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Turtle Shell Ornaments

Mixtec, Postclassic, general
900-1520 CE
3.81 cm x 1.27 cm x 0.64 cm (1 1/2 in. x 1/2 in. x 1/4 in.)

Not on view


This necklace of 20 turtle shell ornaments resembles PC.B.103 and the cast gold turtle shell necklaces found in Tomb 7 at Monte Albán, in that the cast gold turtle shells have carapace motifs like those on living turtle species. Alfonso Caso enlisted the help of a biologist to identify the possible model for Tomb 7’s gold carapaces, and he suggested genus Cinosternum and species hirtipes, a turtle now known as Kinosternon hirtipes, the Mexican rough-footed mud turtle. To the Aztecs, the turtle (ayutl) was respected for its role in the cosmos. The jagged surface of the earth was thought to be the back of a turtle or crocodilian animal, rendered as an earth monster. Perhaps for this reason, the turtle shell was a popular motif for jewelry.

Like the composite design of PC.B.103, that of PC.B.102 includes elongated bells, in this case suspended from long and simple false filigree attachments. This design would have enhanced their capacity to make sound and reflect light. The variety in the size and shape of metal bells known from Postclassic contexts may seem, from the modern perspective, simply to reflect a relatively primitive state of mass production in the manufacturing process. In fact, the presence of bells of the same or different sizes and shapes in a single composition, such as a set of matched ornaments, was a deliberate choice. Pitch varied by size and shape, so the sound effect of any set of bells would be distinctive. Worn as ankle bracelets in a dance, the coordinated effect of several dancers would be subtle but discernible to the trained ear. Small bells imitated the sound of rain, thus suggesting fertility, and the wearer’s perceived power over agricultural fertility might be enhanced by the use of these ornaments. In combination with icons of the earth monster, the design composition emphasizes the fertility of the earth.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 26, cat. 128.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill 1986 Halsschmuck. In Glanz Und Untergang Des Alten Mexico: Die Azteken Und Ihre Vorläufer, Arne Eggebrecht, ed., pp. 2 v. P. von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein. cat. 263.

Hvidtfeldt, Arild 1987 Mexicos Kunst - Før Spanierne Kom. Louisiana Revy ; 28. Årg. Nr.1. Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk. p. 13, 82, cat. 278.

Exhibition History
"Die Azteken und ihre Vorlaufer: Glanz und Untergang des Alten Mexico", Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, Germany, 6/30 - 11/9/1986; Ausstellungsleitung Haus derKunst, Munich, Germany, 12/6/1986 - 3/6/1987; Ober'sterreichisches Landesmuseum, Linz, Austria 4/3 - 8/2/1987; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, 8/15 - 11/30/1987; Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Historie, Brussels, Belgium, 12/1/1987 - 3/30/1988; National Archaeology Museum, Athens, Gerece, 5/16 - 7/21/1988; Société du Palais de la Civilisation, Montreal, Canada, 7/30 - 10/30/1988.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, July 1962.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington DC,1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Missing since 1988.

Animals | Bead | Mixtecs | Necklaces