By Will Noel
I had a delightful lunch with Alfred Bush at the Witherspoon Grill a few months ago. Alfred was curator of Western Americana for 40 years from 1962 and is a member of the Friends of the Princeton University Library. I thought I would be learning more from him about the remarkable collections of Robert Garrett, whose interests extended far beyond the Islamic and Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts for which he is now principally remembered. But we soon focused instead on Princeton’s extraordinary Mesoamerican holdings. The highlight, at least for me, was Alfred telling me about this conch shell, comprehensively imaged and online for you to study.
The shell bears a hieroglyphic inscription recording a sacrificial rite that took place on 1 Ahau 3 Zip (March 17, 761 CE), making it the earliest dated American manuscript in the Library’s holdings. The shell functioned as an ink pot, and still holds residue from the red pigment (specular hematite) frequently used by Mayan artists. The text also names the owner whose title was “He of the holy books”. It was probably the ink pot of an artist in the royal court of one of the Maya city-states in the Classic period.
Alfred often accompanied Gillett Griffin, curator of Ancient American Art in the Princeton University Art Museum in his round of art dealers in New York. On one of these occasions he discovered the conch shell and was intrigued. It was modestly priced at under a thousand dollars. Back in Princeton he presented it to a local alum, Frank Taplin, who was also intrigued and paid the bill. The shell was given to Princeton in 1970 by Frank E. Taplin, Jr., Class of 1937, and his wife Margaret.