Plummets, Gorgets, and Pendants
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.
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.
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.
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.