As we enjoy this beautiful summer weather, walking or driving down country trails and roads, be sure to keep an eye out for turtles. Turtles have been revered by cultures around the world. They are often viewed as wise beings, symbols of longevity, messengers between this and the spirit world or as some northeastern indigenous people believed in the creation of our world on Turtle Island. Many eastern tribes, including the Lenape and Iroquois, had similar creation stories. They believed that in the beginning the world was covered entirely with water. There was an island in the sky where the Sky People lived. No one died or was born there, and all was well. Until Sky Woman fell through a hole toward the sea where she landed on grandmother turtle or Turtle Island. Various water animals took turns diving to the bottom of the sea trying to bring mud to spread on the turtles back. Eventually one succeeds (depending on the version of the story as to which animal succeeded), but they did and when placed on the turtle’s back it created land that grew and grew eventually becoming the size of North America. This over simplification of the creation story is derived from several versions and from several tribes, this and in other legends about turtles can be found here.
Turtles appear repeatedly throughout native legends demonstrating their relevance to human society. This respect is recognized in the archaeological record by the many pendants, ornaments and effigies discovered on Northeastern sites. Kinsey (1989) suggests that reptiles “constitute 15% of the Susquehannock [study of zoomorphic images] sample and less than 4% of the Seneca sample and these are limited to turtles and snakes; the former is the most common”. In Pennsylvania, turtle pendants are more prevalent than pipe effigies, but there have been several found in other states.
There is a very interesting pendant that was recovered from the Flint Mine Hill site in New York. This site is described as “a vast industrial complex consisting of numerous quarry pits, quarry and production refuse piles, small campsites, and extensive workshops where chert was knapped” (Lenik, 2010). The pendant depicts a turtle surrounded by a snake and is carved on both sides. Suggested interpretations are that it is an amulet meant to drive away demons by depicting a snake devouring another animal (Parker, 1925) or as perhaps the snake invoking a guardian spirit to protect the wearer who was of the turtle clan (Lenik, 2010)
Not only are turtles represented on portable artifacts, but they are also found as petroglyphs and as effigy rock features. Petroglyph sites in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia were documented by James Swauger, many of which exhibit designs interpreted as turtles.
There are also several examples of effigy rock features in North Dakota and the Lake of the Woods region of Canada.
It is clear that turtles have been revered by indigenous people since at least the Archaic period (Pearce, 2005), by the variety of specialized images presented. Physical turtle shells are also represented in the archaeological record. Their shells were used as utilitarian objects like bowls and scoops.
They have been found in ceremonial contexts like the burials at Serpent Mound, where unmodified turtle shells were found next to human skeletal remains (Pearce, 2005). Rattles made of turtle shell have been found on numerous sites and are ethnographically documented in ceremonial use, such as the False Face Society.
Turtles have been esteemed by cultures around the world, so it is no surprise that Native Americans respected this now often-overlooked creature as well. So, keep in mind the special turtle as you explore mother nature this summer and if by chance you see one along the roadside maybe give this noble creature some respect and if safe, a hand in crossing.
Kinsey, W. Fred
1989 Susquehannock Zoomorphic Images: Or Why the Seasons Change. In New Approaches to Other Pasts edited by Fred W. Kinsey and Roger W. Moeller. Archaeological Services, Bethlehem, Connecticut
Lenik, Edward J.
2010 Mythic Creatures: Serpents, Dragons, and Sea Monsters in Northeastern Rock Art. Archaeology of Eastern North America 38:17-38
Parker, Arthur C.
1925 The Great Algonkin Flint Mines. Researches and Transactions of the New York Archaeological Association. 4(4):105-125
Pearce, Robert J.
2005 Turtles from Turtle Island: An Archaeological Perspective from Iroquoia. Ontario Archaeology 79/80:88-108
Swauger, James L.
1974 Rock Art of the Upper Ohio Valley. Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz, Austria
For more information, visit PAarchaeology.state.pa.us or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .