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The Jaguar Gorget—"The Missouri State Artifact"

by W. Raymond Wood
Missouri Archaeological Society Quarterly
April-June 2000
17(2):8-11
with permission of the editor

Perhaps only a few readers of the MAS Quarterly will recall the Fairfield Mound group, but every individual who has been involved in Missouri's prehistory will recognize its most recognizable artifact: the jaguar gorget from the Fairfield Mound 2 (Figure 1). Its image has adorned Missouri Archaeological Society broadsides and other publications for years and has been a favorite logo for the University of Missouri's anthropology department. It even inspired, subliminally at least, the acronym PUMA for the department's 1995 student publication, Publications of the University of Missouri Anthropologists. One former anthropology graduate student even has a replica of the feline tattooed on his right bicep.

The discovery of this icon was told coldly and dispassionately in two versions in The Pomme de Terre Reservoir in Western Missouri Prehistory (Wood 1961:29), in which the gorget served as the cover art; and, later, in an expanded publication, The Fristoe Burial Complex of Southwestern Missouri (Wood 1967:20), in which its co-finder (Rolland E. Pangborn) was the subject of the cover art. The discovery of this artifact was an exciting event, but its subsequent history provides instructive lessons in the interpretation of prehistory.

I first came to work at the University of Missouri as a research associate for the Division of Archaeological Research, appropriately enough, on April Fools day, 1957. Carl H. Chapman had hired me to do an archaeological survey of the Pomme de Terre Reservoir, then under construction. Whereas I trudged the fields alone through that spring and summer, I gained a field assistant later that season: Rolland E. Pangborn. At the time, Rolland was picking a guitar in a Springfield, Mo., night club, but the opportunity to be paid for what he had done for years–look for artifacts–was too great a temptation to resist. He became an eager and fast-learning field archaeologist and soon became a valued member of the division.

One afternoon Rolland told me of a group of rock-and-earth mounds on a hill in Benton County, near the town of Fairfield and not far from the confluence of the Pomme de Terre and the Osage rivers. On a visit to the site one weekend we found a few artifacts in the spoil dirt from a vandal's excavation: some thin, shell-tempered sherds, a Rice side-notched point, and two Euro-American trade brooches of white metal.

The pottery and brooches suggested an Osage Indian origin for the mound, and extensive excavations were undertaken late in summer 1958, the work continuing on after our crew had returned to school. One fall day Rolland and I were slowly clearing away the sediment in Mound 2 that separated the closely spaced stones in the structure. We knelt on sun-toasted bedrock in the hot afternoon sun, digging near the center of the structure, and had just exposed several Scallorn and Rice side-notched points and a ground-stone "mammiform object" when I exposed a curved white surface, the convex face up. Brushing away the dirt, we noticed it was in two pieces, and I carefully removed half of it and handed it to Rolland, He brushed the concave side clean (with a camels-hair brush, of course), then said, as I removed the other half, "It has writing on it!" We then brushed both halves carefully, exposing the engraved form of a jaguar. The object was a minor sensation when we took it to Columbia, and it certainly was the most exotic thing I'd found in my then-brief career as an archaeologist (it still is).

That fall I began a literature search for comparable specimens. But there is a problem: the imagery on the gorget is unique in Native American art. The only comparable artwork I could find were images from Ohio. They were Warren K. Moorehead's illustrations of figures engraved on bone from the Hopewell mound group. One of them, said to be an ocelot, is especially provocative (Moorehead 1922:Figure 64). He also illustrated a polished mammiform object said to be of slate and though it was broader and perhaps larger than the one from the Fairfield mound it otherwise was similar (Moorehead 1922:Figure 30) (Figure 2a-b).

To seek further information, Eleanor Chapman made a drawing of the specimen that I forwarded to James B. Griffin, then at the University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropology. He responded to my query a follows:

The drawing of the shell gorget which you have sent is, I think, similar in appearance and in general style to one which was found in Lincoln County, Kentucky and first illustrated in Bennet Young's publication, "The Prehistoric Men of Kentucky" in 1910 on page 240. This gorget is also illustrated in Webb and Baby's "Adena People No. 2" on page 94 where they apparently attribute it to Adena. I think, however, that this particular shell gorget from Kentucky has a style which is more suggestive of Hopewell art or of Weeden Island art than it is of Adena and the find which you have made I believe confirms a placement on [a] general Hopewell to Late Hopewell level (letter of June 10, 1958).

