The Fairfield Gorget: The little white disk with a big, big history

The artifact is is part of an MU exhibit on America before Columbus
Friday, April 18, 2008 | 5:23 p.m. CDT; updated 1:23 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

One steamy afternoon 50 years ago on a bluff top in Benton County, Ray Wood was digging in a pile of dirt and rocks. The autumn sun beat down as he cleared away earth from the sides of stones. It was a hot day for digging.

Wood lifted a rock and turned it over. In a few moments, he would uncover an ancient object, no bigger than a coaster, that would perplex archaeologists and would become, arguably, the most unique thing ever dug up in Missouri.

If you go

WHAT: “Before Columbus: Iconography of the Ancient Americas,” an exhibit of artwork from the New World WHEN: Through May 18. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. WHERE: Museum of Art and Archaeology, Pickard Hall, at Ninth Street and University Avenue on MU’s Francis Quadrangle ADMISSION: Free

What is a gorget?

1. a piece of armor to protect the throat 2. a collar 3. an article of clothing covering the neck and breast, formerly worn by women; wimple Source: Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition

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Wood, now a professor emeritus at MU, wasn’t your average guy with a shovel, and this mound was far more than just a pile of stones. A rookie archaeologist, Wood was excavating a rock-and-earth burial cairn left behind by an ancient group that flourished long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue or pioneers swept across the Midwest.

There it was. Lying upside down in the dirt where the rock once rested, a white curved object caught Wood’s attention.

“It was upside down in there, so I took my camel’s hair brush — it wasn’t really camel’s hair, but it’s called that — and I very carefully lifted and exposed half of it, and it was broken in two,” Wood said.

It was Wood’s field assistant and friend, Rolland Pangborn, who noticed something unusual on the first piece.

“I handed it to him, and he turned it over and says, ‘Hey! There’s writing on it,’” Wood recalled. “Then, we brushed it off and saw it wasn’t really writing.”

They cautiously lifted the second half from the ground, pieced the two sides together and realized that the etchings weren’t text but an elaborate engraving of a jaguar.

What Wood and Pangborn discovered was a gorget, a flat or slightly curved ornament generally made from metal, polished stone or shell. Gorgets typically have holes at the top, leading archaeologists to believe they were possibly worn as pendants around the neck. Archaeologists have unearthed many gorgets produced by American Indians from the Mississippian time period, A.D. 900 to 1500.

Missouri’s geography is peppered with Mississippian-era sites, so Wood’s discovery wouldn’t have been too surprising or strange if the mound he was excavating wasn’t from “a distinctly Late Woodland context.” The Late Woodland period, A.D. 450 to 900, shared much in common with the Mississippian era — after all, people from the Mississippian period descended from Woodland peoples — but, Wood said, no one had ever found a gorget from the Late Woodland period.

“That evening, we just stared at this thing because neither of us had ever seen anything like it before,” Wood said.

Wood soon would find that no one else had seen anything like it, either.

What is this thing?

The Fairfield Gorget — named after the community Wood and Pangborn were near when they discovered the piece — is nothing short of a prehistoric anomaly.

“It’s a marine shell gorget, so simply the material used would have to come from a great distance, engraved with a jaguar, which is completely out of the native range,” said Alex Barker, director of the Museum of Art and Archaeology at MU.

Wood had unearthed a gorget carved on a marine shell you’d otherwise have to travel to the ocean to find, depicting an animal that never lived in the state. Somehow, this incongruous little object found its way into a pile of rocks in the middle of Missouri.

But the discontinuity of subject matter and medium were, in some ways, least among the confusions the gorget introduced.

Wood researched American Indian artwork for similar artifacts with little success. The closest resemblance he could find, a bone engraving found in Ohio in the 1920s that depicted an ocelot, was at best like a distant cousin to the gorget.

So there was Wood: a young, fresh archaeologist in 1958 with a monumentally confusing piece of ancient artwork and no solid idea of where it came from.

He sent a sketch to an experienced archaeologist, James B. Griffin, who suggested the gorget’s style of art and content were consistent with art from the Hopewell tradition, which ran from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 500, roughly during the Middle Woodland period in Missouri — at least 400 years before the Mississippian period known for such gorgets even began. Wood ultimately concluded, like Griffin, that the gorget most likely came from the Middle Woodland period, a hypothesis he still supports today.

