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    Chunkee Player Shell Gorget
    Kent C. Westbrook, Little Rock, Arkansas
    Originally published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.55, No.4, pg.188

    Shell gorgets are among the rarest and most beautiful of prehistoric art objects encountered in the United States. Most have been found in the Southeastern United States and are associated with various cultures from Woodland through Late Mississippian. Holmes, in 1880-1881, wrote a comprehensive article "Art in Shell of the Ancient Americans." In that discussion, he delineated the basic types of engraved gorgets: cross, scalloped disks, bird, spider, serpent, human face, human figure, and frog. With regard to the engraved gorgets, Holmes wrote, "I have given much time to their examination, and, day by day, have become more strongly impressed with the belief that no single design is without its significance, and that their production was a serious art which dealt with matters closely interwoven with the history, mythology, and policy of a people gradually developing a civilization of their own." Of the engraved shell gorgets, those with the human figure are the rarest of all. In discussing the gorgets with human figures, Holmes said, "I now come to a class of works which are new and unique, and in more than one respect are the most important objects of aboriginal art yet found within the limits of the United States."

    This paper will discuss five known engraved gorgets depicting what has been interpreted as a chunkee stone player (human figure with a discoidal stone in hand). Four previously reported gorgets are reviewed, a new one described, these are compared, and tentative conclusions expressed.

    Description of Gorgets

    Kentucky Gorget (Figure 1) — This gorget was obtained by the National Museum (Smithsonian Institute) from C. A. Nelson of Eddyville, Kentucky who had excavated it from a burial near Eddyville. The gorget was described in detail by Holmes in 1903. It is 5 inches in diameter and is solid with deep engraving. Two holes are present near the right arm. The head is to the right with an elaborate head dress. Arm bands, leg bands, an apron like garment, and a sash complete a complicated ceremonial attire. The right hand holds a discoidal, the left hand holds a baton of some sort, the right leg is sharply flexed, and the left leg is flexed. Moccasins are present on the feet. Holmes concluded that, "It must represent a disk thrower engaged, possibly, in playing the well-known game of chunkee."

    Oklahoma Gorget (Figure 2) — This gorget was excavated from the Spiro Mound in Le Flore County, Oklahoma and eventually wound up in the American Museum of the American Indian. It is deteriorated and details are not as clear as in the other pieces. A photograph and description of it were published by Burnett in 1945.

    The gorget is of the cut and engraved vari*ety and is 3 ¾ inches in diameter. Two holes are present just above the right elbow. The right hand holds a discoidal, the torso is forward, the right leg is acutely flexed, and the left leg is semi-flexed. Clothing includes an apron-like structure hanging from the waist, a wide belt, a hanging sash, and some sort of head dress. The weeping eye design is clear on the face which is to the right.

    Missouri Gorget (Figure 3) — This gorget was one of eight engraved shell gorgets from a cemetery near St. Mary's in Perry County, Missouri. The pieces were dug by Alfred D. Chandler and obtained for Yale University by Professor O. C. Marsh. They were described by MacCurdy in 1913. The eight included two with a cross, two with a spider, one with a serpent and three with a human figure. Regarding this piece, MacCurdy wrote, "The rarest of all shell gorgets, and for that matter the gems of all art in shell, are the gorgets with representation of the human figure."

    This gorget is 5 inches in diameter with two holes near the right arm. The profiled face is turned to the right. The individual is clothed in elaborate ceremonial regalia, holds a discoidal in the right hand, and a baton in his left. The right leg is sharply flexed and the left leg is semi-flexed. Details including teeth, fingernails, shell pendant, etc. are accurately reproduced. The gorget has large areas of cut outs which accentuate the figure. MacCurdy summarized his opinion of this gorget by stating, "One of these is per*haps the finest combination of engraving and open work that has yet come to notice."

    Arkansas Gorget (Figure 4 and picture) This gorget was excavated from a Middle Mississippian grave of an adult male from the McDuffee site, 3CG21, Craighead County, Arkansas. It was located near the left shoulder, and additional associated artifacts included a plain bottle and bowl.

