Conch Shell Trumpet, c. A.D. 250–400


For the Classic Maya, the conch shell served as a basic symbol of the sea—its spiral form suggests volutes of breath and wind, phenomena closely identified with ocean breezes. As wind instruments sounded by breath, conch trumpets clearly reinforced this symbolism. This conch trumpet features an ancestor floating in a cloud; only the head and elaborate headdress are shown. The headdress portrays the Rain God, called Chac, which is also likely part of the name of the trumpet’s royal owner, as Chac appears again in a column of glyphs recording his identity. The cloud scrolls swirling below the ancestor’s chin convey his ethereal nature as the embodiment of rain. The trumpet was positioned horizontally when worn or played so that the ancestor would be oriented as if looking down from the sky. The stylized serpent head before the face of the figure also embodies the notion of breath and wind. A hole drilled in the mouth of the serpent head would have allowed breath and music to emanate, quite possibly with a distinct tone, when the conch was played. The aperture also served as the breath and voice of the ancestor, the “resident” of the trumpet.

In early Classic Maya art, royal ancestors commonly appear on marine shells. Marine shells probably held important symbolic significance, as the eastern Caribbean Sea was the source of rain clouds, phenomena closely related to ancestors in Maya thought.



Peter Wray Collection, Phoenix;

American Financial Corporation, Cincinnati;

purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1984.