Telling Stories with Seashells: Krannert Art Museum's Malacological Collections


Two peach colored halves of a bivalve shell (clamshell) are connected by a woven, dark brown fiber into a necklace.
Nasca, Necklace, 450-650 CE. Llama wool and spondylus shells. The Fred Olsen Collection. 1967-29-372

Ashley Vance excavation s2022 web.jpg

A mid-20s white woman in warm weather clothing sits on level ground next to an archeological dig marker. The marker arrow points at an artifact found in the dig.
Ashley Vance on an archeological excavation. Photo courtesy of the author.


Slightly flattened, round earthenware pot with brightly colored figural painting of a person or animal in costume. They have two eyes, nose, mouth, and headdress, necklace, and regalia. Color is warm reds and golds.
Nasca potter, Vessel with Mythical Creature, 100 BCE-800CE. Earthenware with pigment. Gift of Mirjane S. Kemmerer. 1994-1-3
Curatorial Research

As early as 4,000 years ago, Ecuadorian free-divers used stone weights to sink more than 40 feet below the ocean's surface to scour the seafloor for solitary Spondylus shells. Coastal Ecuadorian villages featured part-time craft specialists who transformed collected shells into beads, ornaments, and figurines. Densely packed with Spondylus and other precious materials, llama caravans traversed snow-capped mountains to bring the Ecuadorian seashell to Peru.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work as a Research Assistant at the Krannert Art Museum (Summer-Fall 2021). The Krannert Art Museum hired me to assist with the exhibit redesign for the Andean Gallery, which primarily features objects from the Fred Olson collection acquired in the 1960s. I focused on two projects at the Krannert Art Museum: I conducted object research by identifying shell artifacts and helped coordinate a review of the museum's Andean catalog and database.

I specialize in archaeomalacology and invertebrate zoology; in other words, I study how communities in the past employed shells. In the absence of living individuals, surviving materials and objects (including shells) serve as evidence of past social exchanges. By extension, seashells are a sure way of establishing a connection between historic inland and coastal communities. My dissertation investigates the role of the Pacific thorny oyster, Spondylus crassisquama, as a method to reconstruct historic trading practices in the Andes.

Despite being situated along the cold coastal waters of Southern Peru, the Nasca (100 BCE-800 CE) frequently included Spondylus (a warm water mollusk) into their jewelry and iconographic canon. As the Nasca had limited direct access to the marine shell, the presence of Spondylid taxa and its depiction on Nasca ceramics reflects some degree of trade with Northern Peru and Ecuador. Although, I should mention that considerably more Spondylus entered these pre-Hispanic trade networks during the subsequent Middle Horizon Period (600-1000 CE).

The Krannert Art Museum's collection features several Nasca Spondylus necklaces, which are incredibly rare. One of these necklaces (1967-29-372) contains two mature Spondylids suspended from braided camelid fibers. In life, these shells were never part of the same organism--meaning that at least two Spondylus taxa were required for this ornament. At least one shell valve retains evidence of drilling endobionts, honeycomb-like indentations that are a testament to the shell's time at the bottom of the Pacific. As is the case here, some endobionts drill directly into the calcium carbonate exterior of marine mollusks. Essentially, micro-organisms (microscopic marine plants and animals) colonize the spines of most Spondylus shells, offering camouflage to the stationary shell.

For the Nasca, Spondylus was a crucial component of ritual activity, considered essential for securing water and irrigation and establishing a productive agricultural landscape. While Spondylus necklaces (like the ones at the Krannert Art Museum) are rare in Nasca contexts, depictions of the marine shell were prolific in the distinctive polychrome wares produced by the culture. For example, Spondylus shells are part of the ritual ensemble of certain mythical beings depicted on Nasca vessels. In these motifs, the shell has been modified into dotted trapezoidal plaques that have been strung into a necklace. The mythical creature depicted on object 1994-1-3 at the Krannert Art Museum is likely wearing one of these Spondylus necklaces.

Long before Spondylus shells ever became modified ornaments and commodities, they housed living organisms beneath the rolling waves of the Eastern Pacific. The new installation at the Krannert Art Museum reanimates the living pathways that these distinctive marine mollusks and other artifacts traverse before entering the material record.


Author: Ashley E. Vance, April 2022