Shell Earspool Frontals Depicting Kneeling Figures

Shell Earspool Frontals Depicting Kneeling Figures

A.D. 200-500
Culture
Maya
Locale
Maya lowlands
Country
Guatemala
Style/Tradition
Maya
ear spool, pair
Carved shell with red pigment.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Huber
1979.175A-B
. Shell Earspool Frontals Depicting Kneeling Figures. A.D. 200-500. Carved shell with red pigment.. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Huber. 1979.175A-B.
This object is currently on view
Dimensions
diameter: 3 3/8 in, 8.5725 cm
Department
Mayer Center, Art of the Ancient Americas
Collection
Art of the Ancient Americas

Shell Earspool Frontals Depicting Kneeling Figures
Maya
About A.D. 200-500
Maya Lowlands, possibly Guatemala
Shell with colored pigment
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Huber, 1979.175A&B

An earspool, much like a plug or earspool today, was set into a large, stretched hole in the wearer's earlobe. These two shell disks, called "earspool frontals" would have provided a decorative facing for this type of ear ornament. They are slightly convex, with highly finished surfaces and rough, uneven backs. It is likely that they were originally set into their backings by some form of adhesive.

Each frontal depicts a kneeling figure. These figures have been identified in previous publications as captives, bound at the wrists. Their full regalia, however, including complex headdresses and elaborate belts with "back-masks," suggests they are instead subsidiary lords in a gesture of offering. Close inspection of their hands indicates they are holding up objects, rather than being shown simply with bound wrists, as captives usually are. These frontals would have likely been positioned so that each faced inward, as though these kneeling, subordinate lords were making offerings to the wearer himself.

Shell was a highly prized material in the ancient Maya world. Associated with the primordial sea and considered an exotic trade good, it was an important aspect of royal costume and elite artistic production. Though the surface of shell is quite hard, shell is also easily broken, so ornaments like these would have been produced by specialized artisans, to be worn by members of the high elite.

--Lucia R. Henderson, 2016

Known Provenance
Gifted 29 October 1979 by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Huber to the Denver Art Museum. Provenance research is on-going at the Denver Art Museum. Please e-mail provenance@denverartmuseum.org, if you have questions, or if you have additional information to share with us.
Exhibition History
  • "Six Maya Treasures from the Denver Art Museum"-- Denver Art Museum 1981.
  • "The Blood of Kings"-- The Kimball/ Fort Worth 5/16/1986-8/24/1986
  • The Cleveland Art Museum, Cleveland 10/8/1986-12/14/1986.
  • "Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period"-- Duke University Museum of Art, 1/15/1994-3/27/1994
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 4/15/1994-6/26/1994
  • Denver Art Museum, 7/15/1994-9/15/1994
  • LACMA, 10/8/1994-1/8/1995
  • Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2/10/1995-4/23/1995.
  • "Mesoamerican Art Created from Seashell: Regalia of Gods, Nobles and Warriors"-- Long Island University, the Hillwood Art Museum, 11/3/1997-12/31/1997.