The Occurrence of Tortoiseshell on a Pre-Hispanic Maya Mosaic Mask

By Frazier, Jack; Ishihara-Brito, Reiko | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview

The Occurrence of Tortoiseshell on a Pre-Hispanic Maya Mosaic Mask


Frazier, Jack, Ishihara-Brito, Reiko, Antiquity


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Introduction

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Occurrence of Tortoiseshell on a Pre-Hispanic Maya Mosaic Mask
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.