    The gorget is 5 inches in diameter and has a figure in a position identical to the three previously described gorgets. Two holes are present near the right arm, the head is to the right. The right hand holds a discoidal while the left holds a baton. The right leg is acutely flexed and the left is semi-flexed. A complex head dress of a box-like nature topped with a bird is present. Ceremonial regalia including a ruffled blouse, apron-like skirt, arm bands, leg bands, and sash are evident. A shell pendant hangs from the neck. Moccasins are on the feet. Large areas of cut out are accurately done.

    Arkansas Double Gorget (Figure 5) — This gorget also comes from the McDufee site in Craighead County, Arkansas. It was found by Charlie Snell and previously reported by Dr. Charles McGimsey. This is a solid engraved piece which contains two figures in ceremonial regalia (apron, leg bands, arm bands, sashes, head pieces, etc.) with a discoidal or chunkee stone in their left hands. A woodpecker head is engraved at opposite poles of the piece.

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    Figure 1: Kentucky Gorget

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    Figure 3: Missouri Gorget

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    Figure 5: Arkansas Double Gorget


    The four similar gorgets come from a wide geographic area (Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas). Yet, they are strikingly similar (Table 1). The body and limb position, lower body dress, and presence of discoidal and baton, are practically identical in all four. The Kentucky gorget differs from the others in several respects: no cut out areas, more stylized, less complex dress, beads rather than pendant around the neck, different style of head dress, and reversal of the ends of the baton in the left hand.

    The other three gorgets are so similar that they must have been created by the same artist, or at least the same school. The Missouri and Arkansas gorgets are the best preserved and the most detailed. They are so nearly identical that they can almost be superimposed. The Arkansas gorget has slightly more cut out areas and a more complex head dress. However, comparison of the two convinces me that they were probably made by the same artist. The Oklahoma gorget may well have been nearly identical, but is somewhat deteriorated, making comparison difficult.

    The similarities of these gorgets suggest either that: (1) they were made in one place and dispersed, or (2) some idealized game player concept was present in several areas resulting in the creation of similar pieces. The first explanation seems more plausible to me because of the rarity of these pieces, their striking similarity, and their very highly developed artistic features.

    The individual depicted must be involved in some game or ceremony. The complex and similar dress suggests that a definite costume was indicated. No such costume is described in ethnographic literature to my knowledge.

    Used by permission of the publisher
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    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

  • #2

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    Here’s a link to download Christine K. Keller’s 1979 thesis: “Glacial Kame Sandal-Sole Shell Gorgets: An Exploration of Manufacture, Use, Distribution, and Public Exhibition” from which the above illustration is taken:

    The Thesis was submitted in partial fulfilment of her MA Degree.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.


    • #3
      By Jim Glanville, Ph.D., G.I.R.S. Member, Retired Chemist, and Independent Scholar


      Stone Age cultures around the world valued mollusk shells for the purpose of making durable ceremonial and decorative objects. For example, according to a recent news report, 100,000 years ago Neanderthals on the Iberian peninsula were wearing painted cockle shells - long before the arrival in that region of modern humans.'

      In North America, engraved marine shell gorgets are one of the most attractive groups of artifacts that date from the Mississippian Period (A.D. 900-1600) of American Indian history and are characteristic of the cultures of that time who lived in the southeastern United States. Shell long endures in archaeological settings, particularly in non-acidic soils.

      Mississippian gorgets were made from whelk shells and other marine mollusks and are mostly 2" to 6" in diameter. Gorgets in modern collections were almost surely recovered from burials and were typically found in close association with the skeletons of the persons who likely wore them when alive. These persons were perhaps religious figures or leaders, and often women or children. The name gorget probably derives from the English use of the word to describe something worn at the throat. Archaeologists, such as the artist Madeline Kneberg, have often pictured gorgets as being worn suspended on cords hung around the necks of their wearers.

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      Fig. 1, From Holmes, 1883, Plate XXIX, detail

      Many gorgets are "plain" or unengraved. The engraved ones discussed here were cut with stone tools to have characteristic designs. The engraved designs fall into a number of distinct types which are called gorget styles. Broadly, engraved gorgets divide into two groups: 1) circular and 2) pear- or mask-shaped, as illustrated by William Henry Holmes2 in 1883 and shown by the dotted lines in Figure 1 at right. Disc beads also were made from conch outer shells, and the so-called chunky beads were made from the central stem (columella) of mollusks. Shell beads are familiar to most collectors of Indian relics.

