Shell gorget

Grady County Shell Gorget

Shell Ornaments

The use of shell for making various types of ornaments was practiced by various prehistoric Indian groups in Oklahoma. Besides using shell for ornaments, shell was also used for many other purposes such as drinking cups, spoons, scrapers, shredders, small containers, hoes, beads, inlays, and in combination with other materials such as wood or stone in composite artifacts. The most commonly used shell for ornaments was the conch shell, a saltwater shell that was derived from the Atlantic Ocean along the Florida or Gulf coast. The sea shells were obtained in trade, probably as whole shells which were used for making various kinds of artifacts according to local custom. Fresh water mussel shells were also used for some artifacts; these were primarily more utilitarian items such as hoes, spoons, scrapers, etc., but the conch shell was preferred for ornamental or ritual items.

The shell was worked in a fashion similar to working bone. The shell was cut by making a deep groove or slot with a piece of flint or sharp stone to separate the desired portion of the shell. The edges of the shell were then ground, smoothed, and shaped by use of an abrader. The flat sides of the shell were left in their natural condition without alteration.


The use of sea shell for ornaments is characteristic of the Caddoan occupations, especially the Spiro phase. Such items also occur elsewhere, however, and are not restricted to this time period.

Four examples of shell ornaments are illustrated in Figure 43. Figure 43a is a pendant made from the columella portion of a large conch shell which has been perforated for suspension. This style of pendant is shown on many shell engravings of human figures as being worn around the neck on the chest. Figure 43b is a simple pendant cut from the spiral end portion of the conch shell. Figure 43c is a small shell ornament cut from the outer shell of the conch. This type of ornament, with the large perforation in the center, varies considerably in diameter. It is found widely distributed in eastern United States. Similar ornaments are shown in many photographs or paintings of Indians made during the 19th century. Figure 43d is a small shell gorget with the typical paired perforations placed at one edge. Such gorgets range from this small sized example to larger specimens with elaborately engraved designs measuring over 150 mm in diameter. Some of the finest Indian art work is represented by engravings done on this style of shell gorget.


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