When the spiraled white shell of a precious wentletrap was sold at auction in 1750, the highest bidder was none other than the Holy Roman Emperor, who shelled out no less than 4,000 guilders for the two-inch-long treasure. The extraordinary sum, equivalent to $114,000 today, was a tribute to the wentletrap’s delicate beauty, but it had more to do with the seashell’s alleged rarity. Outside of a few royal collections, there was hardly a wentletrap to be found throughout Europe. And in the age of conchylomania, which put a premium on exotic shells imported from distant shores, 4,000 guilders may have been a bargain.
Less than a century later, the deal no longer appeared so enviable. Precious wentletraps had been discovered in sands from the Red Sea to the southwestern Pacific. In an 1822 auction, a “very perfect specimen” sold for just eight pounds sterling, the equivalent of $1,200. Now they retail for around $10 on eBay.
The story of the wentletrap is one of many told by Cynthia Barnett in The Sound of the Sea, a fascinating new book that explores topics ranging from colonialism to ocean acidification in connection to seashells. “From the shell cults of prehistory to the impressive number of mollusk-inspired Pokémon characters, no creatures have stirred human admiration for as long or as intimately,” she writes. “It’s striking how often they’ve led us to clear truths in murky times.”
Barnett first became interested in shells while visiting the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum in Florida, which has collected an abundance of wentletrap species amongst its half million specimens of clams and conches and cowries from around the world: a trove that would certainly have impressed the Holy Roman Emperor and other conchylomaniacs ranging from Catherine the Great to Rembrandt. (A spectacular new exhibition of high-resolution seashell photographs would also have given Rembrandt oceans of artistic inspiration.) Considered together, the museum and the book enhance the aesthetic admiration that is our inheritance and give seashells the serious attention they deserve in the murky present.
The most urgent insights shells can provide are environmental. Species such as the giant clam record past climate conditions in the growth patterns of their shells and the minerals those shells preserve. Also many shellfish serve as indicator species, often revealing changes in ocean ecology before ecologists can detect the changes directly.
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But seashells ae equally suited to telling us about ourselves. At the same time that precious wentletraps and other exotic tropical species were provoking bidding wars amongst a European elite obsessed with exclusivity, common cowrie shells were supporting global commerce based on their abundance and uniformity.
The cowries came from the Maldives, found amidst coral reefs. The Maldives were especially rich in one cowrie species, which Carl Linnaeus aptly named Cypraea moneta and which is now known as Monetaria moneta. This cowrie’s shell was small and smooth, suitable for transportation as ballast in the hulls of ships, and nearly impossible to forge. Because the Maldives were optimally located along global trade routes, the money cowrie was optimally positioned to become a global token of exchange.
As Barnett documents, money cowries were used in this way before the rise of the Roman Empire and still circulated in parts of Africa in the early 20th century, making them the longest-circulating currency in human history. Given the fact that global trade often included colonization and enslavement, Monetaria moneta also garnered alternative names such as blood money, and inspired myths including the beilef that cowries followed slave ships to feed on the dead.
If wentletraps have the potential to reveal murky aspects of human psychology related to status, cowries can tell us a lot about the murkiness of commerce, from the commodities market to bitcoin. Before they were used as money, cowries were amulets considered to have magical powers related to fertility and fortune, likely based on visual resemblance to female genitalia in one orientation and the human eye in the other. (To prevent misfortune, people sought to distract the evil eye with an anatomical decoy.) The transition from magic to money is suggestive of the mystical quality of currency, which holds value based on shared belief in that value. (On the other hand, the plummeting price of the wentletrap shows the precariousness of pecuniary beliefs.)
The fact that cowries are no longer used in commerce is probably for the best, given their bloody history and also the environmental impact of harvesting them. However there may be lessons we can learn from cowries beyond what they reveal about money in relation to magic, opportunism, and exploitation. Although money cowries are more resilient than many ocean species, their coral habitat is increasingly threatened by climate change, a factor certain to impact their population. Moreover their shells are made of minerals that will dissolve as atmospheric carbon dioxide swells, increasing the acidity of seawater. Like all other species, they are environmental indicators. Establishing a cowrie standard would reconnect currency and commerce with the environment that supports trade and provides wealth. The value of this money would be aptly indexed to global ecology.
Of course, as the magisterial collection of the Bailey-Matthews shows, money cowries are merely one of more than fifty thousand living mollusk species, astonishing in their biodiversity. All of these hold immeasurable value, and not only as trade tokens and collectibles and climate indicators. Shells are integral to human culture, but our appreciation of them will be complete only when we’re able to appreciate them in their own right.