Cowries are native to the Indian Ocean, but have been found en masse in archaeological excavations across Egyptian, Phoenician and Mesopotamian sites, often modified or pierced – presumably to be suspended as a pendant. Whilst some lack context, many have been found in the tombs of children and women. Around the 2nd millennium BC, objects appear which imitate the form of cowrie shells, with characteristic elliptical shape and central split with serrated edges. A brief look at such imitations brings up some questions: why recreate a shape which forms so naturally? And what meaning could be hidden within this intriguing form?
It’s impossible to start elsewhere than the recognisable vertical split, where the two lips of the shell fold gracefully in towards its centre, the part that one 20th century German Assyriologist refers to as “the characteristic ventral slit”, an unfortunate phrase which sits even less comfortably when you consider the context of his comment. The association of cowrie shells with aspects of fertility appears to come down to their structural resemblance to the vulva. Despite the popularity of this line of thought in studies of both modern and ancient uses of cowries, no ancient sources provide authority for this interpretation.
Many of the imitations, including those discussed below, recreate the form in expensive and luxurious material, including gold, silver and even amber. Many are pierced laterally to be threaded onto a string, suggested they were worn as items of jewellery.
The only evidence we find for how these cowrie-shaped objects were worn come from Egyptian figures which depict the shells worn in a girdle or belt around the waist, just above the pelvis closer to vulva and the area of the body associated with ‘fertility’. The figures are always female and often adorned with other fertility symbols, such as tattoos of Bes.
Imitations of cowrie shells have been found in gold, silver and electrum from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom through to Hellenistic Egypt, and bronze imitations have been found at Roman sites. In addition to these imitations, real cowries continue to be in use throughout these areas, often pierced for suspension or with the convex side removed. Whether the association of cowrie shells with the vulva persists, or indeed exists, throughout these periods can only ever remain a conjecture; the decorative value of cowries could also be explained by their natural beauty.
This bead is one of eight hollow gold cowries discovered in an underground tomb which lay beside the great weathered pyramid of the pharaoh Senwosret II at Lahun. The gold cowries were found strung alongside smaller gold, carnelian and green feldspar beads into a delicate girdle, tucked away in a special niche. The 18th century BC tomb probably belonged to Princess Sithathoryunet, the daughter of the Senwosret. Each hollow-formed gold cowrie shell contains a small metal pellet, which would have meaning a subtle jangle would have preceded the princess wherever she walked or danced.
Jump forward approximately 15 centuries to Hellenistic Egypt and we find this fascinating string of twelve gold beads, dated between 225 and 175 BC. Each bead is formed from two pieces of sheet gold and the distinctive serrated lips are carved into the surface. The shape differs quite a lot from Ancient Egyptian examples as the slit and serrated lips are incised into the surface, rather than open. The beads provide evidence for a continuing use of Cowrie-shaped beads as jewellery in the Ptolemaic Egypt and it’s thought they form part of a necklace.
The third gold imitation cowrie comes from a Roman necklace dated to the 2nd century AD in the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University. The glass beads form the shape of cowries without any serrated edge, whilst the hollow gold beads display linear pattern to either side of the central ridge, similar in appearance to the earlier Ptolemaic beads. The Romans used a range of words for cowrie, but the most popular was certainly concha Veneris, the shell of Venus (or, ‘Love’).
In Italy, bronze tends to be the material of choice used in cowrie imitations, as shown by these two groups from the British Museum’s collections. The group on the right was found in the Apennines and is thought to date to 600-500 BC (1867,0508.159). The vertical openings are wide and undetailed, and the reverse is rounded. Unfortunately little information is recorded for the group on the left (WITT.158), only a note from George Witt, a physician and collector who donated the amulets to the museum in 1865. The note reads: ‘Roman’, no. 158: ‘Pair of Bronze Shells (Cypriae) commonly used by the ancient Romans, as representatives of the femaile organ, and hence the name of Concha Veneris.’ These amulets are fairly schematic in their representation in comparison with the gold amulets, with the serrated opening represented by crude linear incisions. Both display a similar bulbous shape body with integral loop for suspension. The single loop also suggests that these bronze cowries were worn individually, rather than as part of a larger composition.
Unsurprisingly, cowrie shells are regularly labelled as fertility amulets, used to increase fertility, prevent sterility or assist in childbirth. The burial contexts in which the pieces have been found neither confirms nor contests this interpretation, but perhaps points to alternative uses dependant with the value of the object in the afterlife. After all, fertility pendants are not especially useful when you’re dead, but valuable shells or metals might get you somewhere (the underworld?).
The metal pellets found in Princess Sithathoryunet’s necklace suggest an additional purpose that these cowrie-shaped pendants might have served. The resemblance to a vulva and the tinkling noise which accompanied it could have played an apotropaic role, similar to the bronze phallic pendants found across the Roman world. It’s generally agreed that these phallic amulets were used to ward off the evil eye, distracting a dangerous gaze away from the wearer towards something obscene or entertaining. Ithyphallic wind chimes or Tintinnabulums were common a feature of Roman gardens designed to keep away evil spirits with their jangling chimes. Representations of vulvas, whilst often associated solely with sexuality and fertility, could also have played a similar apotropaic role, providing protection to the wearer.