      Engraved circular gorgets typically have the designs on their concave face, while pear-shaped gorgets are typically engraved on their convex face. Gorgets with "cut out" sections are said to be fenestrated, from a Latin word meaning windowed. Many gorgets exhibit a closely spaced pair of suspension holes near the top edge.

      Even when lacking detailed provenience information, their strong iconography (style of engraving)3 gives them special value as markers of Indian cultures and of cultural contacts. After discussing gorgets in general, this article focuses on gorgets which depict stylized rattlesnakes, and particularly those from northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia (the region formed by the watersheds of the forks of the Holston River that I call Holstonia), where my studies have been centered, and most particularly on the group of gorgets engraved in the Saltville style.


      There are hundreds of articles scattered widely throughout both the professional and relic collector literature that mention or picture shell gorgets. Nine major works that aggregate gorget studies are listed in this section.

      Holmes' 125-page, 1883 article for the Bureau of American Ethnology (available for on-line viewing) initiated gorget studies with a loud fanfare by showing 70 specimens divided into seven style classifications. An example of each of Holmes' seven style divisions is shown in Figure 2.

      Following Holmes' magisterial synthesis, many years passed before a new work entirely devoted to engraved marine shell gorgets appeared. However, in the interim, widely scattered pictures of individual gorgets were published both in the professional and relic collector literature. Gorget studies were finally rekindled by the publication of an article by Madeline Kneberg in 1959 that pictured 62 specimens of Tennessee gorgets.6 The Mississippian Period scholar, A.J. Waring, in his review' of her article wrote: "At last someone has done a long-needed job" of arranging eastern Tennessee shell gorgets into a "sensible chronological sequence". At about this same time, widespread collector interest in gorgets was generated by the appearance of the books Sun Circles and Human Hands' and Tribes That Slumber' Both of these books, which prominently feature pictures of gorgets as well as many other artifacts, proved extremely popular with the public at large and both remain in print today, over half a century after they were originally issued.

      Jon Muller's 1966 Ph.D. dissertation'° was the first thesis devoted to engraved marine shell gorgets. That thesis, together with Muller's contemporaneous article in Tennessee Archaeologist," developed the concept of gorget style and defined the names of the sub-styles of the rattlesnake gorget genre. Arguably, Muller's key advance was to demonstrate the manner in which a study of artistic style (with the case of gorgets as a particular example) could contribute to the development of American archaeology.

      The first professional article dedicated to a "pilot study" of engraved, pear-shaped mask style marine shell gorgets appeared in 1989. M.T. Smith and J.B. Smith noted that mask style gorgets were geographically widespread (ranging from Alabama to North Dakota) during the Mississippian Period and interpreted the symbolism of the 69 examples they described as suggesting that mask gorgets functioned in a warfare or hunting related role. Recently, a useful review was published describing the significance of mask style gorgets found in the Ohio River Valley.

      In 1996 Jeffrey Brain and Philip Phillips authored a book largely devoted to marine shell gorgets published by the Peabody Museum'''. This book (discussed in the following section) serves as catalog of the exhibited and published specimens of gorgets known to them at that time. As such, it is a benchmark publication and today is the starting point of any serious study of engraved marine shell gorgets. A few are shown front and back, a few are inadvertently duplicated, and seven "frauds" are included - so the precise total is a little uncertain.

      A year later, in 1997, Darla Spencer Hoffman published a magnificent survey of West Virginia gorgets15 in which she described 70 specimens. The preceding year, Brain and Phillips had reported just eight West Virginia gorgets, so her work was a major advance. She achieved this in large measure by seeking out the collectors who owned over 80 percent of the gorgets she studied. Her work convincingly demonstrated the potential value to archaeology of aggregating images of, and provenience information about, privately held gorgets. My own gorget work has proceeded along similar lines, as I describe below.


      The Brain and Phillips book catalogs, describes, and pictures about 1,100 engraved gorgets. It also includes useful maps showing the geographic distributions of gorgets in particular styles. Roughly 900 of their gorget total are circular and 200 are pear-shaped.16 Table 1 shows the book's major gorget style classifications and their subdivisions. Most gorget sub-style names were taken from places where gorgets in that sub-style were found.

