This slate gorget is from the Warren Wilson site (31Bn29), Buncombe County, North Carolina. Gorgets were probably used for personal adornment. The artefact dates to the Early Woodland Period, Swannanoa Phase, ca. 3000-2300 BP.
The expanded-centre gorget in this model was made primarily by grinding, and the striations on both faces were probably created during manufacture. The edges of the ‘wings’ were engraved with tally-marks. The holes are biconical in profile, indicating that they were drilled from both sides using a stone drill.
The artefact is curated in the North Carolina Archaeological Collection, Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, catalog no. 2094a8447/2.
A gorget is a thin, flat, carefully-shaped stone perforated by two or more holes. The term ‘gorget’ is borrowed from a metal European military neck ornament common in the 18th Century. Gorgets are found on sites dating from the Archaic to the protohistoric period in Eastern North America. They may have emerged as early as 7900 BP in the Big Sandy phase of the Tennessee River Valley. Gorgets were made from a variety of materials, but plain or banded slate was a particularly popular stone. Gorgets dating to the Mississippian period were often made of shell. Most gorgets are plain but many were engraved with lines arranged in geometric patterns. The engraving was quite elaborate and carefully made on some examples. The edges of gorgets were sometimes engraved with multiple notches, sometimes referred to as ‘tally marks’, creating a saw-like profile. The function of gorgets has been the subject of debate by archaeologists for over 140 years. Proposed uses include spear thrower weights, bannerstones, archers’ arm-guards, ceramic smoothing tools, weavers’ shuttles, string-making tools, spindle whorls, fishing reels, shaft straighteners, whetstones, palettes, buckles, gaming stones, and noise makers (‘buzzers’ or bull-roarers). A consensus among contemporary archaeologists is that gorgets were used for personal adornment in some way.
Some archaeologists have noted that gorgets proliferated with the appearance of elaborate burial ceremonialism in the Terminal Archaic and Early Woodland periods. Gorgets are often found interred with these complex burials, implying that they signified status in some way. For instance, at the Riviere au Vase site in southeastern Michigan, ca. 1000-1500 BP, gorgets were interred with a child under three years of age, and an adult male over 40 years of age. Gorgets are often found interred with women and well as men, and with infants, adolescents, and adults, but many burials lack them altogether. These patterns suggest that the gorgets represent an assigned status rather than status earned through accomplishments in life. The symbolic value of gorgets is further indicated by how they were treated. Broken gorgets were sometimes repaired by drilling small holes on either side of the break and tieing the pieces back together. Gorgets were also symbolically ‘killed’ by deliberate breakage or mutilation. At the Pig Point site in Maryland—dating to the Delmarva Adena period, ca. 1700-2200 BP—deliberately broken gorgets were found in mortuary contexts along with ritually killed stone pipes and bifaces made from Flint Ridge material from Ohio. The killed gorgets displayed impact scars on the faces from bashing, and were modified after breakage by scraping, gouging, battering, and deep cuts. In one case, a killed fragment was re-drilled with a single hole, transforming it into a pendant. A common inference is that ritual killing of objects was done to release the object’s power or ‘spiritual essence’.