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Chunkee Player Shell Gorget

by Kent C. Westbrook, Little Rock, Arkansas


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 1 880- 1 88 1, 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 vari­ety and is 3 3/4 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 0. 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 per­haps 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.


                Figure 1: Kentucky Gorget


                Figure 3: Missouri Gorget


         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 super-im­posed. 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.