The Occurrence of Tortoiseshell on a Pre-Hispanic Maya Mosaic Mask
Frazier, Jack, Ishihara-Brito, Reiko, Antiquity
Turtles have had diverse and special relationships with humans around the world, not only as sources of nutrition that date back some 1.2-1.95 million years (Braun et al. 2010; Blasco et al. 2011), but also as raw materials and as objects central to art, divination, mythology and religion (e.g. Parsons 1972; Allan 1991; Frazier 2003, 2005). Chelonians are even thought to have been critical in the development of writing and human social evolution (e.g. Li et al. 2003; Munro & Grosman 2010). Images of these reptiles figured prominently in ancient Maya art and religion (Tozzer & Allen 1910: 321-23, pl. 14; Taube 1988: 195; Miller & Taube 1993: 175; Frazier 2003: 22-25, 2005: 372).
Since the coastal areas of the Caribbean Sea and southern Gulf of Mexico--part of the Maya area--have historically provided globally important nesting, feeding, and migratory areas for hawksbill sea turtles (Dow et al. 2007: 17, 18, 22, 66-264), it is expected that the pre-Hispanic Maya had ready access to tortoiseshell (epidermal scutes of the hawksbill sea turtle) and used it to create works of art and other objects. Thompson (1966:218) observed: "Working in tortoiseshell must have been an ancient art, although no good examples have survived." While marine turtle bones have been widely reported from archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, there are no unequivocal pre-Hispanic records of tortoiseshell (Frazier 2003: 14-17, tab. 1.4, 2005: 363-64, 367, 372). Analyses of thousands of artefacts from Cozumel, a well-established pilgrimage centre from at least the Late Postclassic period to the sixteenth century, revealed diverse materials reflecting interregional trade and commerce (Patel 2005), but no tortoiseshell was reported (Phillips 1979; Hamblin 1984: 59-66). Zooarchaeological studies at other lowland Maya localities of major political and economic importance, where commerce and exchange were active, have also reported marine turtle bones, at times in abundance, but no tortoiseshell (e.g. Miller 1982; Andrews 1986: 69; Cart 1989; Gotz 2008: 162; Masson & Peraza Lope 2008: 174). A literature review and consultations with colleagues also reveal no unequivocal pre-Hispanic records of tortoiseshell in Mesoamerica.
Here we confirm the occurrence of tortoiseshell on a Postclassic Maya mosaic mask (Figure 1). Following a general description in the recently updated Dumbarton Oaks catalogue (Ishihara-Brito & Taube 2012: 464-74), the present detailed study demonstrates, for a wide readership, how this exceptional object was examined and analysed, and how the presence of an organic material of worldwide relevance, tortoiseshell, was identified.
Tortoiseshell: its historical and cultural significance
Written variably as 'tortoiseshell', 'tortoise-shell' or 'tortoise shell', this term should not be confused with 'turtle shell', a common but imprecise and ambiguous expression often used in the archaeological and ethnographic literature (Frazier 2003: 12, 2005: 359 n. 1). In modern times 'tortoiseshell' is used for marine turtles, not tortoises, which are terrestrial chelonians of the family Testudinidae (Frazier 2003: 21-22). Specifically, the term 'tortoiseshell' refers, almost exclusively, to the horny epidermal scutes of the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) (Figure 2). During the nineteenth century, low-quality tortoiseshell was occasionally obtained from other marine turtles in the family Cheloniidae, namely green (Chelania mydas) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta) turtles (Aiken 1840: 261; R.L. 1899), although scutes from these species lack the characteristic colouration and thickness of hawksbill scutes. Evidence from ancient times indicates that scutes of land tortoises, family Testudinidae, may also have been used (Casson 1989: 102; Frazier 2003: 22). There is no evidence that epidermal scutes of freshwater turtles found in the Maya area (e. …