«This little thing of ours», as one Ju|’hoan woman expressed it earlier this year, is a distinct part of San material culture. The tortoise-shell box is known from most ethnographically documented San contexts and can even be identified in the rock art of South Africa. Yet it has rarely been described or explained other than as an ornament, and a container of medicines, powdered fragrant herbs and roots.
In this talk I explore the making, appearance, use and importance of the tortoise-shell box among the Omaheke Ju|’hoansi in Namibia, from the early 20th century to today. With the help of the collections of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, I also aim to widen the scope, to include other San groups to the equation, as I discuss similarities in use, over time and space, and cultural notions of place, potency, and protection associated with the beauty and fragrance of the tortoise-shell box.