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The Nautilus Shell
At the center of this artifact is a large nautilus shell. Nautilus shells are protective external skeletons built by a particular type of mollusk.
The shell’s chambers are arranged in the shape of a logarithmic spiral that is revealed when the shell is cut into half. The natural surface of a nautilus shell can be covered by a pattern of brown stripes on a white background under which, when polished, shiny layers of mother-of-pearl appear. The shell of our example is special, as it is not only polished, but also incised.
The incised decoration of this nautilus features long-tailed birds, peonies, foliage and scrolls against a background of wave-like patterns. Similar motifs can be found on other shells in European collections. They are also illustrated in a treatise by the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), who in his 1606 encyclopedia of animal specimens, included the image of a nautilus shell “from the Indies” (ab Indis) with engraved ornamentation alongside an image of the object’s natural spiraled interior.
Aldrovandi specifically refers to the “West Indies” (Occidentalia India/India Occidentalis), but overall uses the generic term “India” to denote Asia as well as the Americas. The carvings on these “Indian” shells were either made by craftsmen in Guangzhou before the shells were shipped to Europe or by European artisans who imitated designs on other shells or ceramic wares from South China.