The collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague also contains a small and rather curious group of objects in the form of sea snail shells with etched inscriptions in Hebrew. This is evidence of an interesting cultural phenomenon that emerged in what was then Palestine at the very beginning of the twentieth century, probably continuing for the next 30 or so years. These inscribed shells also appear in other Judaica collections, as well in specialized auctions, which suggests that this was indeed a mass phenomenon.
The use of sea snail shells as souvenirs with inscriptions or decorations is not new, but it was not until the rise of tourism in the latter half of the nineteenth century that this practice became more widespread. In coastal locations, this type of souvenir with etched scenes is popular to this day. The vast majority of shells with Hebrew inscriptions, however, differ from ordinary souvenirs on account of their specific purpose and, for the most part, their customization.
From the inscriptions on the surviving sets of shells in this museum’s collection, it may be inferred that most of them were originally presented as unusual New Year’s gifts. They usually include the traditional Hebrew greeting for the new year, sometimes in abbreviated form. Occasionally, they contain the date in Hebrew or Roman script, along with the name of the donor or donee. The linguistic combinations of the inscriptions differ according to the language of the recipients, with additional text usually in German; English inscriptions can be found on shells in collections elsewhere in the world.
All of the shells in the museum’s collection are tiger cowrie (Cypraea tigris) and are approximately eight to nine centimetres in length. As this species of cowrie does not live in the Mediterranean Sea, its shells had to be imported to the territory of the former Palestine from its nearest habitat, the Red Sea, where it is still quite common. The technique of inscribing and decorating the shells was very simple and did not require any special equipment, which is what probably contributed to its widespread popularity. First, a layer of varnish was applied to the surface. Once dry, the whole area was exposed to a weak acid, probably ordinary kitchen vinegar. After the shell was etched to the required depth, it was then washed with water, and the varnish was removed with an appropriate solvent.
The exhibition has been prepared by Jaroslav Kuntoš.
Translantion: Stephen Hattersley