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shells - jewels of the sea

ancient assets
From long before recorded history, shell was highly valued across continents and cultures. Used principally for three purposes, shell functioned as a medium of currency or trade, as personal adornment, and as an important ingredient in ceremonial objects possessing spiritual or talismanic attributes -- sometimes fulfilling all three purposes at the same time.

shell money from sumer, ca. 3,000 bc, actual size 1"

Shell objects are ubiquitous in archeological excavations around the world, whether in ancient Sumeria, the Indus River Valley, Europe, ancient China, or the Mississippi River Valley. Excavations of grave sites in Saxon Germany, pre-dynastic Egypt and prehistoric England have revealed the presence of shells.
In 1917, excavating in what is now Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico (c. 1400 AD), archeologist Earl Halstead Morris uncovered nine genera of shells, many of them Pacific Ocean species such as abalone, olivella, conus, and marine bivalves, which were cut and drilled into beads, pendants, or foundations for mosaics.
Among the most ancient artifacts to have survived, shell and stone beads are also used by archaeologists as clues to ancient trade routes since they are often made of non-local materials. For instance, large amounts of shell objects discovered in tombs in China's Yunnan region indicate that it had long-term trading relations with coastal countries in Pacific regions. And decorative shells from the Pacific, Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico have been found throughout North America in sites far from their place of origin.
cowries as currency
With regard to trade, shell had several important qualities that helped to transform it from a trading object to a form of currency that in the 'civilized world' lasted until the introduction of metal currency around 600 BC.
The most important quality was shell's great durability, second was its portability, and third was its various easily recognizable forms. Shells were particularly useful as money because they could be strung in long strips of proportionate value or they could be used to provide a single unit value in exchange.

cypraea moneta, the 'money cowrie'

One of the best examples is the cowrie shell, among the most common shells to have been used as currency. In particular, the cypraea moneta -- the "money cowrie" -- a shell species native to the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean, served as currency in many parts of Asia.
the 'bank of the ocean'
In the mid-tenth century, an Arab chronicler, al-Masoodi, who wrote about the Maldives in his book Murooj-udh-Dhahab (The Golden Meadow), said of the cowrie:

"The queen knows no other money than the cowrie. When her treasure diminishes, she orders the islanders to cut fronds of the coconut palm and throw them onto the water. The cowries climb on, are gathered and placed on the sandy shore where the sun consumes them and leaves only the empty shells. And these are delivered to the treasury."


tafuliae: the bride price
Oceanic peoples used a variety of shells in trade and shell money was the traditional currency of the Pacific Islands, particularly the Solomon Islands where beautiful strings of painstakingly carved discs of shell, normally done by the girls and women are strung together to make tafuliae or tabu (New Guinea).

spiny rock oyster
photo: reuben clements

Traditionally, shell money was used to pay for such things as a dowry for a bride, land, pigs, and canoes or as compensation for insult or injury. A man would need about fifty strings to give to a bride's family before he could take a wife and would often have to place himself in long term debt to do so.
makin' money
Tafuliae continues to be produced in the Solomons but mainly for the tourist trade.

To make tafuliae, thousands of tiny pieces of broken shell are smoothed down to uniform sized discs by rubbing them between two grooved stones. Then each disc is polished with a grinding stone and black sand, and a hole drilled in the middle so they can be threaded together with vine.

Traditionally a piece of flaked quartz from a river bed would be used to make the holes but today small steel hand drills are often used instead. The whole process is very time consuming even for a skilled craftsman and the quality of the workmanship is crucial to the value of the finished piece.

young solomon islander wearing 10-string shell necklace
photo: sprep

In some areas even today, shell money has kept its value where modern currency has not. In the November 1999 Papua New Guinea Post Courier On-line News stated:

"East New Britain Province may soon start using the traditional shell money, tabu, alongside the kina [the 'modern' New Guinea unit of currency] as legal tender in the province since it is accepted tender in churches, Local Level Governments, village courts, local markets and Tolai tradestores."

