The Mississippian shell gorget (c. 1250-1350) will be useful in the study of:
- The Americas before European contact
- Native American cultures
- Culture and society
- Work, exchange, and technology
By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:
- Discuss the Gorget as a primary document that links to its specific historical context in Mississippian culture
- Understand how cultural practices and beliefs shape the making and imagery of a work of art
- Identify and elaborate on key elements of Native American history, prompted by a specific work of art
1. Look closely at the gorget
Look closely at the Mississippian shell gorget (zoomable images, also available for download for teaching)
Questions to ask:
- What are your first impressions of this gorget?
- Describe the gorget. What details seem most notable to you?
- How does the artist who made this use line to create shapes and textures?
- How is a sense of space and movement created?
- How is this similar to items of personal adornment you are familiar with? How is it different?
2. Watch the video
The video “America before Columbus: a Mississippian view of the cosmos” is only seven minutes long. Ideally, the video should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the video to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the painting that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details of the gorget are provided to support the video.
3. Read about the gorget and its historical context
Part of a complex culture
The Mississippian culture is a term used to refer to a set of social practices that were shared among a number of different peoples throughout what is now the southeastern United States, and seems to have spread from the large city center of Cahokia. It is based on the material culture items that archaeologists have discovered, such as this gorget, ceramic and stone objects, and delicate metal ornaments, but also on evidence of practices such as types of farming and architecture. These practices and material culture items were tied to a set of myths, stories, and ideas about political authority that collectively are called ideology. As the ideology was adopted by people further from Cahokia, they also adopted the agriculture, architecture, and material culture that went with it. There are modern Native Americans who are probably the descendants of the Cahokians: the Osage, Ponca, Quapaw, and Kansa people.
A system of political power
The shell that the gorget is made from is a whelk – a type of sea snail – that probably came from the Gulf of Mexico. It would require long-distance trade to bring the shells from the Gulf to the Mississippian towns where the gorgets were made. This made them a luxury item, a symbol of wealth and power through their rarity, similar to the jeweled medallions and pins of European court culture during the same time. Leaders of different towns exchanged these gorgets with each other, as a way of cementing political ties as well as reinforcing their status at the top of the social order. The Morning Star imagery on this and some other gorgets may have tied their authority to the Morning Star myth.
A culture hero
Morning Star (also referred to as Birdman) is a Mississippian culture hero associated with rebirth and the agricultural cycle. Birdman imagery is found in rock art, gorgets, and copper ornaments throughout the Mississippian area. He is also associated with the planet Venus and ideas about the cosmos, such as where our human world is in relation to the upper and lower worlds. The artist has emphasized aspects of the figure in the gorget that seems to align with the story of Morning Star. The holes in the gorget that would have been used to wear it around a person’s neck would have oriented the figure so that it was facing up toward the wearer, but also looking as if it was rising from below to above.
4. Discussion questions
- The video states that the gorget was found by an amateur archaeologist at the bottom of a burial mound that contained over a hundred burials. What are some things about this statement that might be considered problematic?
- What kinds of power exist? How do people in power display their power? What examples can you come up with from world history? What examples can you come up with from the modern world? How are these examples similar to or different from the gorget?
- How might knowing more about Mississippian culture and the story behind the gorget change the way people might think about Native American cultures of the past?
5. Research questions
- The gorget is a symbol of ideology as well as power. Other cultures have produced objects that embody similar concepts, including Korea, Asante, Edo, Rome, and Hawaii. Compare and contrast two of these works with the gorget. How are they similar? How are they different?
- What other examples of the Birdman / Morning Star in Mississippian art can you find? Do scholars all agree on what these representations mean? Choose two and compare them to the gorget – how are they similar? How are they different?
“Native North American art, §IX: Beadwork and shellwork,” Grove Art Online.
James A. Brown, “On the identity of the birdman within Mississippian period art and iconography,” in F. Kent Reilly III, et al. Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography. University of Texas Press, 2007, pp. 56-106.
Garrick Bailey, Continuity and Change in Mississippian Civilization,” in Richard F. Townsend, Robert V. Sharp, and Garrick A. Bailey. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2004), pp. 82-91.
Robert L. Hall, “The Cahokia Site and its People,” in Richard F. Townsend, Robert V. Sharp, and Garrick A. Bailey. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2004), pp. 92-103.
James A. Brown, “The Cahokian Expression,” in Richard F. Townsend, Robert V. Sharp, and Garrick A. Bailey. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago), 2004, pp. 104-123.
Kent Reilly III, “People of Earth, People of Sky,” in Richard F. Townsend, Robert V. Sharp, and Garrick A. Bailey. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago), 2004, pp. 104-137.
Adam King, “Power and the Sacred,” in Richard F. Townsend, Robert V. Sharp, and Garrick A. Bailey. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2004), pp. 150-165.