Friday, June 6, 2014

Gorgeous Gorgets

This week the letter “G” represents a commonly, but most likely misused term in archaeology: ‘gorget’. The issue with using the term ‘gorget’ to describe these, “relatively flat, variously shaped, ground, and polished [stone] many times with one or two holes drilled through their breadth” is that we do not know how they were actually used (Curren 1977). As defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary, ‘gorget’ suggests that these artifacts were some form of armor or an ornamental collar for the throat. However, there is not enough evidence to suggest the use of these artifacts as defined above, and consequently, the true function of gorgets proves to evade archaeologists to this day. In the following, a few ideas on the use of gorgets are discussed.

Typical artifacts of the Bushkill Complex, including at top left, gorgets.

In much of the Northeast, stone gorgets appear in the archaeological record during the Early to Middle Woodland period (2800 B.P. - A.D. 1000), specifically between 2800 B.P. and A.D. 0 (Custer 1996). For example, Kinsey (1972) reported gorgets from the stratified Faucett in Pike County, along the Delaware River. These were associated with the Early Woodland Meadowood Complex and the Middle Woodland Bushkill Complex. Also, appearing during the Early to Middle Woodland period are burial mounds, burial ceremonialism, fired clay pottery, tubular smoking pipes and widespread trade in Pennsylvania (Witthoft 1949, Custer 1996).

Various forms of stone gorgets in the collection of The State Museum of Pennsylvania (Photo taken by Don Giles)

An early idea on gorget use is that of archery armguards. Orville Peets (1965) lays out the idea that as armguards, some of the stone gorgets, those known as “spud-style gorgets” (1965:115) are similar in shape to modern armguards, and through some experimentation he was able to show that the stone gorgets did in fact work well for such use. On the other hand, a lack of wear in the holes of stone gorgets and the numerous forms and shapes of these artifacts suggests that some other use is also likely.

a. Slate gorget from Kentucky b. mass produced modern archery armguard, leather (Peets 1965)

Another theory on the use of gorgets is provided by Cailup Curren, Jr. (1977) who suggests that, since the introduction of stone gorgets correlates to the introduction of pottery, these artifacts were used as tools in pottery making. In justifing this hypothesis, Curren compares native stone gorgets to modern ceramic tools called ribs. The modern ribs are often constructed of wood and have a similar shape to the native stone gorgets, with beveled edges, various shapes, and drilled holes for a better grip for the potter when the clay is wet. Though native gorgets and modern ribs are in fact very similar in shape and form, Curren does not provide any other archaeological evidence indicating that the stone gorgets may have been used for this purpose, says William Starna (1979) in his article commenting on Curren’s hypothesis.

Image of wooden “ribs” (Curren 1977)

Starna points out that Curren has fallen into the common practice of identifying functionality of native artifacts based solely on the “morphological similarity” to modern devices with limited or no archaeological evidence (1979: 337).  In fact, he makes it a point to refer to William Ritchie’s (1969) writing that indicates, “In a large area of the Northeast, stone gorgets totally disappear, never to reappear… while ceramics continue unabated” (Starna 1979 and Ritchie 1969). Though he disagrees with Curren’s hypothesis, Starna does provide his own theories on the use of stone gorgets.

As mentioned above the appearance of stone gorgets and burial ceremonialism also both occurred in the early to middle Woodland period. This idea is followed by Starna, suggesting that gorgets may have held importance for status or trade goods.  This hypothesis is supported by the finding of gorgets with a number of burials. Starna references the early late Woodland Riviere au Vase site in southeastern Michigan which, “… two burials exhibit a not atypical placement of stone gorgets with deceased individuals” (1979: 339). Also noted by Starna (1979), is that with the declining frequency of burial ceremonialism so does the appearance of stone gorgets and other grave ceremonial items decline. 

Archaeological investigations in the Ohio River Valley of Pennsylvania have produced sufficient quantities of gorgets to examine their placement, form and distribution. The pentagonal form is an elongated shape with a pentagonal end, often of fine grained banded slate, with a single hole placement at the upper end. This specific form is represented in much lower quantities when compared to other gorget forms, and to date are associated with mound sites. Its recovery, primarily in western Pennsylvania, has enhanced our understanding of this artifact as a symbol of social rank or status. Its distribution through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York is also an indicator of the significance placed upon it within the trade network of the Hopewell Culture.

Gorgets from the Sugar Run Mound site (36Wa359), left- pentagonal gorget

One example in which gorgets, including the pentagonal form, have been found is the Sugar Run Mound site (36Wa0359) in Warren County Pennsylvania (McConaughy and Johnson 2003). This mound site includes more than forty burials, many of which include grave goods, and a few with rectanguloid and pentagonal gorgets. The burials containing gorgets tended to have a higher quantity and variety of grave goods than others without, suggesting a higher status or social rank of these individuals.
Gorget with incised design.

Gorgets in the mid-Atlantic region more commonly appear in stone as those mentioned above are, but also appear in lesser quantities in shell, copper and bone. The introduction of brass and silver gorgets by European traders to native peoples served as a replacement for the traditional form. Its role in demonstrating status may have continued as suggested by the number of historic prints depicting tribal leaders adorned with gorgets.

Chief Cornplanter

Here we have provided some thoughts and ideas on how gorgets were used. Now it is up to all of us to use what we know, find more archaeological evidence, and continue the research and hopefully one day we will more fully understand this artifact in our efforts to preserve and protect our past for the future.


Curren, Cailup Jr.
Potential Interpretations of “Stone Gorget” Function. Society for American Archaeology
72(1): 97-101.

Custer, Jay F.
Prehistoric Cultures of Eastern Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

Kinsey, W. Fred
Archaeology in the Upper Delaware Valley. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

McConaughy, Mark A. and Janet R. Johnson
Sugar Run Mound (36Wa359) and Village (36Wa2): Hopewell/Middle Woodland in Warren County, Pennsylvania. Foragers and Farmers of the Early and Middle Woodland Periods, edited by P. Raber and V. Cowin, pp. 101-116, Recent Research in Pennsylvania Archaeology Number. 3, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

Peets, Orville H.
What, Really, Were Gorgets?. American Antiquity 31(1): 113-116.

Ritchie, William A.
The Archaeology of New York State. Natural History Press, New York.

Starna, William A.
A Comment on “Curren’s Potential Interpretations of ‘Stone Gorget’ Function”. American Antiquity 44(1): 337-341.

Witthoft, John
An Outline of Pennsylvania Indian History. Pennsylvania History 16(3): 165-176.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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