The Spondylus shell in Chimu iconography

The shell of the Spondylus, a tropical marine mollusk, has been imported into Peru for over 4,000 years. It is recovered from archaeological sites either as whole shells, fragments, dust, or fashioned into jewelry. Aside from the recovery of the shell itself, representations were created by pre-hispanic artisans in a variety of media. This study uses the imagery associated with ceramic representations to uncover the role played by this shell in the lives of one pre-hispanic people, the Chimu. Using both ethnohistoric and archaeological material as the primary sources of information about Chimu society and culture, this study demonstrates that the visual record corroborates the pattern noted from other lines of evidence. Archaeological data indicate that among the Chimu, who inhabited the north coast of Peru at approximately 1,000 A.D., this shell was a highly valued commodity whose acquisition and distribution were apparently controlled by the upper segments of Chimu society. Ethnohistoric evidence confirms the pattern noted in the archaeological record, and in addition shows that this shell held religious import to the Chimu. The oral tradition suggests that Indians valued this shell because they were believed to have the power to influence supernatural forces in control of the weather. By following the methodology set out in this study, it is apparent that the images associated with the Spondylus on Chimu ceramics communicate the message that in Chimu society this shell was primarily associated with high status, was economically important, and played a significant role in religious practices and beliefs.