The woodland box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) is one of the most common reptiles in Virginia. Their high domed shell is the box turtle’s most recognizable characteristic, along with the ability to enclose their entire body inside the shell thanks to a hinged plastron underneath. Box turtles are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of plants, particularly the fruits and berries, insects, slugs, snails, and even salamanders. They are also able to eat poisonous mushrooms without apparent harm, which can then make the turtle itself toxic to predators, including humans.
The word terrapin comes from the Algonquian word torope and was first recorded in English in 1613. Box turtle shells were utilized by the Virginia Indians as containers and vessels such as cups and also made into rattles with various ceremonial uses. Some of these were modified before use and the intentional removal of the vertebra, which are fused to the interior of the shell, or the presence of drilled holes can help identify shells as cultural artifacts. The function or significance of the single central hole that pierces the top of this example is unknown.
This box turtle carapace was recovered from a waterlogged layer deep in Jamestown’s Second Well with the outer layer of keratin present and intact. This layer, made of the same material as human fingernails and hair, is rarely preserved archaeologically, even when the underlying shell is intact. Anaerobic conditions (without oxygen) prevent organic material from decaying, but conservation procedures must begin quickly when artifacts are excavated from these environments because the fragile material can deteriorate rapidly if it dries out without stabilization. Other shells and bones from box turtles have primarily been identified in other early Fort Period features such as the West Bulwark and Powder Magazine.