©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Cat. 30, Pendant: Cowrie Shell / Hare, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 15 December 2018.
Cat. 30, Pendant: Cowrie Shell / Hare
Italic or Etruscan,
Height: 37 mm; width: 26 mm; depth: 14 mm; Weight: 3 g
Gift of Stanley Silverman, 79.AO.75.28
Italic or Etruscan
Height: 37 mm; width: 26 mm; depth: 14 mm
Weight: 3 g
Gift of Stanley Silverman
The pendant is intact with the exception of a large fracture loss to the nose and chips between the ears. The surface is smooth and firm. Minute surface crack patterns are visible on the dorsal surface and the ventral side. Before acquisition by the donor, the pendant was consolidated with a coating material that likely cemented together the consolidant, the yellow-ocher degraded amber, and soil, probably unintentially. The amber is opaque and brownish yellow in ambient light, except at the break, where the rich red translucency of the interior is exposed. There are no visible inclusions.
This teardrop-shaped pendant is an amalgamation of two sculptural forms, a crouching hare and a cowrie (Cypraeidae), modeled on the adult shell of the mollusk. The body of the hare is elevated from the ventral surface by a sort of platform. This is the edge of the cowrie shell. The rounded form of the pendant is a conflation of the hare’s back and the swelling of the cowrie’s dorsal surface. The hare is wide at the shoulders and narrow at the rump. Neither the front nor the hind legs are indicated. The hare’s ears are long, point straight backward, and lay flatly on the animal’s head. Its almond-shaped eyes are carefully incised, tapering to a point at the outer canthus. The ventral surface is smoothed but not flat; it curves gently upward at the base of the cowrie’s anterior canal and at the edge. The aperture is represented as a long groove.
The pendant retains evidence of the prepared amber blank from which it was carved. The indentation on the left side of the hare’s body and the three declivities in the ventral surface (each approximately 6 mm wide by 7 mm in length) are likely the result of the prefiguration removal of imperfections. The amber’s natural form, perhaps originally a large drop, may have directed the figuration. Its shape may also have conditioned the position and shape of the hare’s eyes. The use of the graver is seen in the working of the eyes, the articulation of the long groove of the ventral surface, and the groove separating the body from the base.
The pendant was suspended by a perforation that passes laterally through the cheeks of the hare; the exit holes are each 2 mm in diameter. When suspended, the animal would have faced upward, its back facing the viewer.
This pendant is an extraordinary combination of four things, amber, a recumbent hare, a cowrie shell (the ventral side mimics the aperture), and when hanging, the shape (in silhouette) of the Egyptian sign of the East, the flame of the new sun’s light. The lustrousness of the fossil resin echoes that of the shell and its transparency the light of the sun. Like amber, the cowrie was highly valued for its rarity, distinctive colors, and luster; like the cowrie, amber had a marine aspect: amber was made, found, or transported by water, and some specimens may still have included encrustation of shells. Amber is like the color of the sun and a flame.
Cowrie is the common name applied to marine gastropods belonging to the Cypraeidae, a large family of marine snails abundant in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the East Indies and the Maldive Islands. (Cowries are also found off the coast of Southern California.) They characteristically have massive, smooth, shiny shells with striking patterns and colors. As is the case today, only some species of cowrie were highly prized (and imitated) in the ancient world; the most sought after then as now are those deemed “exotic,” that is, particularly rare, lustrous, or distinctly colored. Cowries were traded to Egypt as early as the fifth millennium B.C., and cowrie-shaped pendants used as ornaments are documented as early as the late Old Kingdom period in Egypt. The much-valued cowrie shell inspired various kinds of jewelry, direct transfers in hollow electrum, gold, and silver, as well as the cowroid (a mixture of the scarab and the cowrie), in which the scarab back was replaced with the cowrie shell and the underside engraved.
