I have promised
several readers of Conch-L Net to give a more extensive answer concerning
the use of opercula in the Middle East.
Henk K. Mienis
National Mollusc Collection
Dept. Evolution, Systematics & Ecology
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
IL-91904 Jerusalem, Israel
This series of Henk's
has been reproduced with his permission> (Avril)
uses of opercula 1. Horny opercula used as "Ketoret"
- The use
of "Ketoret" or the burning of spices for the production
of incense has a long tradition in the Jewish faith. Several kinds
of "Ketoret" were burnt on a special altar in the Holy
Temples. However, with the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem
(Early Roman period) the secret of burning one of these spices:
"Shechelet" or "Zipporen" (= Hebrew for nail)
At the same time another mollusc related secret became lost too:
the method of producing the Biblical Blue or "Tekhelet"
for dyeing the ritual fringes ("Tzitzit") of the prayer
Various Jewish religious groups, believing in the rebuilding of
the Third Temple and the subsequent appearing of the Messiah, are
preparing themselves for that event by restoring ancient traditions.
The source of the lost "Tekhelet" has been traced to the
Banded Dye Murex: Hexaplex trunculus from the Mediterranean Sea
(see various articles in E. Spanier (Ed.), 1987: The Royal Purple
and the Biblical Blue. Keter Publ., Jerusalem).
The source of the "Sechelet, Zipporen or Onycha" has still
to be solved. Fortunately there are some indications. Linnaeus (1758:
747) mentioned in his "Systema Naturae" the scented nail
or Unguis odoratus as being the operculum of "Muricum Purpurarum
s. Frondesemtium". This subdivision of the genus Murex contained
four species: ramosus, scorpio, saxatilis & erinaceus. Only
Chicoreus ramosus or most probably the closely related Chicoreus
virgineus (not known to Linnaeus), formed the most likely candidate
for the production of this incense, since the latter is a common
Red Sea species.
However, most probably the opercula of several gastropods were exploited
for this purpose. A Phoenician ship, sunken off the south coast
of Turkey, contained in its hold among others many copper ingots
packed together with large amounts of opercula. Three species could
be identified: Hexaplex trunculus, Bolinus brandaris & Buccinulum
corneum (Mienis, unpubl.). All three common Eastern Mediterranean
In the same historic period both Hexaplex and Bolinus were already
heavily exploited for the production of "Argaman - the Royal
Purple" (and "Tekhelet - the Biblical Blue"?). So
maybe part of the waste products: the opercula, were saved during
that process for producing an other expensive item: the incense
"Shechelet or Zipporen".
Other possible candidates seem to be hiding among the Strombidae
(see part 2).
uses of opercula 2. Horny opercula used as a source for incense
in the Arabic world
- The use
of incense is not only part of an ancient Jewish tradition, but
is also well rooted among both the Christian and Muslim Arabs in
the Middle East.
In Greek-Orthodox churches throughout the Levant incense is used
as part of a daily ritual. However, I doubt whether horny opercula
play a role in it.
Muslims are making use of incense too. Most famous is the so-called
frankincense obtained by burning the gum resin of Boswellia sacra,
a rare tree confined in its distribution to parts of Dhofar and
Yemen (see T. Mackintosh-Smith, 2000. Scents of Place - Frankinsence
in Oman. Aramco World, 51 (3): 16-23). Up till today it is the most
appreciated incense used throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
Old Arabic medical books dating back to Mediaeval times describe
the application of incense produced by burning horny opercula for
curing several illnesses. Inhalation of such fumes was promoted
for curing stomach pains, liver illnesses, epilepsy and regulation
of the menstrual cycle. For this purpose the use of opercula of
the following species was recommended: Strombus tricornis, Lambis
truncata sebae, Chicoreus ramosus, Chicoreus virgineus & Pleuroploca
trapezium i.e. the opercula of the largest gastropods living in
the waters bordering the Arabian Peninsula. The best opercula were
said to come from Jeddah. (see: M. Levey, 1961. Ibn Masawaih and
his treatise on simple aromatic substances: studies in the history
of Arabic Pharmacology I. J. Hist. Medicine & Allied Sci., 16:
407; M. Meyerhof & G.P. Sobhy, 1932. The abridged version of
"The book of simple drugs", of Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Al-Ghafiqi
by Gregorius Abul-Farag, 224-228. Cairo).
I do not know whether the burning of horny opercula is still being
applied as a home-made medical remedy. Noteworthy is the fact that
in 1967 one of my colleagues at the Hebrew University noted still
several glass jars filled with opercula of Strombus and Lambis in
a pharmacy in Hebron!
is the first part dealing with calcareous opercula
Human uses of opercula 3. Ornamental uses of Turbo
is the second part devoted to the use of calcareous opercula.
Human uses of opercula 4. Shell beads made from
opercula of the landsnail Pomatias olivieri
in general and Israel in particular is an eldorado for the archaeologist.
