Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Archaeology of Torres Strait Turtle-Shell Masks: The Badu Cache

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Archaeology of Torres Strait Turtle-Shell Masks: The Badu Cache

Article excerpt

Abstract: Turtle-shell masks are distinctive Tortes Strait Islander objects that were used during ritual performances, and carefully curated, during ethnographic times. Yet the history of these rituals and their material expressions are poorly understood. The numerous instances of turtle-shell masks collected during the nineteenth century and currently held in museum collections around the world, and the chance discovery of one such mask cached in a rock-shelter on the island of Badu, now allow for their historicising through a program of AMS radiocarbon dating. Initial results are reported. Ethnographic accounts and oral traditions present the historical researcher with not only rich cultural details, but also a means by which to track back in time the origins of those same cultural practices. For if cultural practices possess material correlates--particular artefact or site types, or specific technological conventions--it should theoretically be possible to investigate archaeologically when those material items, and in the process the associated cultural practices, first appeared in the depths of history. Yet, as archaeologists, seldom do we come across material objects, or patterning of material remains, that can be identified with particular and ongoing cultural practices. In Torres Strait there are few material objects and site types that can be said to be distinctively and singularly 'Torres Strait Islander' in cultural expression. Of those that can be, bu (trumpet, Syrinx) shell alignments, dugong bone mounds, curved 'shark-mouth' drums and turtle-shell masks are perhaps the most readily recognisable. Yet these are not common, and until now no turtle-shell mask had been recorded archaeologically. Indeed, while 80 turtle-shell masks and effigies--many of which incorporate mask-like components--are known from museum or private collections, all were likely collected prior to the twentieth century AD. Apart from a few masks recently made by Indigenous artist Vic McGrath, and one in the collection of the National Museum of Australia made in 1993 by Patrick Thaiday (Mosby & Robinson 1998:101, 102), no new examples are known from the last 100 years.

Turtle-shell masks nevertheless promise to shed considerable light on the historical emergence of ethnographically known Torres Strait Islander cultural practices. Such masks were carefully curated and recycled through the generations, and for this reason ethnographic examples likely include ancient as well as more recent creations. As was recently demonstrated by AMS radiocarbon results of 490[+ or -]60 years and 550[+ or -]50 years BP for a well-preserved wooden anthropomorphic woodcarving from Rapanui, durable items in museum collections have considerable potential for chronological investigation (Forment et al. 2001). An AMS dating program on minute samples of turtle-shell masks held in museum and private collections should reveal key information on the historical appearance of turtle-shell masks and their historically emergent roles in Islander cultural practice. Similarly, the dating of turtle-shell masks represented in rock-art presents a second avenue for tracing their antiquity. The chance finding of one such mask in a cave on Badu presents us with a third opportunity, which we now take, to initiate a research program to determine the ages of turtle-shell masks with local Islander communities.

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Turtle-shell masks: their nature and function in Torres Strait Islander culture

Torres Strait is a 150 km-wide watery realm separating the Australian and New Guinean mainlands (Figure 1). It is home to Tortes Strait Islanders who, like their ancestors, harvest the seas for fish, turtle and dugong. Torres Strait was put on the world anthropological map by Alfred Haddon and colleagues on the 1898 'Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits'. Haddon documented in detail cultural features of each of the three distinctive Islander groups--Western (now divided into Top Western and Western), Central, and Eastern--in six volumes published between 1901 and 1935. …

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