On this ornament, a young man rides atop a large fantastic fish with a long snout and open jaws. He sits cross-legged, facing the viewer, but looks and points in the direction of the fish’s movement. His smooth, lustrous skin contrasts with the body of the fish, heavily patterned with glyphs that have not yet been deciphered. The crossed circle in front of him is a symbol of darkness, possibly evoking the watery Underworld, realm of Maya deities and ancestors. The fish and the very seashell from which the pendant is made are also related with watery places, but they are further associated with regeneration and rebirth. One of the trials endured by the mythical hero twins of Maya folklore is being burned, ground up, and eaten by fish, who then recreate the twins in their own right.
The young protagonist here was richly adorned. He once wore a headdress, earspool, necklace, and bracelet made of jade inlay. The crossed circle in front of him was also once inlaid with jade. Shell and jade, two of Mesoamerica’s most highly prized materials, are symbolically linked to water, wind, birth, and the breath of life. Their combination in this piece is suggestive of the nature of the young man’s quest, possibly a spiritual journey through the Underworld before being reborn after death. This remarkable carving was probably an offering made in the tomb of a high-ranking individual, possibly on the small island of Jaina, off the coast of Campeche.
Benson, Elizabeth P. 1969 Supplement to the Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D. C., cat. 436.
Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 222-223.
Coe, Michael D. 1966 The Maya. Ancient Peoples and Places; V. 52. Praeger, New York. pl. 68.
Coe, Michael D. 1980 The Maya. Revised ed. Ancient Peoples and Places; V. 96. Thames and Hudson, London.
Coe, Michael D. 1984 The Maya. 3rd ed. Ancient Peoples and Places. Thames and Hudson, New York. p. 117-118, fig. 98.
Coe, Michael D. 1987 The Maya. 4th ed. Ancient Peoples and Places. Thames and Hudson, New York. p. 127, fig. 99.
Coe, Michael D. 1993 The Maya. 5th ed. Ancient Peoples and Places. Thames and Hudson, New York. p. 125-126, fig. 95.
Coe, Michael D. 1999 The Maya. 6th ed. Ancient Peoples and Places. Thames and Hudson, New York. p. 149, fig. 96.
Finamore, Daniel and Stephen D. Houston (EDS.) 2010 Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem. p. 262-263, cat. 64, pl. 87.
Gallenkamp, Charles 1985 Maya: The Riddle and Rediscovery of a Lost Civilization. 3rd ed. Viking, New York. fig. 72.
Goldstein, Marilyn M. and Lourdes Suárezs Diez 1997 Conchas Precolombianas: Mesoamerican Art Created from Seashells. Hillwood Art Museum, Long Island University, C.W. Post Campus, New York. p. 77, fig. 165.
Pillsbury, Joanne, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito and Alexandre Tokovinine (EDS.) 2012 Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 432-433, 452-457, pl. 85, fig. 263-265.
Pillsbury, Joanne and Kim Richter (EDS.) 2017 Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas. J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. p. 90, 224, cat. 150.
Ritchie, Carson I. A. 1974 Shell Carving: History and Techniques. A. S. Barnes, South Brunswick. p. 14.
Thames and Hudson 1996 The Maya. Sacred Symbols. Thames and Hudson, New York.
"Conchas Precolombianas: Mesoamerican Art Created From Seashells", Hillwood Art Museum, Long Island University, Brookville, NY, 11/5 - 12/24/1997.
"Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea", Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, 3/27/10 - 7/18/10; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX,8/29/2010 - 1/2/2011; Saint Louis Art Museum, Sain Louis, MO, 2/13 - 5/8/2011.
"Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World", The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 11/19/11 to 04/09/12; Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, 5/18 - 10/18/12.
"Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas", The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles CA, 9/16/2017 - 1/28/2018; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY, 2/27 - 5/28/2018.
Purchased from Alphonse Jax, New York (dealer), by Mrs. Mildred Bliss, 1964.
Gift to Dumbarton Oaks by Mrs. Mildred Bliss, 1964.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.