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Plummets, Gorgets, and Pendants


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.


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 I. Principal Brain and Phillips Gorget Major and Sub-styles

Major Style                       Sub-styles or Subdivisions

Plain (unengraved)           Subdivided by size, shape, edge treatment, and number of holes and hole placement

Annular (ring-like)            Subdivided by their size and the size of their center hole

Bird or turkey cock          Cox Mound, Hixon, Jackson, Pearce

Square cross or crib          Bennett, Donnaha, Moorehead, Warren Wilson, quadrilobed

Circular cross or cruciform     Circular cross

Geometric                        Crable, Dunning, Lenoir, Pickett, Pine Island, Ruffner, Russell, Tibbee Creek, Younge

Human figure, dancer      Big Toco, Cartersville, Eddy ville, Hamilton, Houston, Hull, Philbrook, Rhoden, Spaghetti

Mask or human face        Buffalo, Chickamauga, McBee

Rattlesnake                     Lick Creek, Brakebill, Carter's Quarter, Citico, Saltville

Spider                             McAdams, Orton, Rudder

Scalloped disk or triskele      Nashville I, Nashville II

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

Style Count Percent

Rattlesnake        260       28.2

Human figure, dancer      125       13.6

Mask or human face        114       12.4

Scalloped disk or triskele   109       11.8

Cruciform (crib) square or circular cross         109       11.8

Bird or turkey cock          78         8.5

Geometric          42         4.6

Spider    32         3.5

Unclassified        18         1.9

Annular (ring-like)            17         1.9

Plain     17         1.9

TOTAL  921       100.1

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*


State Count Percent Cumulative



Tennessee          379       39.1      39.1

Oklahoma          130       13.4      52.5

Georgia  111       11.5      64.0

Alabama           90         9.3        73.3

Illinois   46         4.7        78.0

Virginia  37         3.8        81.8

North Carolina    35         3.6        85.4

Arkansas           28         2.9        88.3

Missouri 22         2.2        90.5

Kentucky           21         2.2        92.7

Texas    16         1.7        94.4

Florida   11         1.1        95.5

Mississippi          11         1.1        96.6

North Dakota     10         1.0        97.6

West Virginia      8          0.8        98.4

Indiana 6          0.6        99.0

Ohio      4          0.4        99.4

Louisiana           2          0.2        99.6

South Dakota     1          0.1        99.7

South Carolina    1          0.1        99.8

TOTAL  969       99.8      99.8
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.

*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."

Table 4. The Distribut on of 260 Brain and Phillips Cataloged Rattlesnake Gorgets by Sub-style and State

Style 1 State-> TN GA VA NC AL        SE* WV KY MS MO IN SC TOT

Citico    48         17         11         4          9          8          2          3          0          1          1          0          104

Carter's Quarter   7          8          2          1          1          0          0          0          1          0          0          0          20

Lick Creek         14         3          1          4          0          0          0          0          0          0          0          0          22

Brakebill            47         9          1          0          2          1          1          0          1          0          0          1          63

Saltville 1          0          7          3          0          0          0          0          0          0          0          0          11

Unassigned (generic)        15         7          3          10         5          0          0          0          0          0          0          0           40

State Count        132       44         25         22         17         9          3          3          2          1          1          I           260

State Percent      50.8      16.9      9.6        8.5        6.5        3.2        1.2        1.2        0.8        0.4        0.4        0.4        99.9

Cumulative Percent         50.8      67.7      77.3      85.8      92.3      95.5      96.7      97.9      98.7      99.1

99.5     99.9

*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

Aggregated Sub-style Number Percent

CCB: Citico and (104) Carter's Quarter (or fenestrated Citico) (20)       124       47.9

LCB: Lick Creek (22) and Brakebill (63)      85         32.4

Unassigned rattlesnakes (not placed in one of the five named sub-styles)           40         15.4

Saltville 11         4.2

Totals    260       99.9

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 o Gorgets According to Styles and Sub-styles.

Gorget Style Gorget Sub-styles Date Range, AD

Crib (square cross)           Bennett, Moorehead        1100-1300

Human Figure     Big Toco (fenestrated, perhaps dancers)      1250-1325

Bird      Nixon (facing paired woodpeckers, fenestrated)        1200-1350

Spider    Orton (circular with rings of holes, from Tennessee)    1250-1325

Cruciform          Ruffner, Dunning            1250-1325

Cruciform          Pine Island (cross with quadrilateral fenestrations)     1300-1375

Bird      Cox Mound (four woodpeckers around a square)      1325-1400

Triskele  Nashville I, Nashville II    1325-1450

Human Figure     Spaghetti (distorted human faces, highly fenestrated)         1375-1475

Geometric          Taskigi (edge pitted plain gorgets)   1375-1475

Crib (square cross)           Warren Wilson (quadrilobed)         1375-1475

Rattlesnake        Lick Creek, Brakebill, Carters Quarter, Citico            1400-1600

Mask    Buffalo, Chickamauga, McBee     1450-1600

Rattlesnake        Saltville 1450-1650



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,2' 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: http://www.j immausartifacts .com/saltville-style- gorge's/.

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.