An experimental study of turtle shell rattle production and the implications for archaeofaunal assemblages
Public Library of Science (PLoS) -- PLOS ONE
DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0201472

Turtle shell rattles are percussion instruments used by Indigenous peoples of the Americas in ceremonial contexts to keep rhythm. Archaeological investigations in the southeastern United States produced several complete and partial Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) shell rattles from mortuary contexts dating from the Archaic (ca. 8000–1000 BC) through Mississippian periods (ca. AD 800–1500). Fragmentary turtle remains, some identified as Eastern box turtle, are frequently recovered from non-mortuary contexts. Traditionally, these fragmentary remains are attributed to food waste. Given the archaeological and ethnographic evidence for turtle shell rattles, we need to consider how fragmentary remains might fit into the chaîne opératoire of rattle production. This paper presents the results of an experimental study designed to identify one such chaîne opératoire of rattle production. During this experiment, the data on taphonomic processes such as manufacturing marks, use-wear, and breakage patterns, were recorded. We then tested the taphonomic findings from the experimental study and an object trait list we compiled from known rattle specimens and documentary sources with archaeological turtle remains recovered from non-mortuary contexts at two Mississippian period (ca. AD 1000–1450) sites in Middle Tennessee. Historic indigenous groups are known to have, and still do into the present-day, make and use turtle shell rattles in the region. Ultimately, we determined that “food refuse” should not be the default interpretation of fragmentary box turtle remains, and instead the taphonomic history and contextual associations must be considered in full. The experimental process of crafting turtle shell rattles enhances our understanding of an ancient musical instrument and the success rate of identifying musical artifacts and distinguishing between other modified turtle remains in the archaeological record. This study expands our knowledge of ancient music in North America and prompts re-analysis of curated turtle remains in museums for rattle-related modifications.