      Table 2 shows the counts and percentages of the principal styles of gorgets listed in Brain and Phillips' catalog. Rattlesnake style gorgets account for 28% of the total and are the dominant style - being over twice as common as gorgets in any other style.

      Table 3 shows the counts and percentages of the find states of gorgets. The Brain and Phillips catalog lists 379 Tennessee gorgets, which account for about 40% of the total. Over 90% of the gorgets in the catalog come from just nine states: Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Missouri. Within those states, gorget distribution is typically highly localized. For example, sites along the Tennessee River account for most of the gorgets from Tennessee and Alabama; all gorgets from Oklahoma come from the Spiro site; and Georgia gorgets were concentrated at the Etowah mounds.

      Table 1. Principal Brain and Phillips Gorget Major and Sub-styles
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      Turning to rattlesnake gorgets, they are abundant in Holstonia and constitute the single most important category from that region. Table 4 shows the state-by-state counts of rattlesnake gorgets. Tennessee was the source of slightly over 50% of the specimens in the Brain and Phillips catalog and just five states (Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama) accounted for over 92% of the total of 260 rattlesnake style gorgets.

      Table 2. Principal Gorget Styles by Count and Percentage According to Brain and Phillips
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      From Brain and Phillips catalog of gorgets listed by style, pp. 9-128.

      Table 5 is a simplified form of Table 4. In Table 5, the sub-styles Citico and Carter's Quarter are combined into a single group designated for convenience as an overall CCQ (Citico-Carter's Quarter) style. Additionally, the sub-styles Lick Creek and Brakebill are aggregated into a single group designated for convenience as an overall LCB (Lick Creek/Brakebill) style. Gorgets in the Carter's Quarter sub-style may be generally regarded as fenestrated Citico style gorgets. Gorgets in both the Lick Creek and Brakebill styles are fenestrated. So doing aggregates the styles into the original styles devised by Jon Muller. The data in Table 5 comes from Brain and Phillips pp. 83-106.

      Table 3. All Styles of Gorgets Count and Percent by Reported Find State*
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      *Data from Brain and Phillips pp. 405-503. Some gorgets (not included in this table) lacking specific find states are simply reported as being from the "Southeast."


      As used by archaeologists, the term seriation simply means a listing of artifacts in chronological and dated sequence. For gorgets, seriation is of enormous value because the approximate date of any individual gorget engraved in a distinctive style can be immediately estimated by referring to a listing such as that shown in Table 6.

      Almost from the beginning of my 2004 studies, I have been aware that the limited gorget dating and seriation in the Brain and Phillips catalog was not generally accepted among professional students of gorgets.

      Fortunately, gorget seriation has recently been revisited in studies by Lynne P. Sullivan" and by David J. Hally.'8 Table 6 relies in large part on those studies. However, in preparing Table 6, I have also exercised my own judgment based on conversations with knowledgeable professionals over the past five or six years. As an amateur effort, I label my table a "speculative" seriation. Note that all rattlesnake style gorgets come at a relatively late date and overlap the time of arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the Southeast.

      Table 4. The Distribution of 260 Brain and Phillips Cataloged Rattlesnake Gorgets by Sub-style and State
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      *SE = Southeast, gorgets lacking a specific find state.
      From Brain and Phillips catalog of gorgets by style pp. 83-106.

      Table 5. Rattlesnake Gorget Counts from Brain and Phillips by Aggregated Sub-styles
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      From Brain and Phillips pp. 83-106. Here in Table 5, their styles have been aggregated into the original styles devised by Jon Muller.

      Table 6. A Speculative Seriation of Gorgets According to Styles and Sub-styles.
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      Since 2004, I have located and pictured many gorgets not in the Brain and Phillips catalog by three principal methods: 1) A detailed study of the collector literature (books and magazines); 2) By visits to collector shows and the private homes of collectors; and 3) By monitoring the gorgets which have been offered for sale by relic dealers, particularly via those they have shown on line.

