General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 21 Sep 2020/1 Monkey
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.7.15.11 - 2832 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for older students

Painted snail shell conch from Teotihuacan

Sea shell or conch

Scholars believe that for over three millennia, since around 1500 BCE, “a multitude” of sea shells have been recovered from both Pacific and Atlantic coasts and river estuaries and brought to craft workshops in urban centres to be transformed into sumptuary (luxury) objects for the ruling élite throughout Mesoamerica. (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Line drawing by Abel Mendoza of the Teotihuatecan sea shell above, showing calendrical and numerical signs
Pic 1: Line drawing by Abel Mendoza of the Teotihuatecan sea shell above, showing calendrical and numerical signs (Click on image to enlarge)

The painted snail shell shown in our main picture is a particularly fine example, from Teotihuacan, where we know specialist craft workshops thrived. Not only have beautiful examples survived, but large numbers have been found in ofrendas (offerings) at Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor, the ceremonial centre of the Mexica (Aztec) empire. What’s more, depictions of shells exist in stone sculptures, in codices and in painted murals, showing their importance in rituals. Their symbolism ranges from fertility to war and sacrifice, to calendrical representation. The painted Strombus shell shown here is from Xolalpan-Metepec and measures 38 cms. in length and now resides in Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

Pic 2: Two named and semi-divine conch players face each other; Codex Vindobonensis pl. 16 (detail)
Pic 2: Two named and semi-divine conch players face each other; Codex Vindobonensis pl. 16 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

It bears “two representations of the glyph of the year or calendrical cycle called ‘eye’ or ‘turquoise’. The year is expressed by the interlaced trapeze and ray with the symbol for eye or turquoise below, and the numerals twelve and nine are designated by means of bars and dots, equivalent to the numbers five and one, respectively. This shell is one of the best indications that we have concerning the knowledge and use of the ritual calendar at Teotihuacan” (Berrin & Pasztory, 1994: 205). Séjourné (1978: 138) suggests that, thanks to the shell’s analogy with the human body - “which, touched by the spirit’s breath, can then achieve new power” - the shell became the special emblem of Quetzalcóatl in his guise as the Mesoamerican wind god.

Pic 3: Several conch shells can be seen in this single offering at the Templo Mayor (Museum), Mexico City
Pic 3: Several conch shells can be seen in this single offering at the Templo Mayor (Museum), Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

To the Aztecs the shell was especially prized. Giant stone conch sculptures adorned the Tlaloc side of the Templo Mayor. By the time of the Spanish invasion some 1,600 Spondylus shells (more ornamental than the Strombus variety) were being sent to Tenochtitlan as tribute from coastal provinces. Literally thousands of shells have been recovered from sacred offerings at the Templo Mayor. “The conch shells included in Offering 48, a deposit of sacrificed children, referred to the aquatic nature of Tlaloc, to whom the offering was dedicated” (Miller & Taube, 1993: 152). Conch, spondylus and other shells are prominent in the Feathered Serpent sculpture on the Temple of Quetzalcóatl at Teotihuacan.

Pic 4: Detail from a mural by R. Anguiano at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, depicting an Aztec teacher at the Calmecac priests’ school in Tenochtitlan - note the shell effigies above the building
Pic 4: Detail from a mural by R. Anguiano at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, depicting an Aztec teacher at the Calmecac priests’ school in Tenochtitlan - note the shell effigies above the building (Click on image to enlarge)

The (sliced front view of the) conch shell was one of the signature symbols of the Wind God, who played a central role in the creation of humankind in Mexica mythology, by challenging Mictlantecuhtli in the underworld with the aid of a conch shell trumpet. He alone had the power to blow the breath of life into beings and sacred objects that would otherwise have remained lifeless. The conch was universally an announcing instrument in Mesoamerica (learn more from the link below, in our Aztec Music section), blown particularly to herald battles, ceremonial processions, and sacred rituals.
Its role in the region’s mythology shows its combined association with Wind and Rain deities:-

Pic 5: Stone Aztec sculpture of a snail shell, over a metre in length, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 5: Stone Aztec sculpture of a snail shell, over a metre in length, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

”In the ancient Mesoamerican view of the universe a layer of water existed under the surface of the earth that was inhabited by fantastical animals such as the alligator-like cipactli. The sculpture of a caracol (spiral snail shell) [pic 5], found in the subsoil of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, relates to this belief.
“Archaeologists discovered three similar depictions of the queen conch (Strombus gigas), a shell characteristic of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, in the north-eastern area of the former sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan. [It is] a fine example of the ability of sculptors during the Late Postclassic Period (1250-1521) to create a naturalistic image interwoven with symbolic meaning. The caracol was associated with water and rain... and the sculpture shows remains of the original stucco and blue paint, linking it to the Tlaloc shrine” (Solís & Velasco, 2002: 462-463).

Pic 6: Aztec artworks bearing the ‘wind-jewel’ symbol; the middle image is of a ‘personified knife’. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 6: Aztec artworks bearing the ‘wind-jewel’ symbol; the middle image is of a ‘personified knife’. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Several representations of Quetzalcóatl-Ehécatl, the Mexica Wind God, depict (the deity bearing) the ehecacozcatl or ‘wind jewel’ symbol (see pic 6), usually catalogued as a sectioned shell pectoral and worn on the chest or neck. Evidently dozens of such pieces of conch have been found, particularly in the Veracruz area.
To learn more about the personified knife in picture 6, and its associations with the wind deity, follow the link below.

Sources/References:-
• Berrin, Kathleen & Pasztory, Esther (1994) (Eds.): Teotihuacan: Art from the City of the Gods, Thames and Hudson/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
• Miller, Mary & Taube, Karl (1993): The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, Thames and Hudson, London
• Séjourné, Laurette (1978): Burning Water: Though and Religion in Ancient Mexico, Thames and Hudson, London
• Solís, Felipe & Velasco Alonso, Roberto (2002): ‘Snail shell’ catalogue entry, in Aztecs, Royal Academy of Arts, London
• Taube, Karl (1993): Aztec and Maya Myths, British Museum Press, London.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic and pix 3, 4, 5 & 6: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 1: image scanned from Séjourné (see above)
• Pic 2: image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Vindobonensis, Graz, Austria, 1974.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 09th 2020

‘The conch trumpet’

‘Personified knives’

‘Study the... WIND GOD’

See a beautiful photo of an Aztec sectioned shell pectoral (Ehecacozcatl) by Jorge Pérez de Lara
Feedback button