So Charleston: Lettered Olive
The shiny shell patterned with hieroglyphic-like markings is enough to make the lettered olive (Oliva sayana) a desirable beachcomber’s find. Add the fact that it was identified and named by a Charlestonian in 1834, rumored ties to Edgar Allan Poe, and its status as the South Carolina state shell, and this mollusk holds a real Holy City place of honor. Learn some fun facts about the predatory sea snail, the science behind those signature markings, and more
The shell found by beachcombers is the exoskeleton of a marine gastropod, a snail that burrows along sandy bottom areas from the low tide to 150 feet deep. It preys upon crustaceans and bivalves, especially the coquina clam, grabbing them with its large foot before returning below ground to feed.
The lettered olive was named by Dr. Edmund Ravenel (1797-1870) of Charleston in 1834. Ravenel was not only an esteemed medical doctor and head of the chemistry department at the Medical College of South Carolina, but one of the earliest conchologists in the country, eventually cataloguing more than 3,500 specimens.
Legend Has It
Some historians believe that when Edgar Allan Poe was serving in the Army at Fort Moultrie in the 1820s, he befriended Dr. Ravenel, later using him as the model for the character of Legrand in “The Gold Bug.” If the two met, perhaps Dr. Ravenel also introduced Poe to the true “gold” bug found on the island, a large beetle marked with green and gold hues dubbed Callichroma splendidum.
Dr. Ravenel’s extensive collection of marine shells is held at The Charleston Museum. He found many of the specimens on Sullivan’s Island, where he spent summers, at times serving as Fort Moultrie’s physician and the island’s intendant, or mayor.
Growing up to 2.5 inches long, the lettered olive shell has a smooth, glossy surface thanks to the fact that the snail can extend its mantle to cover the entire shell, protecting it from abrasion. Because of this polished beauty, they were likely used by Native Americans for ornamentation and jewelry.
The name “lettered” was inspired by the brown hieroglyphic-like markings on the shell’s tan to gray surface, which come from dye the animal secretes throughout its life, creating a pattern unique to each specimen. Over time, waves and sun bleaching can erase these markings from vacated shells.
What’s in a Name
Found from North Carolina through Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and south to Brazil, it’s a member of the family Olividae, which includes some 300 species shaped much like that of an olive. Ravenel included the word “sayana” in its name to honor his friend Thomas Say (1787-1834), a leading scientist of the time.
Illustration by Virginia Greene