      Books illustrating gorgets that have been published for the collector community fall into two groups: 1) The important ten-volume series of works with the generic title Who's Who in Indian Relics19 and 2) Various other works that picture gorgets. The ten books published under the title Who's Who in Indian Relics deserve to be widely known, as collectively they represent a remarkable photographic record of American Indian artifacts. A complete study and thorough compilation of the evidence in these volumes would require a huge effort.

      Other books published for the collector community that contain images of gorgets are Fundaburk and Foreman's book mentioned earlier (footnote 8). In a section titled "Ceremonial Complex" they quote extensively from Waring and Holder, as well as other authorities, and picture many gorgets in plates such as: 20, 23, 28, 31, 32, 41-50, 155, and 156. Bert Bierer self-published a simply produced, well-organized and well-documented compendium of southeastern Indian artifacts including gorgets.22 Lar Hothem's shell artifact "value guide"2' shows many examples of offered-for-sale engraved shell gorgets, some of which are perhaps reproductions.24 A 2007 book about shell artifacts by two Florida-based marine biologists is a significant work with its many color pictures and its sensible approach to artifact cataloging. Unfortunately, it was not carefully edited.

      Over the past 50-odd years, the relic collecting community has produced many magazines. Some have been long lived; others have been fleeting. Also, various groups of collectors have produced, and continue to produce, newsletters. Four long-lived magazines are:

      1) Journal of the Illinois Archaeological Society; 3) The Central States ,Archaeological Journal; and 3) Prehistoric American, which began life in a black-and-white format in 1966 under the title The Redskin, was by 1982 being published as Prehistoric Art, and in 1985 with the title Prehistoric Artifacts; and 4) Indian Artifacts Magazine a quarterly relic collectors publication currently in its 29th year of publication that has occasionally published images of gorgets. An example of a collectors magazine that became defunct is the onetime Ohio-based publication called, simply, Artifacts.

      Internet gorget resources and auction catalogs reflect the activities of auction houses that deal in Indian relics. Some of these houses publish elegant, glossy catalogs that can be subscribed to by postal mail. Others offer on line auctions with the catalogs being posted on the internet. Some publish both paper and on line catalogs. Collections from the estates of deceased collectors constitute many (perhaps most) of the archaeological artifacts that are offered at auction. In recent years, the author has seen numerous gorgets offered for sale, even on the general interest auction sites such as eBay. It is a reasonable guess that over the course of a year dozens, and possibly hundreds, of gorget images appear in printed catalogs or at the websites of on line sellers. Simply attempting to monitor and record all gorgets among the flood of American Indian artifacts coming onto the market is a time consuming endeavor. Checking to see if they have previously appeared in an earlier, alternative publishing format is additionally time consuming.

      My already-published work on gorget studies and the methods I use include an article in the Smithfield Review26 and two articles in the Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia.


      Saltville, in Smyth County, Virginia, is a small town in the large region that constitutes Southwest Virginia. For various reasons, the region is one of the least explored by conventional archaeology in the entire eastern half of the United States. The only comprehensive work devoted to its regional archaeology is now 40 years old,28 and it is typically reduced to describing major sites such as Broadford, Chilhowie, Mendota, and Saltville, each in a handful of paragraphs. As its name implies, Saltville is underlain by salt (NaCl) formations, and dissolved salt rising to the surface creates licks that over millennia attracted large animals and their concomitant hunters. Saltville is a concentration site for Paleoindian period Clovis points and from 1895-1970 was the site of a large complex of chemical plants. Mississippian period American Indians no doubt established a salt trading center there with the salt creating a local economic center. Michael Barber (who at the present time of writing is the State Archaeologist of Virginia) learned from working there some 20 years ago that, numerous private artifact collections were characteristic of Saltville and Smyth County. Based on the local assemblage of archaeological prestige objects Barber described the place as a "salt powered chiefdom".