I found it parsimonious, on the basis of that information, to identify the gorget as of Hopewell inspiration, particularly in view of the ground, gray-calcareous quartzose-siltstone mammiform object that had been found near it. This identification was reinforced since Waldo R. Wedel had recovered three similar artifacts at the Renner site. Renner, north of Kansas City, Mo., is the type site of "Kansas City Hopewell." Two of them are complete and closely match the size, form, and description of the one from Fairfield Mound 2 (Wedel 1943:59-60, plate 11a-c). Wedel also found a number of points at Renner that, in size and form, are classifiable as Rice side notched (Wedel 1943:plate 12d-e), although Scallorn points are conspicuously lacking there. Another mammiform is known from the Hiatt site in Cooper County, central Missouri, one of the cluster of "Big Bend Hopewell" sites in central Missouri. Hiatt also yielded a few points classifiable as Rice side notched (McKinn[e]y 1954:37; Figure 1,8-9, and Figure 12,8). In the end, I concluded that the principal component at the Fairfield Mound 2 was part of a Late Woodland complex (that I named the Fristoe Burial complex) that contained "specifically Hopewell traits" that included modified wolf maxillae, the gorget, and the shale mammiform (Wood 1962:105-06).

The identification of the image on the gorget as a jaguar, Felis onca, seems secure. Only the slightly elongated body mars its realism. The configuration of the body, the nature of the spots on the torso and underbelly, the form of the head and ears, and the short tail all support this identity. The only disharmonious features are on the creature's neck. Rather than being spotted, the neck bears dots and dashes reminiscent of the ocelot, Felis pardalis, although the neck on that species carries solid heavy lines.

Both jaguars and ocelots are native to tropical to subtropical and desert parts of Central America, but their historical ranges extended into southern United States. The jaguar once inhabited parts of southern California, most of Arizona, parts of western and central New Mexico and, more to the point here, southeastern Texas and southern Louisiana (Hall 1981:1037-39, Map 524). All of these locales are far from southwestern Missouri, but we have no way of knowing the distribution of the animal in the past.

The jaguar motif was so suggestive of Mesoamerican influences that I felt it desirable to pursue its affiliations. In March, 1960, I was in graduate school at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, and among the courses in which I was enrolled was one in primitive art. Brainstorming for a term paper topic, I thought that the significance of the gorget would make an intriguing topic. Consequently, I prepared a number of photocopies of it and mailed them together with a cover letter to archaeologists prominent in the American Southeast: Robert E. Bell, Elaine Bluhm, Thorne Deuel, Lathel F. Duffield, William G. Haag, Madeline Kneberg, A.J. Waring, and Stephen Williams; and in Mexico, to Alfonso Caso.

Thorne Deuel turned my letter over to Joseph R. Caldwell, then at the Illinois State Museum, who wrote that he did not personally know of any comparable designs, but suggested that I contact Antonio J. Waring, M.D., in Georgia, and Robert Rands (a Mayanist) then at Mississippi. William Haag, Louisiana State University, responded that

Your intriguing conch shell gorget is like nothing I have ever seen in this area. I must say, it is the first object I have seen that looks really "Mexican" or Middle American to me that has come from central United States. So many of the so-called Southern Cult items we have are without counterpart in Mexico (letter of April 25, 1960).

Raymond S. Baby, with the Ohio State Museum in Columbus, provided the following commentary:

Your specimen is identical in form and type to the Crab Orchard Spring Mound (Adena) gorget from Kentucky (See Webb and Baby, Adena People II, p. 94). The design elements–crosshatched, curved lobes, triangles, tear-shapes, and joint circles and/or dots–are identical in both engravings. The only point of difference between the two gorgets is the portrayal of a raptorial bird on the Kentucky gorget [is] arranged symmetrically about a large, central drilled perforation.

The treatment of the jaguar is semi-realistic, except for the realistic portrayal of the nose, ear, neck and abdominal marking, and certainly belongs to the Adena-Hopewell art tradition. The circle and dot element is common in Adena. (See Webb and Baby, Adena People II, pp. 86-94); the zoned or crosshatched lobes and tear-shape forms are common and characteristic of Hopewell.

The "speech symbol" does occur in the Southern Cult motifs (see Waring and Holder, American Anthropologist, N.S. Vol. 47, No. 1, p. 15, 1945) (letter of April 26, 1960).

In the closing months of World War II Waring and Holder (1945) had published an article in the American Anthropologist proposing the existence of a Southeastern Ceremonial Cult. "Speech symbols" do occur in their illustration on page 16 of their article, but none of them are as elaborate as that on the Missouri jaguar; most, in fact, probably represent tongues. Only two figures in that illustration are lobed (or forked) and none have three lobes.

