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Conch Shell Trumpet, c. A.D. 250–400


This elaborately decorated conch shell bears the face of a Maya king, carefully incised following the undulations in the shell’s surface, and a column of glyphs to the side recording the name of its royal owner. The king’s chin strap and the knots above and below his ear ornament are all personified, a device that indicates the accrued power and force in the object. The primary headdress element is a jaguar deity, which seems to be topped by the glyph for “heaven.” The portrait is probably of the ancestor who was recalled when the trumpet was used in a bloodletting rite.

The holes at the top of the shell and along the side edges indicate that it was intended as a ritual trumpet. From representations of their use on Maya painted vessels, it is known that conch shell trumpets were sounded by hunters returning with slain deer. Other vessel representations suggest that the deer obtained in these hunts were intended for special sacrificial uses. Such a sacrificial context for the use of trumpets would fit with conquest-period accounts that describe the frightening music of trumpets and drums that accompanied ritual human sacrifice. Conch shells, both plain and carved, are generally found in tombs, where, as natural underwater objects, they became symbols of death and the watery Maya underworld, Xibalba.



Peter Wray Collection, Phoenix;

American Financial Corporation, Cincinnati;

purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1984.