What is this used for?

(Puzzle 020)

We know where this probably comes from, but what is it's purpose?

If you recognise it, please let us know.

Mystery item

Here's an interesting item that was owned by a connoisseur of small European silver pieces, Paul Skippen in England. The size is approximately 10 cm long and 7.5 cm high (4 x 3 inches) and has a distinct Spanish style, with a Santiago Cross and two Compsotelan Shells. Its hallmark indicates almost pure silver.

Cross, shells, silver, together suggest an ecclesiastical purpose. The two 'rests' may be for spoons, the cross could be a carrying handle, feet for the item to stand on a table or shelf, all indicating ceremonial use.

So what is it used for?

Top down view
Top down view
(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Hallmark to certify
91.6% silver purity
(Click to enlarge)

Incense boat?

The spoon rests, if that's what they are, could mean the vessels are for incense. But incense is quite expensive and the shells' open nature increases the risk of grains falling out. So it is unlikely to be an incense boat.

Stoops for Holy Water or Holy Oil?

The shells are much too small to be of practical use as stoops.

Candle snuffer stand?

Blowing out candles on a birthday cake is fine if your party guests don't mind your spittle all over their food. In a church, however, candles are carefully extinguished using a candle snuffer. And if you've used one, you've probably noticed they usually get sooty and can leave black oily rings on the nice white altar cloth. Much better to place the snuffers on a dish. And if two people are tasked to snuff candles, then a double dish is useful.

Candle snuffer holder

But if a church is large enough to require two people to snuff candles, then the candles themselves will be somewhat larger than birthday-cake candle size. As mentioned above, the whole item is just 10 cm wide, so each dish is only about 3 cm and a matching snuffer would be perhaps just 2 cm.

So we can snuff out the candle snuffer stand hypothesis.

Pen or brush rests?

Using two pens for calligraphy is not uncommon; either using two colours, or using fine and broad nibbed pens.

Pen rest

The shells are much too small to be of practical use as inkwells,

Pen rest

but somebody has suggested this item might have been used as part of a writing set to park pens or brushes, where the shells could catch the drips of excess ink.

However, our experts disagree with that suggestion:

  • Being silver, one would expect such a writing set to have a good quality inkwell, probably made of glass, and designed in a way that the nib can be dipped and pulled across the edge so as to let the excess ink run back into the well; in other words, such a pen rest with drip collectors would be obsolete.

  • Pen rest

    The angles of the rests slope away from the shells, so if there was any excess ink it would run back along the pen instead of being collected in the shells.

  • As silver is prone to staining it would not be long before cleaning it would become a difficult if not impossible task.

  • Pen rests are usually an integrated part of a writing set (connected to the inkwell, for example) and not a separate item.

So for now, we've written off the pen rest hypothesis.

Cigarette ashtray?

Unlikely, not least because an ashtray is usually big enough to hold several cigarette stubs. This one isn't.

The most likely explanation to date is from our expert on all things ecclesiastical, Sean Wright of California:

Baptism shells?

Baptism shell
Baptism shell

Silver shell-shaped vessels used in baptism ceremonies are not uncommon and are often adorned with a cross. They are used for pouring water but our mystery item doesn't appear to be designed for that.

Sean suggests that its function is something similar to a salt cellar in a dinner service.

Baptism shell in the Papal arms

The ritual use of salt is almost exclusive to the Roman Rite and Sean explains that in the usual baptismal ritual outside of Mass, the priest takes a pinch of salt. between thumb and forefinger to sprinkle a very few grains on the tongue of the infant, child, or adult. The baptisee's forehead is signed with the cross by the priest's thumb, dipped in the oil of catechumens.

Sean further suggests that where the priest wants to impart the sacraments with a fine sense of liturgy, the use of a little silver spoon to do the actual sprinkling might be regarded as more genteel and hygienic than using a thumb and forefinger.

Now, if one shell is used for salt, what is the other shell used for? It's unlikely that oil would go in the other shell. The three Holy Oils are blessed very solemnly the night before Easter, kept in sealable containers, and great care is taken to ensure none falls to the floor. An open shell such as this is not practical. Further, the sign of the cross is applied by the priest's thumb, not a spoon.

The most likely explanation for the double-shells is for salt to be held in both vessels and used for a double baptism. This item is antique. The population in Europe doubled during the 18th century and doubled again during the 19th century. s living conditions and health care improved. Today, Europe's population numbers have more or less stabilised, but in the past families had relatively large numbers of children and dual baptisms is quite likely.

However, we're making several presumptions here and you might decide to "take it with a grain of salt".

If you recognise this item, please email us with your thoughts.

Puzzling symbols index

In the Roman Catholic Church, salt is also blessed and exorcised as a sacramental, but salt is far cheaper than oil or incense so if a few grains are lost it is of little consequence.

Thousands of years ago, salt was used in ancient Egyptian funereal rites. Several cultures have used it as currency and it's an excellent food preservative. Consume too much, however, and you die. In Gen. 19:19 we read the story of Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt. That's a lot of salt.

But in moderation, salt is a 'good thing'. Jesus referred to his disciples as the "salt of the earth" (Matt. 5:13) and Sunan ibn Majah wrote that Muhammad said "God sent down four blessings from the sky: fire, water, iron and salt". Hindus use salt in certain religious ceremonies and Jews use salted bread in Kidush for Shabat. In Japan salt is used for ritual purification in Shintoism and thonged sumo wrestlers toss salt into the dohyo (ring) before each violent hugging session.

Spain's population didn't actually quadruple, but the population size over the past two centuries still suggests lots and lots of screaming babies:

YearApprox. population
17509 million
180011 million
185015 million
190018 million
195028 million
200040 million


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