Across all of Europe the marine mollusc known as the thorny oyster was used to make the most prized ornaments of the Neolithic period.  Major centres for the collection of these shells and the fabrication of the valued ornaments were located on the Istrian coast. Thus the Istrian seaboard became one of the points of departure for humanity’s first great luxury products exchange network, emerging parallel to the advent of agriculture, and marking the dawn of the new economic order that emerged during the Neolithic period.

The thorny oyster is better known by its Latin name Spondylus (Spondylus gaederopus). Today it is known only to a small number of shell enthusiasts. 7,500 years ago, however, at the beginning of the Middle Neolithic, these shells were used for the fabrication of beads, bracelets, pendants and belt sets – an entire range, in fact, of very popular ornamental objects found across all of the European continent. Many researchers believe that Spondylus jewellery was a mark of wealth and prestige, and a large number maintain that Neolithic shamans used them as ritual objects.

Without written records and oral traditions the chief source for our knowledge of the use of this shell are material remains. Today we know of over two hundred Neolithic sites in Europe at which Spondylus jewellery has been found. These sites are for the most part located deep in the interior of the continent, exceedingly distant from the littoral collection and fabrication zones. We see Spondylus finds in areas more than three thousand kilometres from the Adriatic and Aegean coasts where they were collected, right into central Europe, where these shells have been found among the archaeological remains of settlements and cemeteries. It is worth noting that the quantity of finds of Spondylus jewellery increases as one moves away from the Adriatic and Aegean shores they come from.

It was long held that the chief centres of the production of Spondylus jewellery were located on the Black Sea coast, but new research has shown that the temperature and salinity of its waters are not suitable for the growth of this mollusc. This points to the shores of the Aegean and Adriatic Seas as the centres of production. With the decline of Neolithic traditions and the emergence of the metal era, Spondylus jewellery ceased to be a precious good and is not longer found at archaeological sites.


The thorny oyster or Spondylus (Spondylus gaederopus) is from the family Spondylidae and lives in warm seas. It lives cemented to the sea floor in coastal areas at depths ranging from two to 30 metres. It can achieve a length of 15 centimetres. The valves are not symmetrical – the upper valve is gently rounded and mobile, while the lower valve is recessed and cemented to the rock base. The outer surface of the shell ranges from purple to purple-red (crimson). To this day, as in the Neolithic period, this marine bivalve is used for food in the Mediterranean littoral. It is relatively rare. Once exposed on the beach it loses its stunning purple colour – for the production of ornaments these shells must be collected by divers. This is a challenge as they are not easily spotted or dislodged from the rock base.


The use of jewellery made of Spondylus in Istria during the Middle Neolithic has been borne out at two sites: the cited finds are present in great number at the Kargadur site and in lesser quantity at Pradišelski Rt (Cape Pradišelski). 

The Kargadur site is located on the southeast shore of the Istrian peninsula, not far from the settlement of Ližnjan. It yielded preserved remains of human activity from the Early Neolithic, Middle Neolithic and the Copper Age. It was discovered in the year 2000 during an archaeological survey of southern Istria. A test archaeological excavation was conducted in 2002 and the wealth of collected finds initiated a systematic excavation conducted by the Archaeological Museum of Istria under the leadership of Darko Komšo in the period from 2005 to 2007. A 52 square metre area was excavated and it was established that the site covers some 900 square metres. It is hypothesised that the site once covered over three thousand square metres but that most has been destroyed by the erosive action of the sea. Numerous features were identified during the excavation – pits, drystone structures, accumulations of pebbles, and graves. The excavation yielded numerous archaeological finds: a very large quantity of pottery, flint, bone tools, animal bones and the remnants of plants. Particularly noteworthy are the finds of hooks, obsidian, rhyton cult vessels and pendants fabricated from marine shells and snails.

