Pair of Earspools with Spondylus Shell Diving Scene



Pair of Earspools with Spondylus Shell Diving Scene


1000 - 1450 AD


Late Intermediate Period
South America, Central Andes, North Coast


Gold-copper alloy (fronts), silver alloy (posts), textile
A: 2 1/2 x 4 7/16 in. (6.4 x 11.3 cm)
B: 2 1/2 x 4 1/4 in. (6.4 x 10.8 cm)

Object Number



The indigenous Central Andean aristocracy became known to the Spanish invaders as orejones or "big ears" because they wore such enormous, impressive earrings. Dating to perhaps 300 years before contact with the Europeans, this spectacular pair of gold repoussé earspools with silver posts comes from the North Coast. The Chimú state dominated this area before being conquered by the Inka empire. In turn, the Chimú had incorporated the far northern reaches of the Central Andes, especially the rich Lambayeque Valley, into their large coastal domain. Here the metalsmiths seem to have created in Chimú style a scene popular in Lambayeque art; the almond eye shape is characteristically the former, the iconography the latter. The Lambayeque Valley people were long engaged in trade with Ecuador to the north for the prized spiny oyster or spondylus shell. This bright orange shell was valued so highly that one nobleman's sole occupation entailed spreading crushed spondylus as a path for the ruler - the proverbial red carpet.

The arduous task of diving for the spondylus shell is depicted here. The rectangle in the lower center represents the boat, whose large sails or sunshades are seen above and to the sides. Birds are typically represented on the top, while divers - four in this case - are arrayed in the water. The tulip-shaped elements are the shells, their characteristic spines abbreviated. Divers had to plunge as deep as 25 meters (almost 80 feet) into the Pacific to recover these shells. It is no wonder that such exquisite earspools would commemorate this feat, given the difficult procurement, the importation, and the exclusive nature of both spiny oyster and precious metal.

Credit Line

Gift of Cora W. and Laurence C. Witten II


Tears of the Moon: Ancient American Precious Metals from the Permanent Collection, Michael C. Carlos Museum, October 16, 1996 - October 16, 1998|
MCCM Permanent Collection Reinstallation, September 2002 - June 2012|
'For I am the Black Jaguar': Shamanic Visionary Experience in Ancient American Art, Michael C. Carlos, September 5, 2012 - January 5, 2013|
MCCM Permanent Collection Reinstallation, February 9, 2013 - June 1, 2015|
MCCM Permanent Collection Gallery, June 6, 2015 - Present
Michael C. Carlos Museum Handbook (Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 1996), 88.|
Rebecca Stone-Miller, Seeing With New Eyes: Highlights of the Michael C. Carlos Museum Collection of Art of the Ancient Americas (Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2002), 194, figure 458ab.|
Michael C. Carlos Museum: Highlights of the Collections (Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2011), 79.|
Rebecca Stone, Art of the Andes: From Chavin to Inca. 3rd Edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012), 185, figures 155-156.|
MCCM Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2013.


© Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Photo by Michael McKelvey.
This image is provided by the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University, who retains all rights in it. This image is made available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined by United States law. For all other uses, please contact the Michael C. Carlos Museum Office of Collections Services at +1(404) 727-4282 or Users must cite the author and source of the image as they would material from any printed work, but not in any way that implies endorsement of the user or the user's use of the image. Users may not remove any copyright, trademark, or other proprietary notices, including without limitation attribution information, credits, and copyright notices that have been placed on or near the image by the Museum. The Museum assumes no responsibility for royalties or fees claimed by the artist or third parties. The User agrees to indemnify and hold harmless Emory University, its Michael C. Carlos Museum, its agents, employees, faculty members, students and trustees from and against any and all claims, losses, actions, damages, expenses, and all other liabilities, including but not limited to attorney’s fees, directly or indirectly arising out of or resulting from its use of photographic images for which permission is granted hereunder.

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“Pair of Earspools with Spondylus Shell Diving Scene,” Michael C. Carlos Museum Collections Online, accessed July 11, 2020,

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