riji and the rainbow serpent
Aboriginal people from the Kimberly region -- Australia's northwest coast -- distributed pearl shells along trade routes that stretched half way across the vast arid continent. Kimberly shells have been found as far afield as Yuendumu in the desert, south-eastern Arnhem Land, Queensland and South Australia. Considered objects of great value, the shells are known as riji, jakuli or lonkalonka in the Bardi language.

riji: pearl shell, ochre, human hair cord, pre-1940, macleay museum
photo: tribal arts

The incised designs of the riji are highlighted with a mixture of ochre and resin, which is rubbed into the grooves. However, it's interesting to note that the shells are not necessarily scored at their place of origin but are often decorated further along trade routes, by the 'end-users' so to speak.
Both the decorated and plain pearl shells are used for rain-making and magical purposes, for trade, in ceremonies and as personal adornments such as necklaces or pubic covers when they are worn attached by belts or necklaces of hairstring.
But the riji are especially associated with water, spiritual powers and healing -- due to the luminous shimmering quality of their surfaces. The Bardi (also known as Baada) equate the light reflecting off the shells to lightning flashes, prominent during the monsoon, and to lights flashing off the cheeks of the Rainbow Serpent, closely linked to water and rain.
wild about wampum
In North America, shells, initially used in jewelry and other decorative items, also served as currency during the era of barter and trade. Participated in a trading economy that capitalized on North America's extensive waterways, trade existed from tribe to tribe in a leapfrog manner so that while wampum from the Atlantic coast found its way to the Dakota's, Minnesota copper turned up in Algonquian graves.

replica, hawkeye's wampum sash from "last of the mohicans"
photo: mohican press

Made from several kinds of shell, wampum beads first became highly prized by the Native Americans who lived along the Atlantic coast.
White beads were laboriously cut from several species of whelk as well as conch shells and quahog clam, while the thick hinge of the clam provided pink and purple beads. Used in various ways, wampum beads were strung together to form necklaces and bracelets, or used simply to decorate clothing, weapons and utensils.
However, it was only wampum belts themselves that were considered as currency. Besides their use in sacred ceremonies, wampum belts served as a form of money to ransom captives and pay compensation for crimes and injuries, as well as to reward shamans for their services. Most important of all, the belts were used (in lieu of signatures) to confirm area ties and agreements between tribes.

quahog clam
photo: gulf of maine

The color of the wampum was also important. White was the emblem of peace and good faith. Purple symbolized death, sorrow and mourning. White beads colored red were sent as a declaration of war or as an invitation to join a war-party. Combinations of these colors were used to convey messages or to record ceremonies and agreements.
Used by colonists and Native Americans alike throughout the 1600's, in an attempt to standardize wampum's value the Massachusetts General Court in 1648 voted to officially accept it in two forms: as single beads (called seawant and not considered very valuable), and in strands of set denominations (called peag).
Although nine years after the Boston mint opened, the Massachusetts' wampum law was repealed, as late as 1693 commuters on the New York and Brooklyn ferry could pay with either two pence in silver or eight stivers in wampum (there were four beads to the stiver, which was the Dutch equivalent of the English penny). It's believed that the last recorded exchange of wampum as money was in New York in 1701.
deals for dentalia
But whereas wampum made of the quahog clam was the preferred currency on the eastern half of North America, it was dentalia pretiosum, small, slender horn-like Pacific Ocean shells also known as 'tooth shells' and "Indian money tusks," that were popular with the coastal Native Americans of western North America.

antalis pretiosum, the "indian money tusk" shell
photo: enature.com

Known as 'the prince of shells,' dentalia a commodity that North American Indians traded as a premier form of wealth for two and a half millennia, was harvested from the sea bed at a depth of about fifty feet using long broom-like devices. Dentalium (singular form) or "hiqua" was strung in units of fathoms that determined their value; the standard, high value dentalia numbered forty to the fathom.
Traded the breadth and length of North America -- down the Mississippi, into Alaska, and up the Eastern seaboard -- a century and a half ago this harvest, whether woven into dresses or jewelry or simply strung in prescribed lengths, would hopscotch along trading paths that reached across the continent.

dentalium cape, life-long learning on-line
photo: maryhill museum of art, goldendale, wa

