The Portland Vase, £5.00
Length: 8.500 cm
Width: 21.800 cm
Room 71: Etruscan world
Shell cosmetic container
About 700-600 BC
Carved in the form of a woman's head
This shell, from a clam (Tridacna squamosa) was used as a container for cosmetics. The umbo has been carved in the form of a woman's head, while the natural form of the shell gives the impression of a windblown cloak draped over her head. The border is carved with sphinxes and lotus flowers in a design which can be seen on textiles depicted in Assyrian carved reliefs. Other decoration on the outside of the shell is very worn and now hard to make out.
There are around ninety examples of this type of shell container, but this one has particularly fine decoration. They all seem to have been produced within a short period, possibly in the Syro-Palestinian area, where they are found in concentration, though they also occur in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Cyrene, the coast of Asia Minor, the Aegean islands and Greece (mainly Samos and Lindos). The head is extremely like those carved on the handles of alabaster and stone cosmetic palettes found in Jordan.
Exotic imports like this frequently occur in the Orientalizing period in Etruria (seventh century BC), when flourishing trade with cultures around the eastern Mediterranean supplied the keen demand for foreign luxury goods.
Tridacna squamosa shells originate in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
E. Macnamara, The Etruscans-1 (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)
A. Rathje, Italian Iron Age artefacts i-1, Papers of the sixth British Museum classical colloqium (London, The British Museum Press, 1982), pp. 393-96