseley and Alana Cordy-Collins, eds., The Northern Dynasties: Kingship and Statecraft in Chimor (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990), pp. 145-176.

Collar, Chimú artist(s), Spondylus shell and black stone beads, cotton, Chimú

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