Seashells are the hard, protective outer-layers of the body of sea creatures such as molluscs, marine invertebrates and crustaceans. They are often found empty of their host organism after it has died, and can be commonly found washed up on beaches or along stretches of coastline.
The study and collection of mollusc shells is known as ‘conchology’, and is a popular hobby in many parts of the world.
The infinite variety of shapes, colours and patterns found on shells means no two are ever identical. Some conchologists collect the shells purely for their aesthetic appearance, whilst others catalogue and document their finds in order to aid deeper scientific research on the subject.
There is a market for both colourful, exotic shells with little or no related information and ‘specimen shells’ which come with all their collecting data (such as when the shells were collected and from which habitat).
There are a large number of field guides and books to aid collectors in the identification of their shells, and groups such as the Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland exist for hobbyists and scientists alike.
History of seashell collecting
The collection of shells is one of the oldest natural history pursuits of mankind, dating back to the dawn of civilisation.
They were first used for decorative purposes, and the earliest known man-made jewellery is thought to be a set of snail shells perforated to be strung like beads, discovered in a cave in Blombos, South Africa and dating back to the Middle Stone Age, some 75,000 to 100,000 years ago.
Shell jewellery has been discovered at a large number of archaeological sites, including at ancient Aztec ruins, digs in ancient China, the Indus Valley, and Native American sites.
The collection and study of seashells was undertaken by both Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) and Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD), and a collection of shells was discovered preserved amongst the ruins of Pompeii.
During the Renaissance Period the development of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ by wealthy collectors led many of them to acquire natural specimens regarded for their beauty or unusual nature.
Many of these collections featured large and colourful seashells alongside exotic cultural artefacts, religious relics and prized works of art.
During the 17th century a more modern, scientific view began to emerge as people sought greater understanding of the world around them.
It became important to specialize and separate categories such as zoology, biology and archaeology, and such areas became the subjects of intense study.
The first comprehensive study of shells was the ''Historiae Conchyliorum'', featuring over 1000 engraved plates, and was produced between 1685 and 1692 by the English naturalist Martin Lister.
Another notable conchologist during this period was George Eberhard Rumpf (1627-1702) who published the first classifications of molluscs into different groups.
The mid 18th century saw the publication of the Systema Naturae, the groundbreaking work of classification known as binomial nomenclature by the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus.
The area of conchology became an official recognized branch of zoology, and its study became more widespread.
During the 18th and 19th centuries a great deal of important work in the field was done by the Sowerby family, a family of British naturalists who focused much of their study on molluscs.
Other noted conchologists during this period include Englishman Hugh Cumming, known as the ‘Prince of Collectors’, whose collection of 82,992 specimens was purchased by the Natural History Museum in 1866 and the American naturalist Thomas Say, who produced the book ‘American Conchology, or Descriptions of the Shells of North America, Illustrated From Coloured Figures From Original Drawings, Executed from Nature’ (six volumes, 1830-1834).
As the great museums of the 19th century began to emerge across Europe, many institutions developed large collections of seashells for study and preservation.
This study has continued to this day, and numerous new species are discovered each year by marine biologists.
Main article: List of types of seashell
Clubs and societies
Main article: List of seashell collectors' clubs and societies
Related Wikicollecting pages
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