Wherever you put a spade in the ground, sooner or later you will
come across some relics from the past. If it is too hot to dig:
wait for the winter rains, enter a ploughed field and have a look
in the gullies worn out by short lived streams. Everywhere you
will encounter numerous fragments of ceramic and glass ware, old
coins, carnolian beads, etc. Usually shells are also among them:
valves of Glycymeris insubrica, Cerastoderma glaucum or Acanthocardia
tuberculata, often with a man-made hole in the umbo, or an occasional
Cowry with the dorsum missing. These occasional finds of the latter
have hardly any archaeological value since they are not found
within the context of a particular cultural period, however, they
give you always some satisfaction.
Shells encountered during official excavations form more-and-more
the subject of special studies and may supply the archaeologist
with important information in the field of cultural habits, religion,
food, climate, long-range contacts, etc. Unfortunately opercula
are hardly encountered among such material.
A noteworthy exception forms the Nahal Oren site in the Carmel
range south of Haifa, Israel. During the excavation of that site,
dating back to the Neolithic period (9500-6000 BP [= Before Present]),
by the late Dr. Tamar Noy, 28 opercula were encountered.
They turned out to belong to Pomatias olivieri, a terrestrial
prosobranch still living today in the Carmel range. All the opercula,
but two, showed a perfect round hole in the centre. These operculum
served without doubt as shell beads, since shells were intensively
used in the form of beads and pendants during the Neolithic period.
A perforated operculum of Pomatias olivieri has been figured in
Mienis (1990. Landsnails from a Neolithic site in Nahal Oren,
Israel. The Papustyla, 1990 (5): 8-9; and 1990. Neolitische "kralen"
vervaardigd uit opercula van Pomatias olivieri uit de opgravingen
van Nahal Oren, Israel. C.B. Ned. Malac. Ver., 256: 728-731).
- At the request
of several correspondents some additional information concerning "Human
uses of opercula"
Human uses of opercula, 5. More information concerning
- The use
of opercula of Turban shells (Turbo) has been dealt with already
in part 3 of this series (Conch L Net, 30 April, 2001). It was mainly
dealing with the local exploitation of a by-product of the pearl
button industry on Sumatera, Indonesia: the use of the large and
heavy opercula of Turbo marmoratus for paving a garden path. In
addition I mentioned briefly the use of opercula of smaller Turbo
species in the jewelry industry. Additional gleanings of the literature
have confirmed those statements, but also revealed some additional
The local inhabitants of the Cocos-Keeling Islands, Eastern Indian
Ocean, gather the opercula of Turbo petholatus, the Cat's Eye, for
preparing jewelry (Orr Maes, 1967).
James Hornell, former director of the Fisheries Department of Madras,
India, and well-known author of several works on Indian molluscs,
advised not only the use of the operculum of Turbo marmoratus as
a paper weight, but also described how the local people collect
the opercula of smaller Turbo species, especially Turbo argyrostoma.
They are sold to pilgrims and devotees near the main entrance to
the famous Rameswaram temple as "disc of the moon" (Tamil:
ambiliman) (Hornell, 1917, 1922 & 1951).
The same author also mentioned that a Turbinid species found in
New Zealand containing an operculum brightly mottled with green
and brown is highly valued by the Maoris as a personal ornament
set in gold. They also used it to form the eyes of their idols in
former times. Although Hornell (1922 & 1951) did not mention
a more specific name, he was most probably referring to the Emerald
Moon Turban Lunella smaragda, called by the Maoris Ataata.
J., 1917. The edible molluscs of the Madras presidency. Madras Fisheries
Bulletin, 11: 1-51.
J., 1922. The common molluscs of south India. Madras Fisheries Bulletin,
J, 1951. Indian molluscs. 96 pp. The Bombay Natural History Society,
- Orr Maes,
V., 1967. The littoral marine mollusks of Cocos-Keeling Islands
(Indian Ocean). Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci Philadelphia, 119 (4): 93-217.
In 1992 my friend
Jack Austin wrote a piece on the reference to opercula incense in Exodus
for the Victorian Branch of MAS newsletter. He wondered what species were
used. I remembered that Dr.Donald Bosch had mentioned in a talk at COA
that although shell collecting is not permitted in Oman, thousands of
shells are collected for their opercula for use in incense, and that they
are readily found in the markets. I later asked him which species were
used. He said that it is mainly Cymatium boschi, Murex scolopax, Hexaplex
kuesterianus, and Chicoreus ramosus. Eloise Bosch was kind enough to send
me a booklet on Omani recipes which included a recipe for making bokhur,
the incense. The booklet states:
kawha and dates, and perhaps fruit or halwah, visitors to an Omani home
will be offered a tray of various perfumes in small ornate bottles.
Following the perfumes, and incense burner with glowing coals is sprinkled
with frankincense or bokhur and brought around to each guest in turn.
The rich smoke is fanned into hair, beards, and clothing, whereupon
the guest immediately says his goodbyes and departs in a cloud of fragrance."