      Table 5 shows that in the 1996 catalog Saltville style gorgets were the rarest of the rattlesnake styles. They were also the most geographically localized. Of the 11 reported specimens, seven came from Southwest Virginia, three from North Carolina, and one from Tennessee. My investigations confirm and extend those conclusions. I have now collected pictures of slightly over 50 Saltville style gorgets of which three or four come from upper East Tennessee, about a dozen come from the Stokes-Surry-Yadkin County triangle in North Carolina, with the rest being assigned to Southwest Virginia. These counts are reasonable but are not, and cannot be, definitive. For example, some of the gorgets I cannot assign to a specific find site, but only to a region, and such limited evidence requires me to draw inferences, or even to make an intelligent guess. Another complicating factor is the slippery nature of style itself, with some gorgets carrying designs that fall between two named styles. In this connection, Saltville style gorgets are not traditionally regarded as being fenestrated, although some now known come with fenestrations.

      Prehistoric American has published a number of articles showing Saltville style gorgets. Jim Maus published one of the Saltville style gorgets from his collection.3° Anthony Stein published one in a gorgets survey article," and said it came from either Southwest Virginia or East Tennessee (personal communication, 2006). Frank Bunce published pictures of an interesting Saltville style gorget in his collection" and displayed another fine Saltville style gorget from Sullivan County, Tennessee at the 2007 Fletcher, North Carolina G.I.R.S. artifact show. Robert and Cammille Matthias published a specimen with a single center hole from Sullivan County, Tennessee in 2008."

      Recently, the picture of a Saltville style gorget from Mendota in Washington County, Virginia was published in a retrospective account of the Ben McCary collection.34 McCary frequently purchased artifacts from persons in Southwest Virginia." Also, longtime relic collector and author Jim Maus has posted an article about Saltville style gorgets at his newly developed web site at:

      Further examples of Saltville style gorgets depicted in photographs that I have taken are shown in Figure 4. I anticipate that additional specimens of Saltville style gorgets will show up in the future. Perhaps the publication of this article will bring some of those to light.


      One of the most satisfying aspects of a study of Saltville style gorgets is their value as a potential tool for understanding the Sixteenth Century history of the Southeast.

      For 70 years before the English permanently settled at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, Spaniards had been active in the Southeast. The conquistador, Hernando de Soto, traveled through the region in 1541; Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. A splendid article describing the events of the Spanish period history of the American Southeast was published in National Geographic Magazine in 1988.38 Readers of this article will likely be particularly interested in Judge's well-illustrated essay because it includes a full page (p. 349) devoted to images of engraved marine shell gorgets.

      My interest in gorgets was actually preceded by an interest in Spaniards being in Saltville in 1567, when they attacked a palisaded village there.39 In brief, history tells that that year an exploration party under Juan Pardo, seeking to open an overland route from the mines of Mexico to the Carolina coast, traveled west into Tennessee. Pardo left a detachment of men under Sergeant Hernando Moyano stationed at Fort St. Juan near present-day Morganton, North Carolina. From there Moyano traveled north in search of gold and attacked a palisaded American Indian village at present-day Saltville. My speculation is that people fled from Saltville after the attack to the three county Stokes-Surry-Yadkin triangle region of North Carolina. Of course, it is only speculation, but it does offer a possible explanation for the very distinctive distribution pattern of Saltville style gorgets between those two localities. I presented my detailed arguments to the Virginia History Forum in Richmond in 2007, and they are available to be read on line.

      Finally, the question remains as to which American Indian people made Saltville style gorgets. The arguments are too lengthy to develop here, but a very strong case can be made for the Yuchi as their makers and that Saltville was a Yuchi center.


      Mississippian Period artifacts with strong iconography, such as engraved marine shell gorgets, in private collections—even those whose find sites are unknown—retain considerable archaeological value despite the fact that their detailed archaeological contexts went unrecorded. Members of the collecting community perform a useful service when they collect and aggregate information about categories of such artifacts. The Saltville style of gorget is a very good case in point.

      I am pessimistic about the eventual fate of most engraved marine shell gorgets held in private collections. I have approached curators, or other officials, at a number of museums about the possible accession by their museums of engraved marine shell gorgets from private collections. All have been uniformly negative. One wrote "NAGPRA is a serious concern for those involved with museum curation and collections management. This is a very thin ice topic." NAGPRA, of course, is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which is now 20 years old. As far as engraved marine shell gorgets are concerned, the effect of the Act has been to strongly inhibit their curation at public museums. In my opinion, it will be an irreparable loss if these objects of high art that honor the American Indian people who made them are not satisfactorily documented and properly conserved.