Cowrie-shaped amber pendants are among the most popular of all pendant shapes in pre-Roman Italy and are among the first subjects to appear in amber, the earliest dating to the late eighth century. Amber cowries gained popularity in the seventh century in Etruria, the mid-Adriatic, and in the south of Italy and remained popular until the end of the fifth century, when the shell was imitated in silver and in gold. Amber cowrie-shaped pendants come in all sizes, from 20 to 90 mm in length, and range in their degree of naturalism. Some pendants are schematic; others include greater morphological detail, as is the case with 79.AO.75.28. The evidence from controlled excavations of Orientalizing-period sites in South Italy shows that amber cowroids are documented exclusively in female graves, where they were the primary elements of necklaces and girdles. Other uses are documented, however. A unique pectoral with cowries and tiny female figures was buried with a woman in a grave at Ascoli Piceno. A late seventh-/early sixth-century grave (Tomb 315) at Alianello-Cazzaiola documents another unusual use: the deceased woman was buried with an elaborate headband composed of small disk-shaped beads of ivory, bone, amber, and faïence, as well as with Egyptian faïence scarabs, real cowries, and a small amber imitation cowrie.
The Getty cowrie-hare is one of four amber cowroid pendants known to me. A unique combination is the pendant from Tursi, dated to the first half of the eighth century, which incorporates a cowrie and a scarab (but differently than in Egypt): the back of the Italic amber is a scarab and the underside that of a cowrie. The others are a cowrie-hare pendant in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a schematically rendered cowrie/crouching hare, teardrop-shaped and with a plain underside in a London private collection, and three hare-subject pendants in a German private collection. The Getty, New York, and London hare-cowrie pendants are all relatively close in size, although each is different in style and shows variations in form. The New York cowrie-hare is the most naturalistic: the raised base at the anterior canal of the cowrie, the distinctive caudal elongation of the hare’s head, and the rangy muscularity of the long body are faithfully captured.
This trio is related to the amber frog-cowrie pendants found at Vetulonia and to an example (now in the British Museum) said to come from Armento. A similar pendant was once in the Stroganoff collection, and another (allegedly from Metaponto) is recorded as once being on the art market. As with the scarab-cowrie combination, these hare-cowrie and frog-cowrie pendants bring together powerful subjects with age-old fertility, protection, and regenerative significance in amber, a material with the same properties.
The silhouette of this pendant, and of cowrie-shaped pendants in general, forms the shape of the Egyptian flame of sunlight, the sign of the East. The Egyptian flame accompanies the infant sun, the East, the direction of the sunrise and rebirth, an important step in the formation of the world.
In Egypt, from the late Old Kingdom through the Late Period, both males and females wore hare and frog amulets, but the cowrie seems to have been worn exclusively by women. In Italy, the hare as a subject of adornment may have had resonance for both men and women; it might have symbolized a specific divinity, Dionysos, Artemis, or another female goddess of nature or the hunt. The hare and frog were both associated with fertility, but a hare pendant might have had an additional significance in the tomb, offering its wearer special sight even in the dark, speed (away from danger and for fast passage through the afterworld), and the possibilities of rebirth. The symbolic meaning of the hare in the iconographic tradition of Syria (the ultimate source of Phoenician hare images?) “grew out of its biotope (animal of the open fields and desert) on the one hand, and out of its stunning reproductive capacity (the superfecundatio was known since antiquity) on the other hand.” “Hare amulets may have stood for the vital forces connected with fertility … alert quickness, and swiftness of the animal, and are to be viewed as life-giving symbols.” (See cat. no. 4, Divinity Holding Hares, for additional discussion of the hare as a symbol.)
The mature cowrie has been likened in appearance to the human eye and female genitalia, both powerful danger-averting subjects. The cowrie shell has been used to “replace” the eyes of the deceased and in Egypt and Italy is especially important for women. The long and narrow aperture on the underside of the cowrie recalls the external appearance of the vulva, and with the animal emerging from it, birth itself. The overall shape of the shell may have been thought to intimate the shape of the womb, “so when beads of its shape formed an element of a woman’s girdle, they were in exactly the right place to ward off evil influences from the relevant bodily part of the wearer, especially if she were pregnant.”
The function of a cowrie amulet would have been to enhance the particular bodily functions of the organs it represented (the eyes or the genitalia) and to act as a substitute for them in the afterworld. The amber, itself magic and regenerative, no doubt enhanced the fertility properties of the cowrie, as did the image of the proverbially fertile hare. That the hare and cowrie are two species in which the females are larger than the males must have added to the amuletic aspects of the pendant. In the tomb, the combination of hare and cowrie in a beautiful ornament-amulet might have been especially valuable for protection in rebirth or for the journey to the afterworld. In the beliefs of some in ancient Italy, this was a complicated voyage, part by land, part by sea, and part submarine.