Excavations in Formative and Early Classic contexts at the Maya site of K'axob have produced a sample of 2,568 worked-shell ornaments crafted from both marine and freshwater species. Predominantly shell beads, the sample also includes unique pendants, figurines, and tinklers. A high frequency of unfinished beads in Middle Formative and early Late Formative midden contexts provides strong evidence of localized shell working and trading connections with the Caribbean. Personal adornment crafted from shell is an important item in many burials, including those of children. The most lavish disposal of shell, however, occurs in one of the earliest Middle Formative interments at K'axob. An adult male—who may have been a “founder” of K'axob—was buried with 2,019 shell beads. Through time, fewer individuals were buried with worked shell as the intricacy of shell working became more elaborate and possibly iconic of roles of authority. Interpretation of archaeological patterns indicates that shell beads can provide significant insight into the construction of social identities.
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