      I gratefully acknowledge the help of Tony Adams, Tommy Beutell, Frank Bunce, Charles Burnette, Duane Esarey, David Fuerst, the late Tommy Hamm, Harry Haynes, the late Howard MacCord, Jim Maus, Jon Muller, Dr. Presley Rankin, Lawrence Richardson, Darla Spencer, Charlie Bill Totten, the late Tom Totten, and other persons who wish to remain anonymous. None of the foregoing is accountable for anything here. All the errors and opinions in this article are solely the responsibility of the author.

      Duplicated from the “Resources” section of and reproduced with permission.
      I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.


      • #4
        Article and Photos by Jim Maus, G.I.R.S. Member

        The Engraved Shell Gorget is one of the rarest artifacts made during the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex or SECC (also called the Souther Cult, the Mississippian Period, and the Temple Mound Period). The prehistoric natives began cutting and engraving peices of conch and whelk shell as early as around A.D. 1000 in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois, and Tennessee. As the SECC advanced chronologically, it also moved geographically and eventually reached the Carolinas and Virginia around A.D. 1300-1400. This cultural manifestation was dominated by chiefdoms composed of ordinary citizens and elite family rulers who required the lower class society members to raise their crops, hunt for their food, and also make religious/ceremonial/political prestige objects for the ruling family.
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        These objects included effigy pottery vessels, zoomorphic stone pipes, and, of course, shell gorgets. Around A.D. 1450 the natives living in the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Virginia, began engraving rattlesnakes on their shell gorgets. These mound building and gorget making societies continued to flourish in the mountainous region until the sixteenth century when the Spanish began to enter their lands. At that point the native cultures began to crumble.

        In A.D. 1567 the Spaniard, Juan Pardo, led a group of explorers into western North Carolina and built a fort in Burke County, North Carolina near the current town of Morganton. It is believed that Pardo, being threatened by an Indian king in the mountains and also suspecting that he might find gold there, sent some of his soldiers to southwestern Virginia in order to investigate that region.

        The leader of this group, Sergeant Hernando MoYrano de Morales, later reported that they had burned an Indian town and killed a thousand natives, which is apparently true, except for the huge number killed. These ancient Americans made a particular style of rattlesnake engraved shell gorget that is named for a Virginia salt springs town - Saltville.
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        Around A.D. 1600, a group of Indians moved to a site on the Dan River near its confluence with Town ForkCreek in current Stokes County, North Carolina. There they built houses, planted crops, and raised their families in this village that today is called Upper Sauratown. Here they used the Saltville style gorget - the rattlesnake engraved gorget used at the supposed Virginia massacre site. A retired Virginia Tech professor, Dr. Jim Glanville, has done extensive work in Virginia and North Carolina studying and cataloging the elusive Saltville rattlesnake engraved gorgets. He has determined that almost all of the approximately 50 known Virginia and North Carolina examples of this artifact (most of which have been discovered by Dr. Glanville in old collections) were made and used only in a relatively small area in and around two locales, Washington and Smyth Counties, Virginia (Saltville sits on the border of these two counties), and Stokes County, North Carolina. He has developed a viable theory that after the Spaniards attacked the Indian village in Saltville, the natives who survived the disaster gradually moved southeast and after about 30 years, finally settled in a new home - Upper Sauratown. A few engraved shell gorgets have been found in an almost direct line between Smyth and Washington Counties and Stokes County. This provides further evidence that these natives probably made this journey and temporarily settled in more than one location along the route before reaching Sauratown.
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        The shell gorget was made by laboriously cutting a piece of the whorl of a marine gastropod shell, usually in a circular shape, and then drilling two holes along one edge so it could be suspended around a person's neck. They were normally made in the size range of 2" to 3" in diameter, but some extraordinary examples up to 6" across have been found. They are named gorget from the French word "gorge" which was a medieval piece of armor used to protect the wearer's throat. Most Indian-made shell gorgets were not engraved but some were embellished, usually on the concave surface, with various motifs. In the case of the Saltville style gorget, the motif was a stylized snake. The body of the serpent was engraved as coiled around the circular perimeter of the gorget and had cross hatching to simulate the snake's scales and body markings. At the small end of the body, there are several chevrons to replicate the snake's rattles and near the center of the gorget are concentric circles used to simulate the head and eye. One or more large triangles are adjacent to the eye circles (pointing to the left or right) and are considered to be a representation of the serpent's mouth - often complete with teeth - but there are never examples of sharp reptile fangs in the mouth engravings. On the opposite side of the eye, some of these gorgets have two oddly placed small triangles pointing toward the gorget edge. These are generally construed as the "weeping eye" motif which is a documented style of ceremonial art from the SECC. A few of these gorgets have elongated cutouts or fenestrations and/or simple holes adjacent to the body to further delineate the overall shape of the snake. There have been estimates of about 5,000 shell gorgets being found in the southeastern United States, with maybe 15-20% of these being engraved in any fashion. These may seem like large numbers for an artifact considered to be so rare, but since there have been millions of Prehistoric Indian artifacts found in this country, the numbers are rather small, percentage wise.

