Snake Monster Gorgets of the Southern Appalachians

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 27

Mark M. Crawford III
Williamson County Archaeological Society

Snake Monster, Brakebill South variety. Picture courtesy of Jon Muller.

Snake Monster, Brakebill South variety. Picture courtesy of Jon Muller.

Archaeological research is entering a golden age and it’s not because archaeologists are digging. As most of you probably know, excavation in a prehistoric or historic site is a destructive process. Once the site has been excavated, it is gone forever. Thus, non-destructive techniques are the preferred method as researchers attempt to glean new insights into the past. One exciting and fun aspect of modern archaeology is re-examining older collections of artifacts with more modern techniques and technology. This process generates new data and, often, new insights. When you add the fact that museums are increasingly providing free online pictures of their collections, it becomes possible for the modern researcher to assemble a modest data set of any particular artifact genre of his/her choice and examine them for patterns without ever disturbing the remaining precious time capsules of our collective past. In this post I discuss my examination of the iconography of over 340 examples of “rattlesnake” gorgets and what they can tell us about the differing, regionally sensitive ways Native Americans visualized a fascinating animal, the snake, during the 15th, 16th , and 17th centuries in the prehistoric East Tennessee region of the Southern Appalachians.

Snake Monster field illustration. Drawing by Mark M. Crawford III.

Snake Monster field illustration. Drawing by Mark M. Crawford III.

We’ll start off with a little background first. The subject of my undergraduate thesis research at Middle Tennessee State University in 2012-2013 was the iconographic analysis of complex images of snake monsters engraved on marine shell, created during the late prehistoric and proto historic time periods of the southeast (AD 1400-1650) They are known popularly as “rattlesnake” gorgets, but are perhaps more accurately viewed as “snake monsters” because with their human-looking teeth and odd whisker-like appendages, they appear to be something more than a simple depiction of a rattlesnake. These artifacts are part of a tradition of engraved shell gorget manufacture that numbered in the thousands during the Mississippian era of the southeast (AD 900-1540). Snake monsters were only one type of engraved gorget. Artisans engraved incredible depictions of humans, humans with animal features, birds, spiders, and abstract designs (such as the triskeles of the Nashville area) on their concave or convex surfaces.

The two geographic concentrations of the Brakebill variety of Snake Monster. Illlustration by Mark M. Crawford III.

The two geographic concentrations of the Brakebill variety of Snake Monster. Illlustration by Mark M. Crawford III.

These engraved circular pieces of cut shell were most likely suspended below the neck on a string that passed through two holes drilled in the top of the gorget. Some researchers have suggested these designs were engraved only on a particular marine shell species native to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, known as the Left-Handed Lightning Whelk. These whelks were probably traded whole to the inland regions of Tennessee, where the gorget then was cut out of the whelk and engraved. Astonishingly, these whelks traveled by land over 300 miles from their native habitats before they were engraved! There are at least five different variations of snake monster recognized by Jeffrey P. Brain and Phillip Phillips in their work Shell Gorgets: Styles of the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Southeast. They built these catagories based on Jon Muller’s earlier 1966 Ph.D. dissertation that defined three varieties. Phillips and Brain’s list included the Lick Creek, Brakebill, Saltville, Carters Creek, and Citico types. All variations feature the “head” of the snake visualized in profile view (from the side) with the body of the snake curling around the “eye” and “teeth” in a naturalistic coil, most profiles faced to the right , and engravings were always on the concave side. This tradition of carving snake monsters on shell lasted over two hundred years (AD 1400-1600+).

Chronology model for snake monster gorgets. Illustration by Mark M. Crawford III.

Chronology model for snake monster gorgets. Illustration by Mark M. Crawford III.

In its simplest form, Iconography is the study of visual elements that combine to make a design. Examining the snake monster gorgets iconographically required the division of the complex image into separate fields. Once isolated, the elements were examined in space and time and patterns emerged. One such pattern was the differing geographical concentrations of design elements. These regions used different combinations of elements to complete a similar image of a snake monster. For instance, based on these differences, the Brakebill variation appeared to have two sub variations. As shown in the map above, one combination of element usage was concentrated southeast of the Knoxville area and another concentration of element usage was located in Northern Georgia. Based on the iconographic analysis, the southern Brakebill variety appeared to be much more closely related to the Citico/Carters Quarter variety then its northern sibling. This data suggested that there were separate, regionally appropriate design elements used to refer to the snake monster theme. Another pattern to emerge was based on accepted date ranges for sites where snake monster gorgets were found. My analysis revealed that certain elements occurred earlier in the archaeological record while others appeared later.

Recognizing these patterns allowed former chronologies developed for snake monster gorgets in the 1960’s by Muller and the 1990’s by Brain and Phillips to be tested and refined. Based on my analysis I was able to corroborate Muller’s assertion of a late prehistoric emergence and reject Phillips and Brain’s later proto-historically centered time frame. Chronologically and geographically, the Lick Creek variety appears first around AD 1400 at the site of Toqua on the Little Tennessee River in Monroe County, TN. The two Brakebill varieties and the Saltville category all developed around AD 1450. The Brakebill North variety first emerged near the Lick Creek site, northeast of Knoxville, while the Brakebill South variety appeared in northern Georgia, and the Saltville type was made near Saltville, West Virginia. Ultimately, these styles were followed by the popular and similar varieties of Citico/Carters Quarter. Both of these appeared simultaneously as early as the late fifteenth century AD in the Chattanooga area (including the David Davis site), and circulated until the late seventeenth century AD.

For further reading and more pictures of the snake monster gorgets, check out my thesis research via Academia.edu.

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