America before Columbus

A gorget and a Mississippian view of the cosmos

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

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Mississippian shell neck ornament (gorget)

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Key points

  • In the centuries before European contact, Native Americans built networks of cities that shared technologies, belief systems, and cultural forms.
  • This Mississippian gorget, made from a shell found in the Gulf of Mexico, but discovered in a burial mound in Tennessee, demonstrates the extensive exchange between native peoples in different geographic regions before European contact.
  • Mississippian Society, which flourished between 800 and 1500 C.E. in Eastern North America, was united by the widespread production of corn, shared ideologies, and towns that often featured platform mounds.
  • The representation of Morning Star reflects a shared cosmology where the Earth is situated between an underworld and a sky world, and this is reinforced by the shell’s circular shape and incised circles that may suggest a cycle of life, death, and regeneration.

Go deeper

Learn more about this object from the National Museum of the American Indian

Who were the first Americans?

What do we know about the Mississippian period?

What do we know about the mounds that characterized Mississippian cities?

What is the story of Morningstar?

How did agricultural technology contribute to the rise of Mississippian culture?

How did trade support the spread of art and ideology?

More to think about

This gorget was found in a burial mound, marking the owner as possibly an important founder of Castalian Springs. Why do you think this particular object might have been included in his burial?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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

More Smarthistory images…


Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.