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Tortoise Shell Lice Combs and Cases

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Artifact Description

A collection of 64 pieces of cut tortoise shell recorded on the “Tortugas" site (the thin, epidermal plates that overlie the bones of the shell of the hawksbill turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata) possibly reflects a formerly unreported aspect of 17th-century Spanish shipboard life. Alongside one intact and two broken lice combs, plus two excavated cases, the majority of the assemblage comprises partly worked shell and processing waste. The combined data indicate that lice combs may have been crafted on the ship during its final homeward voyage.

The intact comb missing just one of its large teeth, incorporates two rows of teeth on opposite sides, one finer and one coarser. The rectangular case is carved from a single piece of mottled brown, amber and golden yellow tortoise shell. A geometric incised decoration on both sides of the case consists of parallel lines forming a rectangle. From each right angle of the rectangle an incised line extends outward and intersects with another incised line, which then frames the case, forming an exterior rectangle. The case exhibits surface crackling. Drilled holes are present at each end.

The material used in the shipwreck’s combs and the raw unused scutes has been visually identified as tortoiseshell and subsequently confirmed by DNA analysis. The hawksbill has been historically highly valued for the horn-like scales or plates (scutes) covering its bony shell.

A symbol of luxury since time immemorial in many cultures, European treasure ships returning from the New World were commonly laden with tortoise shell, much of which seemingly originated in the West Indies, where the hawksbill once flourished. Exploited throughout the 17th century and later, its shell was procured extensively for the production of snuff and pill boxes, spectacles, hair combs and as inlay for fine furniture. Rather than high-quality trade goods, the five individual tortoiseshell combs and cases recovered from the “Tortugas” shipwreck are seemingly less exotic objects crafted from raw material derived largely from the insular Caribbean and along the coast of Central America. Such combs functioned as critical delousing and grooming kits for lice-infested passengers and sailors whose cramped and unsanitary living quarters and limited water supply for washing were ideal breeding grounds for such vermin.

Additionally, on a second fragmentary bone lice comb from the “Tortugas” wreck one side contains larger teeth, while finer teeth are visible on the other side. This arrangement typifies lice combs. The small size of this comb suggests that it was a ‘nit’ comb intended for removing lice eggs or nits.

The fine, narrowly-spaced tines on one side of the “Tortugas” combs would have allowed the owner to look for and remove both louse eggs and adult lice from head hair and beards; the regular teeth on the other side of the comb were designed for hair combing and grooming. Lice combs renowned for thwarting these bloodsucking creatures have been relied on for hundreds of years and are still considered effective today.


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