But even that hypothesis, years in the making, is shaky.

Back when Wood found the gorget, Carl Chapman, the prominent Missouri archaeologist who hired Wood, firmly held the gorget was Mississippian. He even identified it as such when he discussed the piece in the second volume of his “Archaeology of Missouri,” published in 1980.

“He’d been working in the state for years, and it just didn’t mesh with his conceptions of how things worked, and maybe he’s right,” Wood said. “Maybe it is Mississippian, and somehow or another made its way into that Woodland mound. We can’t be positive because the whole problem of its origin boils down to how old it is.”

Unfortunately, there’s only one way to find a concrete answer.

Accelerated Mass Spectrometry, or AMS dating, is a newer, more accurate form of radiocarbon dating that requires less material from an artifact to discern a rough date of origin. But AMS dating would require taking a small sample from the already small gorget at a cost of several hundred dollars.

“This hasn’t been done, mainly because we don’t want to deface it,” Wood said. “But if it is as old as most of us think it is, it should be about 2,000 years old. If it’s Mississippian, it’s perhaps 1,000 or a little less. Radiocarbon dates should solve that, if we want to take a sample from it.”

Before Columbus sailed the ocean blue

Long, skinny banners flap in the breeze on the eastern face of Pickard Hall, home of the Museum of Art and Archaeology, as MU students shuffle by on the way to class. One banner promotes an exhibit, “Before Columbus: Iconography of the Ancient Americas.”

Museum curator Alex Barker organized the exhibit, which explores the complex symbols found in New World artwork before Columbus hit the hemisphere. The exhibit also touches on the challenges inherent in trying to interpret the iconography of those symbols hundreds, and often thousands, of years later.

“What was here before European contact is not very well represented in either the European chronicles or in most of our understandings of New World society,” Barker said. “Their symbolic systems were far more complex, nuanced and subtle than we generally recognize.”

Venture up the staircase inside Pickard Hall, relinquish your ballpoint pens at the main museum desk — they aren’t allowed inside the galleries — and hook a quick right. Inside the “Before Columbus” exhibit, you’ll find yourself enveloped by ancient, indigenous artwork originating from the countries of Peru and Mexico to ... Benton County, Mo.

“What we’re including is simply elements from all these areas to showcase the diversity,” Barker said. “It’s less to try to show that the symbols are all the same thing and more to show people just how complex and interconnected symbolic systems were before Europeans arrived.”

Among the exotic pieces: Peruvian plumes with dyed feathers, cut into elaborate, geometric patterns; a fat, ceramic effigy of a dog that at first glance looks downright cute but likely pays homage to a deity later Aztecs called Xolótyl; and an initially inconspicuous white disk set apart from other pieces in the exhibit.

There’s the Fairfield Gorget, the centerpiece Missouri connection in the exhibit. On loan from the Museum of Anthropology at MU, the gorget, which is usually hidden away in storage, is getting unusual face time in the exhibit. It’s a fitting celebration for the 50th anniversary of its discovery.

The exhibit is an appropriate fit for the gorget because, like many of the exhibit’s other features, its iconographic meaning is rather nebulous. Archaeologists, anthropologists and historians know roughly as much about the gorget’s imagery as they know about how it wound up in Missouri, which is very little.

The jaguar plays a crucial role in ancient Mexican artwork and culture and is a common iconographic motif there. In the Mayan culture, the jaguar represents the Night Sun, the god of the underworld. It’s also associated with stars and the celestial realm.

But Wood said even Mexican archaeologists he’d talked to said they had never seen anything like the Fairfield Gorget.

“On the other hand, there’s the importance of the jaguar in art down there,” Wood said. “I feel there has to be some kind of relation there, although I don’t think it was an import.”

Playing the game of context

Studying ancient North American artifacts is often an art form unto itself.

Michael O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science at MU, co-authored a book, “The Prehistory of Missouri,” with Wood. He explained some of the inherent difficulty in deciphering ancient artifacts.

“Where did it come from? Did people move in and bring it with them? Did people just see somebody else do it and decide to do it themselves? What’s the mechanism?” O’Brien said. “That’s what I spend my whole career doing, just trying to understand these mechanisms of social transmission.”

