ARTIFACTS AND OBJECTS OF THE WORLD
Name: American Indian shell Gorget
Origin: Northern California, (
) United States
California State Indian Museum, Sacramento, California ( ) United States
Material: abalone shell
Dimensions: 10.795 x 7.62 cm. (4 1/4 x 3 in.)
Reference code: BWH-18-AT-1-SL
Collector: Benjamin Welcome Hathaway, 1881-1959
Digital collection: Press here
A shell gorget is a carved pendant typically worn around the neck and frequently engraved, sometimes highlighted with pigments, and usually pierced. Many gorgets from
Northern California tribes were made from the Haliotis or abalone shell, a material used to make many types of beads for jewelry and decoration for women's ceremonial skirts. Traditionally, both men and women wore these types of gorgets for personal adornment. Current regalia makers still use abalone shell as a decorative element.
Shell gorgets were most common in Eastern Woodlands of the
United States, during in the tradition (200 BCE–500 CE) and Mississippian cultural period (ca. 800–1500 CE); however, tribes from other regions and time periods, also carved shell gorgets. The earliest shell gorgets date back to 3000 years BP. They are believed to have been insignia of status or rank, either civic, military, or religious, or amulets of protective medicine. Due to the placement of the holes in the gorgets, they are also thought to be spinners that could produce whistling sounds. Hopewell
Lightning whelk (Busycon contrarium) is the most common shell used for gorgets. Other shells, such as the true conch or Strombus, as well as freshwater mussels, are also carved into gorgets. Today, due to environmental causes, harvested lightning whelks are significantly smaller than in pre-contact times. These earlier shells typically ranged from 6 to 12 inches in length.
Harvested off the coasts of
Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, the shells were traded through the Eastern Woodlands. This native trade continued into the 16th century.
Gorgets are carved from the penultimate whorl of the shell. A blank is cut or broken out, then ground smooth. Holes for suspension and decoration are drilled, sometimes with a bow drills or chert drills. The gorget forms a concave shape and, when engraved, the interior is polished and decorated.
While most gorgets are circular, some are shaped as rectangles with rounded corners, maskettes, or other novel shapes. An extremely elaborate pendant from Spiro Mounds is shaped as two hands connected by a common beaded bracelet.
Iconography on the shell gorgets comes from the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC). Extremely common designs include the triskele, coiled rattlesnake, water spider, chunkey player, and birdman, sometimes called a Falcon Impersonator.
There are over 30 pre-contact examples of the Cox Mound gorget style, found in
Tennessee and northern and dating from 1250-1450 CE. The Cox Mound gorget style features four woodpecker heads facing counter-clockwise, a four-lopped square motif, and a cross within a rayed circle. The four-looped square, or guilloche, is considered by some to be a "whirling sun" motif, or a priestly or chiefly litter; by some, the earth held up by cords to the Sky Vault at the four cardinal points; and by others, the path of life with four stages of maturity. Woodpeckers are considered warrior birds among Cherokee and medicine birds that can extract illnesses among Muscogee Creeks. The birds are also sometimes interpreted as the four winds. The rayed circle or sun is interpreted literally, a deity or ancestors, council, and/or sacred fire. The entire design could also illustrate the Yuchi myth of the winds. Alabama
A gorget from the Castalian Springs Mound Site in
features a man holding a mace and severed head. This has been interpreted by some anthropologists as a "flying shaman." Tennessee
Some agreement can be found in interpreting the cross-in-circle design, which references the sun and the ceremonial fire, fed by four logs aligned to cardinal directions. Another design widely agreed upon is the water spider with a cross-in-circle design on its cephalothorax. The spider gorgets illustrate a traditional story, common to many southeastern tribes from the
Atlantic Coast to , about the water spider bringing fire to humanity. Missouri
: California State Indian Museum
The California State Indian Museum displays exhibits illustrating the cultures of the state's first inhabitants.
's prehistoric population, one of the largest and most diverse in the Western hemisphere, was made up of over 150 distinct tribal groups who spoke at least sixty-four different languages. California Indian population estimates, before the arrival of the first Europeans, were at least 500,000 people. California
California Indian cultural items in the museum include basketry, beadwork, clothing and exhibits about the ongoing traditions of various California Indian tribes. Descendents of the first Californians, tens of thousands of them, still live in
and still cherish and carry on their unique cultural heritage. Indigenous people have donated many photographs of family, friends and memorable times for use in the museum. A section of the museum features a hands-on area, where visitors can try their hand at using Indian tools, such as the pump drill, used for making holes in shell beads and other materials; the mortar and pestle and soap root brush, made from the soap root plant, all used for grinding acorns. California
California State Indian Museum is located in the downtown area of at 26th and K Streets. Sacramento
© Text and image: California State Indian Museum and Wikipedia