Shells were used to purchase a wide range of item -- canoes, houses, ceremonial regalia, tobacco, food, animal skins ? even to to pay for doctoring, wives, or fines.
Among many Native American tribes such as the Chinook, dentalia was valued in the same way as were canoes and slaves, all of which connoted great wealth and which were prized possessions to be distributed among chosen survivors after a warrior's death.
The only ancient type of shell bead still produced in quantity today by Native Americans is the heishi, made by Navajos and some pueblo people who still use the ancient techniques.
the sacred conch
Shells have had and continue to have immense importance in the religious practices and mythologies of various cultures and religions, from both Hindus and Buddhists on the Indian sub-continent to Native Americans of North America.

xancus pyrum coroninensis, the 'indian conch'

For Hindus, the Indian conch (also known as shankh or chank) calls worshipers to lift their thoughts, words and deeds to a higher plane through selfless action, and to work for an enlightened encounter with all negative forces. The shankh also represents the primordial sound of creation, Om, that is at once a sound, a word, and a complete mantra dating back to the very moment that creation began.
the conch and creation
As a major Hindu article of prayer, the conch's trumpeting sound, accompanied by ceremonial bells, centers the human consciousness on God. The God of Preservation, Vishnu, is said to hold a special conch, Paanchajanya (meaning "having control over the five classes of beings") that represents life as it has come out of life-giving waters.

According to Hindu mythology, the Paanchajanya emerged during the churning of the Ksheerasagara (ocean of milk) by the devas (gods) and asuras (demons). As it rose out of the ocean, its tremendous level of noise frightened the asuras who appealed to Vishnu to save them. Lord Vishnu obliged, taking charge of the conch shell. Thus, the primordial sound of creation, that is the Omkar or Pranavanadham, was controlled, becoming ever after one of Vishnu's five weapons.

tibetan boy with conch
photo: exotic india

When Vajrayana Buddhism arrived, it absorbed the conch as a symbol which fearlessly proclaims the truth of the dharma. Among the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism, the conch represents the fame of the dharma, the Buddha's teaching, spreading in all directions like the sound of the conch trumpet.
Conch shells which spiral to the right in a clockwise direction are a rarity and are considered especially sacred. The right-spiraling movement of such a conch is believed to echo the celestial motion of the sun, moon, planets and stars across the heavens. The hair whorls on Buddha's head spiral to the right, as do his fine body hairs, the long curl between his urna (eyebrows), and also the conch-like swirl of his navel.
children of the good people
Half a world away, the Haida of Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands (known to the Haida as Haida Gwaii) off the northern coast of British Columbia tell a story of how the first people emerged from a gigantic clam shell on the beach at Rose Spit.
the first humans

the first humans
photo: moa
carved by bill reid, haida artist the first humans
photo: moa
carved by

Nankil'slas, the Raven -- the most powerful creature from myth time, a trickster and a shapeshifter -- was lonely. He wanted companionship -- and there was no one on which to play tricks.

Wandering on the beach one day, he heard noise coming from a clam shell. Peering down into the opening between the halves of the shell, he saw it was full of tiny creatures, cowering in fear at his shadow. They were terrified by Nankil'slas and the big world outside the shell.

So, Nankil'slas leaned his great head close to the shell, and with his smooth trickster's tongue that had got him into and out of so many misadventures in his troublesome existence, he coaxed and cajoled and coerced the little creatures to come out and play in his wonderful, shiny, new world.

Very strange creatures they were: two legged like Nankil'slas, but otherwise very different. They had no feathers or fur. Their skin was pale and they were naked except for the dark hair upon round, flat-featured heads. Instead of strong wings, they had think stick-like arms that waved and fluttered constantly.