Archaeology is like a game of context. Each artifact an archaeologist uncovers offers new clues, new links in a chain of understanding prehistoric civilizations. But when you encounter something as unusual as the Fairfield Gorget, it can throw the whole chain for a loop.

Wood suspects the appearance of the jaguar image in America was probably the result of stimulus diffusion, which is when an idea, rather than an object, spreads. Still, without any written records to reference or similar artifacts to offer context, it’s impossible to know for sure.

Even when new discoveries challenge what archaeologists thought they knew, Wood said the challenge is welcome.

“We are constantly being surprised in archaeology,” Wood said. “There isn’t a year that goes by that something isn’t pushed further back in time or new relations are shown. We can only talk about what we found.”

Experts in Missouri’s prehistory are equipped with many tools, but fighting against them are a number of factors, among them lack of written language in Missouri’s ancient civilizations, geological shifts that disrupt stratified archaeological sites and, the biggest threat of all, people.

“It’s hard to find a (burial) mound in the Ozarks that doesn’t have a hole in it,” Wood said, referring to vandals who dig through the sites.

Today, digging through an American Indian burial mound is a crime, but in the Mississippi River Valley, countless historically valuable pots were lost during the turn of the 20th century, when the region experienced something of a gold rush in Mississippian-era pottery.

“There were boxcar loads of pots coming out of southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas,” O’Brien said. “I mean boxcar loads. ... These pots were worth a fortune.”

Contemporary people aren’t the only ones who complicate archaeology. Wood explained that just like people today, American Indians of the past were collectors.

“People are curious,” Wood said. “They pick up things.”

Heirloom artifacts frequently find their way into later historical sites. The Fairfield Gorget, for example, was found in a Late Woodland mound, but the piece itself is most likely Middle Woodland. Once, while digging at site from about A.D. 1200, Wood found a spear point that was 9,000 years old. He wagered a guess as to what happened:

“They’d seen this odd-looking point, took it home and, eventually, it wound up in a trash pit,” Wood said. “They were collectors.”

Until recently, one more obstacle American archaeologists faced was proving that their field of study was unique. For years, pre-Columbian iconography in the United States was seen as being drawn from Mesoamerican civilizations.

“North American archaeologists have spent most of their lives trying to prove that what happens in North America isn’t simply a derivative from the Maya or the Aztec,” Barker said. “It really is a completely distinct phenomena that isn’t the result of contact with somewhere else. What makes the Fairfield gorget so unique is that it suggests a connection that’s otherwise pretty hard to find.”

Still exotic after all these years

Fifty years after Wood found the Fairfield Gorget, he said it’s still the most exotic thing he has ever discovered. Since 1958, the coaster-sized piece of engraved shell has evolved into something of a state archaeological emblem, appearing on textbooks, in pamphlets and, said Wood, on “virtually everything” the Missouri Archeological Society produces.

“It’s become, more or less, the logo for the Missouri Archaeological Society,” Wood said. “It’s on the cover of the book that Michael O’Brien and I did. We just use it shamelessly. Well, not shamelessly.”

Wood said a former MU graduate student even tattooed the jaguar on his bicep. One Web site offers a T-shirt adorned with a Fairfield Gorget logo — for $16 to $18, depending on the style.

The Northern Jaguar Project, an organization trying to establish a refuge in northern Mexico for jaguars, adopted the image from the gorget as its official logo. The organization chose the logo, in part, because it was so unusual to see the animal depicted as far north as Missouri. Then, they contacted Wood for a donation.

“I bought an acre of land to help save the jaguar,” Wood said, chuckling.

In a lot of ways, the Fairfield Gorget is a microcosm of Missouri archaeology: Relatively speaking, experts know much about both, but years of research and discovery lie ahead. Delving into the past can be as mysterious as space exploration; with no written words to guide you and little idea of what you’ll find next, the possibilities are vast.

“Once you can make sense of one symbol, a whole other series of elements begin to make sense, and each one of those elements becomes the key to unlocking another set of elements,” Barker said. “You can see the fragments of those things, the individual pieces that are used to construct that iconography, scattered across Missouri.”

Wood said the answers to today’s questions are probably still buried in Missouri soil.

“There are few archaeologists and many, many, many sites,” Wood said, “and it’s impossible to do all the research we’d like to do.”

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