Pendants made from perforated shells and snails were collected from all archaeological levels. The most frequent pendants are fabricated from cockles (Cerastoderma lamarcki / Cardium edule), also collected from all layers. Spondylus finds were made only in layers dated to the Middle Neolithic. Only one completed and fully worked ornament was found: a perforated Spondylus valve notched in the form of the letter V. Similar finds have been registered across Europe, usually in graves, located near the waist of the deceased. This indicates that these ornaments were parts of belt fasteners. Several Spondylus specimens were collected along with this find with visible traces of cutting and polishing, as were a large quantity of complete shells. This suggests that the collection of Spondylus and the fabrication of ornaments from these bivalves was one of the chief activities at this site in the course of the Middle Neolithic.

Finds of several worked but unfinished Spondylus valves, and of one broken pendant with two perforations, were made during rescue archaeological excavation in the 1970s at the Neolithic period Pradišelski Rt site, located on the eastern shores of the Istrian peninsula. These finds show that the collection and manufacture of Spondylus jewellery was present across much of Istria.


From the start of the Middle Neolithic we see numerous finds of exotic and luxurious materials and products begin to appear at archaeological sites, including artefacts of obsidian, polished axes and stone artefacts of high quality chert from distant regions. These objects are not locally available and are imported from further abroad, indicating the existence of the broad, developed and active exchange network that emerged in the Mediterranean and broader European area.

Numerous finds of fully worked (completed) and/or rejected ornaments, semi-completed products, the remains of the production cycle, and a large quantity of intact Spondylus valves, show that there were major production centres for the manufacture of Spondylus jewellery on the shores of Istria in the course of the Middle Neolithic, with which the Istrian Neolithic communities actively joined the exchange system of Neolithic Europe. With its production of Spondylus jewellery, the most prized ornament of Neolithic Europe, Istria became one of the key hubs and a point of departure in the first great exotic and luxury product exchange and trade network in human history.


1. Perforated Spondylus shell notched in the form of the letter V Origin (made): Kargadur, Middle Neolithic Location (collection): Archaeological Museum of Istria, Pula, P-53180 Material(s): thorny oyster marine bivalve (Spondylus gaederopus) Dimensions: 65.5 x 41.3 x 15.2 mm, perforations 8.8/4.6 mm Weight: 38.26 gr

2. Spondylus shell with traces of working Origin (made): Kargadur, Middle Neolithic Location (collection): Archaeological Museum of Istria, Pula, P-53183 Material(s): thorny oyster marine bivalve (Spondylus gaederopus) Dimensions: 65.5 x 44.6 x 12.4 mm Weight: 43.67 gr

3. Spondylus shell with traces of working Origin (made): Kargadur, Middle Neolithic Location (collection): Archaeological Museum of Istria, Pula, P-53181 Material(s): thorny oyster marine bivalve (Spondylus gaederopus) Dimensions: 71.3 x 60.3 x 6.1 mm Weight: 45.75 gr

4. Unworked Spondylus shell Origin (made): Kargadur, Middle Neolithic Location (collection): Archaeological Museum of Istria, Pula, P-53182 Material(s): thorny oyster marine bivalve (Spondylus gaederopus) Dimensions: 89.1 x 71.3 x 16.1 mm Weight: 53.24 gr


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 A Treasure from the Depths. Spondylus gaederopus – Neolithic Europe’s Most Prized Jewellery

Exhibition  Carrarina 4, Pula, Window to the Past 10.03. - 11.04.2017.

Exhibition and text author: Darko Komšo

Organizer and publisher: Archaeological Museum of Istria

For the organizer and publisher: Darko Komšo

Editorial Board: Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

Set up & graphic design: Vjeran Juhas

Photographer: Tanja Draškić Savić, Enzo Morović, Darko Komšo 

Technical set up of the exhibition: Andrea Sardoz

Translation in Italian: Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation: Neven Ferenčić

Proofs: Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić, Katarina Zenzerović

Print: MPS Pula

No. of copies: 700

Pula, 2017.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.