Feeling strange protective urges, Nankil'slas would again and again provide for the creatures he had found in the clamshell. In time he would bring them the Sun, Moon and Stars, Fire, Salmon and Cedar, teaching them the secrets of hunting, and the world.
And this is how Nankil'slas liberated Haada Laas, "Children of the Good People," who represent the Eagle and Raven Clans, the two main Haida complementary tribal subdivisions.
benevolence and balance
In no culture is shell, particularly white shell, given as much importance as in that of the Navajo. A part of the very fabric of the American Southwest, the Navajo or the Dine' -- the people -- as they refer to themselves, hold sacred four stones: turquoise (doot'izhii), abalone (diichi), jet (b??shzhinii) and white shell (yoogaii).
Navajo mythologies, especially those revolving around creation, abound with stories relating to white shell. No character is more compelling than Changing Woman, the central figure in the Blessingway who holds within her the power of creation and protection. At the top of the Dine' pantheon, she is the deity most likely to help individuals in need.

changing woman; artist, helen hardin
photo: courtesy of the helen hardin estate gallery

Symbolic of the changing seasons, she also represents the stages of a woman's life, growing from baby to girl to woman to old woman, only to continue the process over again. Born of the mystic coupling of Earth Woman and Sky Man, Changing Woman, known by many names, represents wisdom and the fluidity of change.
In their book "American Indian Healing Arts: Herbs, Rituals, and Remedies for Every Season of Life," Barrie Kavasch, an herbalist and ethnobotanist, and health writer Karen Baar have this to say on her constant metamorphosis:

"Changing Woman is immortal. She incarnates the cycles of Navajo Life, the rhythm of everyday life, the seasons and the stages of life. Wearing a dress richly detailed with white shells, she is the youthful White Shell Woman of dawn. She is also the mature Turquoise Woman, and later, the matronly Abalone Woman. Finally, Changing Woman becomes the matriarch of winter, Black Jet Woman."

Changing Woman symbolizing balance and benevolent power is also independent. Paul Zobrod, in his compilation of Navajo myths, "Dine Bahane: The Navajo Creation Story," notes that when the Sun, Changing Woman's husband, asks her to move to a special house in the West with him (so she can be with him at night), Changing Woman asks for her own special house in the West. When the Sun questions her request, she replies:

"I will tell you why," she said to him.
"You are male and I am female.
"You are of sky and I am of earth.
"You are constant in your brightness, but I must change with the seasons.
"You move constantly at the edge of heaven, while I must be fixed in one place...
"Remember, as different as we are, you and I, we are of one spirit.
"As dissimilar as we are, you and I, we are of equal worth...
"Unlike each other as you and I are, there can be no harmony in the universe as long as there is no harmony between us."

It is after this, says Gladys Reichard in "Navaho Religion: A Study of Symbolism," that that the Sun declares the scope of Changing Woman's power:

"...Whiteshell woman will attend to her children and provide their food. Everywhere I go over the earth she will have charge of female rain. I myself will control male rain. She will be in charge of vegetation everywhere for the benefit of Earth people."

Another strong woman in Navajo legend is Spider Woman (Na ashje?ii'Asdz??), who taught Navajo women how to weave.
the first loom

spider woman
photo: st. thomas studio

Spider Woman instructed the Navajo women how to weave on a loom which her husband, Spider Man, told them how to make.

The crosspoles were made of sky and earth cords, the warp sticks of sun rays, the healds of rock crystal and sheet lightning. The batten was a sun halo and for the comb he chose a white shell to clean strands in a combing manner.

There were four spindles: one a stick of zigzag lightning with a whorl of cannel coal; one a stick of flash lightning with a whorl of turquoise; a third had a stick of sheet lightning with a whorl of abalone; a rain streamer formed the stick of the fourth, and its whorl was white shell.
White shell also plays a part in the Navajo hooghanor hogan, the traditional dwelling place for Navajo families and center of religious ceremonies. Father Berard who gathered many legends for his 1910 book, "An Ethnologic Dictionary," recounts the building of the first hogan as it was told to him:

"The poles were made of precious stones such as white-shell, turquoise, abalone, obsidian, and red stone, and were five in number.

"The interstices were lined with four shelves of white-shell, and four of turquoise, and four of abalone and obsidian, each corresponding with the pole of the respective stone, thus combining the cardinal colors of white, blue, yellow and black in one gorgeous edifice.

"The floor, too, of this structure was laid with a fourfold rug of obsidian, abalone, turquoise, and white shell, each spread over the other in the order mentioned, while the door consisted of a quadruple curtain or screen of dawn, sky-blue, evening twilight, and darkness.