An interesting artifact from Ya asqalu’i is the large shell neck ornament known to archaeologists as a “Gorget”. The English language name itself is interesting. It comes from a European tradition similar ornament, the last piece of traditional armour to still be worn by (some) armies today. In a full suit of armour, the gorget was a frontal piece that protected the neck (the word “gorging” for shoving food down one’s neck has the same root). While most armour became obsolete with the development of firearms, the gorget became ‘vestigial’, becoming smaller and hung from a chain, as modelled by a young George Washington in this image on the left, or not so small as shown by the modern Chilean officer on the right.
Similar shaped neck ornaments from other cultures have often been termed ‘gorget’ by anthropologists, archaeologists, or others describing material culture. These ornaments are nearly universally a symbol of high rank, or social status, or wealth. For instance, the crescentic shell ornaments from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) were only worn by royalty according to one source (Rapa Nui gorget a “Rosetta Stone” also see Reimiro ornaments).
In Papua New Guinea these ornaments were made from giant shells and are often covered with red ochre. I saw one of these in a gallery shopfront when going into the Alcheringa Gallery on Fort Street in Victoria, and on asking inside, was shown several more in drawers.
The Northwest Coast has occasional shell gorgets, and they most likely were also status markers. The following photos show a shell gorget and a somewhat similar two-holed polished slate pendant from Prince Rupert, the shell one found in the most recent part of the site in “AU4-4”, dated from about AD400 to AD1200. The purple-hinge rock scallop shell was incredibly fragile when found, and only the consummate skill of Tsimshian excavator Eugene Bryant saved it in one piece. It was nearly miraculous how Eugene spotted this when just a tiny part was first uncovered, recognized it as something special and not just another rotting shell in the shell midden, and was able to retrieve it in one place so our conservator could stabilize it!! Click on the images for hi res.
Nearby at the Boardwalk Site (GbTo-31), Ken Ames 2005 book “Northwest Coast Prehistory Project: Artifacts”describes two slightly smaller rock scallop gorgets that were both found with male burials. While grave goods are rare on the North Coast, it may be significant that the two burials did have such inclusions, likely marking them as high status individuals. One was with a male child and the gorget is part of a rich assemblage that includes three amber beads and various copper artifacts. The other is associated with a young adult male and, though the other grave goods are not as remarkable, includes a bone dagger.
Gorgets also are found on the south coast of BC (although the sample is much larger, they are still very rare). Most seem to date to the Marpole period, and almost all are made from rock scallop shell. A few remarkable ones are copper. More information can be found in our report, available for download through this blog. I’ll finish with a description of a shell gorget from Courtenay, described by Harlan I Smith in 1907