Mississippian shell neck ornament (gorget)

Found marking the grave of an important individual, this gorget was worn as a neck ornament during life.

Gorget, c. 1250–1350, probably Middle Mississippian Tradition, whelk shell, 10 x 2 cm (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 18/853), a Seeing America video. Speakers: Dr. David Penney, Associate Director for Museum Scholarship, Exhibitions, and Public Engagement, National Museum of the American Indian and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the National Museum of the American Indian, looking at a gorget. This is a neck ornament. It’s only a few inches high, but it’s very finely carved.

Dr. David Penney: [0:15] Made out of shell, so the material probably came from the Gulf of Mexico, but the object was found in the middle of Tennessee, in a large town site called Castalian Springs that was active about 1200 to 1300, right in the middle of what we call [the] Mississippian Period.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] It was found in a burial mound.

Dr. Penney: [0:33] It was excavated in 1891 by an amateur named William Myer. We know from his notes that the burial mound had over 100 burials in it, but this burial was one of the earliest, right at the base of the mound.

[0:46] It was unusually elaborate. There was not only this gorget, but there were others. One placed on his or her throat, the others gathered in a little bundle between his or her feet. He or she had shell beads and pearl beads, and other ornaments as well. It’s a very important individual that very likely was important to the founding of the site.

Dr. Harris: [1:04] Let’s define the Mississippian Period.

Dr. Penney: [1:06] It’s a number of different ways of organizing society that maximized the ability to grow corn, beans, and squash — but particularly corn — in bottomland areas. That’s why the big towns are often located on rivers.

[1:18] Then an ideology, a way of thinking about the world which includes some mythology, stories, culture heroes, and how this ties to the political authority.

Dr. Harris: [1:27] During the Mississippian Period, we see the growth of towns, often characterized by mounds, by fortifications, and by plazas in front of the mounds.

Dr. Penney: [1:38] One of the characteristic aspects of Mississippian architecture is what we call the platform mound, which is a big earthen structure with a flat top. What you don’t see today is that there was a wooden structure on top, often a residence for an important person or a temple.

[1:52] The original Mississippian town was the city of Cahokia.

Dr. Harris: [1:55] This was the biggest city in North America, with upwards of 30,000 people.

Dr. Penney: [2:01] Small towns and larger towns spread out from Cahokia, taking the ideology, taking the corn-growing technology, taking the art style, and spreading it out across a lot of eastern North America.

[2:12] The interesting thing about it is that evidently it’s multi-ethnic. It’s not simply a single people or culture expanding, but the ideas and the object associated with those ideas. Expanding across the country and being adopted by local traditions.

[2:26] Cahokia dispersed about 1350 or so. The present-day Osage, Ponca, Quapaw [and] Kansa are very likely the descendants of Cahokia people.

Dr. Harris: [2:36] When we think about what the Europeans saw when they came here, we can sometimes fall into thinking about it as a wilderness, but in fact, there were major cities here, like Cahokia.

Dr. Penney: [2:47] We’re accustomed to thinking of North America as a wilderness, but I remind people often of De Soto’s journey across the southeast, where he encountered one big Mississippian town after another, till he got to the Mississippi Valley. There there are fortified towns up and down the Mississippi.

Dr. Harris: [3:03] Let’s talk about this gorget and its beautiful carving. We see a figure who appears to be running, or in motion. His right knee is bent, his left leg is bent behind him. His right arm holds a head, and the left arm holds a weapon, a mace.

Dr. Penney: [3:19] There are many of these gorgets. They are exchanged between the different towns, among leaders, and to own one was a testimony to your status as a leader. There are elements of some Osage stories that kind of fit the design that we see here.

[3:32] Look carefully, you’ll see the figure has this odd fork shape around his eyes. That is a reference to a marking on a bird, a peregrine falcon. We know from other gorgets like this, where there are figures that have more bird attributes, they may have wings, they may have talons. This figure has a human form, but he also has a bird form.

Dr. Harris: [3:52] We believe that this figure that we see in Mississippian iconography is linked to a culture hero named Morning Star.

Dr. Penney: [4:01] Well, we call him Morning Star. Morning Star, of course, is the planet Venus. In the morning, it rises in the sky just before the sun, and as the sun sets, it descends right after the sun.

[4:11] The story that corresponds to this, and we think fits pretty well, is that the Morning Star, a falcon, and his twin brother travel to the underworld to retrieve the remains of their deceased father who had been captured. He’s holding the remains of his father as he rises into the sky.

[4:29] This is a story that has to do with birth, and death…

Dr. Harris: [4:32] And regeneration.

Dr. Penney: [4:32] …and regeneration, which is tied to agriculture, of course. Because you plant your seeds and you hope things grow from them. So the cycle of regeneration, the cycle of life and death, is tied to the human world, is tied to the agricultural world, and it’s symbolized in mythology and images you see, like this.

Dr. Harris: [4:49] The circular shape of this gorget, emphasized by the circles incised around the edges, I think makes that point too about cycles of life, death, and regeneration.

Dr. Penney: [5:00] I think so. Images of this bird-man — Morning Star — figure are found in cave art, rock art locations all throughout this area of the Midwest, and in other media as well, sometimes in copper.

Dr. Harris: [5:10] The figure is head-up, but we can see on the right two small circles, and so we know that the figure that we see on the gorget would have looked up at the wearer.

Dr. Penney: [5:20] Pulling the head of the deceased father, if that’s in fact who he is, up into the sky world.

Dr. Harris: [5:25] In Mississippian ideas of the supernatural, we have a world above and a world below, with the earthly in the center.

Dr. Penney: [5:33] A customary way of thinking about this in the Native world is that the earth is a disc, and it faces the sky during the day. But as it turns, it faces the night sky, the underworld, that rises up above our terrestrial world.

Dr. Harris: [5:47] He’s heavily adorned. He wears a necklace made of beads. He’s got beads around his legs, this elaborate loincloth, and a really fabulous headdress too.

Dr. Penney: [5:58] And ear spools. They’re very likely made of local mica. He’s holding that wonderful mace made of stone in one hand. The headdress has this odd configuration which may also relate to this Morning Star story, where bows and arrows play a prominent part. There is a Mississippian style of bow. They put tufts of feathers on either end, which are represented as like little balls.

[6:19] That is another symbol that’s associated with this story and with the bird-man figure.

Dr. Harris: [6:24] We’re so fortunate to have this gorget to remind us of these complex cultures that lived in North America before contact, before European colonization.

Dr. Penney: [6:36] The rich legacy of art-making and these kind of objects circulated among different people of leadership and authority. They are incredibly complex in their iconography to convey these complicated ideas. It’s a rich visual legacy, which we probably haven’t paid as much attention to as we should.

[6:52] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”GorgetNMAI,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. David W. Penney, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Beth Harris, "Mississippian shell neck ornament (gorget)," in Smarthistory, January 13, 2018, accessed May 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/mississippian-gorget/.