Maya shell trumpets : a musical instrument as ritual implement

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Bézy, Phillippe

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This thesis examines the ritual use of Precolumbian Maya shell trumpets. It adds to the current understanding of these objects by clearly defining what exactly constitutes a shell trumpet, both in actuality and in ancient iconographic representations. A corpus has also been compiled, and while not exhaustive, it is the largest such compilation to date, it also adds previously unrecognized shell trumpets to extant. In elucidating the role the shell trumpets played in ritual, a variety of contexts are considered. First, shell trumpets are actual wind instruments found in three main archaeological contexts, burials, cache/fill and cenote offerings. These depositions are linked with conceptual approaches related to ritual use. The ancient Maya also chose to repeatedly depict the shell trumpet iconographically in a variety of media. The shells are here also viewed in their biological aspect because the Maya frequently demonstrated their awareness, and conscious choice, of certain species over others. Ultimately, this thesis suggests the existence of a conceptual link between the shell trumpet and a general understanding of transition and passage between states of existence or realms. The archaeological record and the iconography support these findings. A clear distinction is made between the playing of the shell trumpet and its simple presence. In the case of the former, the sound of the trumpet indicates a specific ritual moment (or transition, etc.), while in the later, the presence of the trumpet signals the generalized sacred aspect. The fact that the selected species of shell may be linked with directional and color symbolism validates the association with liminality



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