        In April of 1972, two men searched for Indian artifacts in the plowed ground on the Upper Sauratown site. They found a rare artifact—a rattlesnake engraved shell gorget. But their luck continued as they immediately found two more of these Saltville style gorgets along with a rose quartz crystal. This remarkable group could have been from a burial of one of the village elites 300-400 years ago. The three gorgets were, indeed, rare but the inclusion of the red quartz crystal made this grouping amazingly unique. Rose quartz is the only member of the quartz family of minerals that commonly does not grow itself into the crystalline form which makes this little red gemstone exceptional. But other than rarity, why does the crystal make this small cluster of artifacts so unique? The people of the Mississippian and Historic periods had many legends, including one about a giant monster called by many names - including Great Serpent, Uktena, Underwater Panther, and Piasa. This mythical creature supposedly lived in deep lakes and river pools in the southeastern mountains. The fearsome supernatural monster had a physical structure in the shape of a snake or a cougar with wings, and occasionally an antlered head. In the case of the serpent type imaginary being, its body was covered with scales that "glittered like fire light". In the middle of its head was a shining, red quartz crystal. According to legend, if a human looked at the quartz crystal, he would be drawn to the creature by the shining light to be killed. However, if the human could kill the serpent and take the crystal from its head, he would be regarded as the greatest healer and could also foretell the future. Any society priest and/or healer would certainly have treasured one of the crystals said to have come from the creature's head, and upon the shamans demise would probably have had this jewel buried with him. This particular rose quartz crystal is very worn, probably from being rubbed and touched and handled for many, many years.
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        The writer has no knowledge of another grouping of three engraved rattlesnake shell gorgets plus a rose quartz crystal being found together anywhere else in the Southeast. Yes, this was an amazingly unique find, and it leads to some questions. Did these artifacts come from the interment of a great leader or shaman and if so, just who was he or she?

        Were the three shell gorgets made in Sauratown, or brought from the Saltville vicinity? And even more interestingly, did the design influence for the rattlesnake shell gorget come from the mythical Great Serpent or Uktena? Remember the two odd triangles beside the snake eye? Are they replicas of the wings of the mythical beast? Did the snake design come from the Mexican deity Quetzalcoatl, also known as the feathered serpent god, as some writers believe? These questions will probably never be answered but that should not be a deterent from enjoying the rarity and beauty of the three Saltville style gorgets and the crystal found with them.

        Duplicated from the “Resources” section of and reproduced with permission.
        I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.


        • #5

          “Shell gorgets represent some of the most artistic and culturally revealing artifacts from the Mississippian Culture. Recent studies suggest that these intriguing adornments were generally worn in the later portion of Mississippian times known today as the "Southern Death Cult" or the "Southeastern Ceremonial Complex". The Southern Death Cult began about 1200 A.D. and ended during protohistoric times in the mid to late 17th century. During this late prehistoric time, engraved and unengraved shell gorgets were made. In modern times, they have been recovered from every modern U. S. state that now occupy the old Mississippian lands from eastern Oklahoma and Texas eastward to Georgia, North and South Carolina, Florida and Virginia.”

          The quote above is from Tony Stein's Shell Ornaments web page which is no longer available on the internet. You can however still view the archived page via the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine” here:

          I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.