30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 7

Shake it like a Turtle Shell Rattle

Andrew Brown
University of North Texas

When you think of a musical instrument, a box turtle shell is not usually the first thing that comes to mind. For me, when I think of a turtle, I think of a creature that is old, ancient, and slow. Box turtles evolved into their modern form around 5 million years ago. They have a bony shell which is covered in scutes – the colorful top layers of the shell. The scutes are laid out in such a way that they overlap with the bony portion. This allows for a stronger shell. I once stood on an empty shell and it did not even crack. Box turtles also have a movable hinge on the bottom of their shells, which, when the turtle retreats inside, as zoologist Kenneth Dodd describes, “is virtually impossible to dislodge.” There are four recognized species of box turtle, two of which are still inching along in the Southeastern United States, including the eastern box turtle and the ornate box turtle.

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina). Photo by Andrew Brown.

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina). Photo by Andrew Brown.

Usually box turtle remains in the archaeological record are simply viewed as food waste, but on rare occasions have been interpreted as adornment, rattles, cups, bowls, spoons, medicine bundles and bags, effigies, and as sacrificial offerings. However, much like was noted in the discussion of garfish from earlier this week, the concept of box turtles as food does not fit with the ethnohistoric and ethnographic evidence. There have also been reported accounts of box turtle consumption resulting in illness. It is unclear as to whether or not box turtles are in fact safe to consume – but I would not recommend it. Additionally, some Native American groups will not eat box turtles because of traditions and spiritual beliefs.

It is clear that turtles held ritual significance for some Native American groups. This is in part to a long held creation story that claims that the world was formed upon a turtle’s back. Box turtles specifically are seen as important because they are believed to be able to travel between the Above and Beneath Worlds. This is exemplified by their ability to live and move on both land and in water.

Experimental Archaeology, drilling box turtle shell. Photo by Andrew Brown.

Experimental Archaeology, drilling box turtle shell. Photo by Andrew Brown.

While the identification of box turtles as foodstuffs does not stand up to close scrutiny, the interpretation of their use as rattles most certainly does. Turtle shell rattles appear throughout ethnographic and ethnohistoric accounts from the Southeastern United States, and continue to be used today by groups including, but not limited to, the Cherokee, Shawnee, Muscogee, and Seminole. Experimental testing, including my own previous research, has confirmed that turtle shells are ideal for making rattles. Both turtle shells and turtle shell rattles appear at Native American sites dating from the Archaic period (ca. 8000-1000 BC) into the Historic period (ca. AD 1450 – present), and are particularly well represented in Mississippian assemblages (ca. AD 1000-1450). Turtle shell rattle remains have been reported from at least 17 sites in the Southeastern United States, 11 of which are located in Tennessee.

During the Mississippian period, people wore rattles on their upper arm or lower leg. The majority of the rattles from Mississippian contexts are found in burials or in ritual deposits. They are also typically found with younger females or older males, although this is not exclusive. Mississippian rattles have three to five holes drilled into the shell in order to tie the shell to the arm or leg. Historic and modern rattles may have as many as 20-25 holes drilled into the shell. This allows for the pebbles that are rattling inside the shell to reverberate. The majority of the rattles found archaeologically in Tennessee were discovered in eastern part of the state, and in particular at the sites of Toqua and at Hiwassee Island.

Mississippian Period Turtle Shell Rattle from the Toqua Site in East Tennessee, curated by the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Photo by Andrew Brown.

Mississippian Period Turtle Shell Rattle from the Toqua Site in East Tennessee, curated by the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Photo by Andrew Brown.

Tennessee has a rich history of Native Americans music and art that spans thousands of years and provides great opportunities for collaboration among archaeologists, historians, ethnographers, musicologists, and the general public. By looking together at the past, we can better understand ancient worldviews and how past societies have lived. Some people have even tried to re-incorporate past musical instruments into modern music. I’d like to end this post with a quote from Edmund Schwarze, who describes an 1803 account given by Moravian missionaries of a dance performed at the Cherokee town of Oostanaula:

The last dance the missionaries witnessed was done by women only, dancing around the pole, the men beating time. The female leader of this dance wore leather shoes with turtle backs fastened thereto with which she mightily rattled!

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