Madeline Kneberg, University of Tennessee, responded:

The gorget...is very definitely a jaguar. I showed it to Dr. Michael Coe of our department and he suggested the possibility of a similarity to the Maya concept of the jaguar of the underworld. You, no doubt, noticed that the animal was upside down when the gorget was suspended.

A.J. Waring was effusive in his response:

I am familiar with most of the Spiro material, all the Etowah, all the Tennessee, and as much of the Moundville as is available, and there is no vague counterpart in what I have seen of your gorget. It is certainly stylistically not "Cult." I agree with you that it is more in the Weeden Island tradition with the Hopewellian overtones. It shows that curious combination of an abstract curvilinear technique and high realism which seems to be distinctive.

The particular elements which interest me most are the spiral treatments of the haunches and shoulders. You are familiar, no doubt, with the famous cat figurine from Key Marco (Cushing, U.S. National Museum). Possibly you are not familiar with a similar treatment of two puma figures and a deer figure (effigy pots) in: W.H. Sears, Excavations at Kolomoki, Season III and IV, Mound D, University of Georgia Press 1953. See plate VIII, vessel 33; X, vessel 6; and XI, vessel 8. These are of course high and late Weeden Island ceremonial complex in a late Swift Creek ceramic context. Sears has pointed out (perhaps overpointed) the Middle Mississippi elements which are also included.

Of course, the puma does appear in "Cult" art (Moundville and Spiro) but when it does its resemblance to your fierce and elegant beast would make you think the boys were drawing from a stuffed animal, not the real McCoy.

If I were pushed and judging–mind you–on style alone, I would place your pussy on a post-Hopewell, pre-"Cult" level. Say, Late Weeden Island. I would think it belonged to a Gulf-Lower Mississippi tradition (letter of April 7, 1960).

Elaine Bluhm, University of Illinois, wrote that:

Don Lathrap suggested that it looks like Teotihuacan. He mentioned that you might look in Runa II by Pedro Armillas, in the Bliss volume on Art of the Americas, or in Covarrubias's volume on Meso-America (letter of April 9, 1960).

I also wrote to Alfonso Caso, of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, in Mexico City. He responded to my request as follows:

I have to tell you that I found no similarities between the "speech symbol" that issues from the mouth of this figure and the art of Mesoamerica. In Mesoamerica that glyph has other characteristics that you undoubtedly know about. I find no resemblance in Mesoamerican art to the marks on the jaguar's body (letter of April 21, 1960).

Caso's response, while accurate, ignored the importance of the jaguar in Mesoamerican art. Nevertheless, his missive was the straw that broke my interest in pursuing the topic at the time: I had a term paper to write, a limited time to do so, no consensus, and no competence to unravel the problem myself. So I turned to a familiar subject, the Plains, and wrote my paper, successfully as it turned out, on the shoulder patterns incised on Plains village pottery. It later appeared in American Antiquity (Wood 1962).

Carl Chapman never accepted the Hopewell affiliation of our subject; indeed, in his popular book Indians and Archaeology of Missouri, he assigned the specimen to the Mississippian cultural tradition. That publication even illustrated a drawing of the gorget together with three Mississippian-period shell gorgets (Chapman and Chapman 1964:73). The object is illustrated there without accompanying text, but its "Mississippian tradition" attribution is not strengthened by the very different art styles on the other specimens in the same figure.

In 1980 Chapman illustrated the gorget in his second volume of The Archaeology of Missouri and provided a detailed exposition for his position (Chapman 1980:95-97:figure 4.8). He felt, as I do, that there are real questions about the associations in Mound 2. Like many such structures in the Ozarks, the structure was composed of a mixture of rock picked up from the adjoining hilltop that had been combined with sediment scraped from the shallow soil that mantled the bedrock. No stratigraphy is visible in the cross section in such a tumulus, nor are pits or other such intrusions identifiable. In a discussion that occupied nearly two pages, Chapman concluded that the "jaguar gorget was manufactured by Village Farmer Tradition people in the Mississippi period" (Chapman 1980:97).

The conflict in attribution boils down to an identification based on the age of the artifact versus the age of its context. On the basis of its very distinctive art style, there is little reason to question that both the gorget and the mammiform are of Middle Woodland inspiration, if not manufacture. On the other hand, I'd not argue with the probability that they may represent some form of heirlooms and that the specimens were made much earlier than their ultimate deposition in Mound 2; that is, the mammiform and the gorget are Middle Woodland, or "Hopewell" period artifacts in a Late Woodland context—a context that lasted into the Early Mississippian period as defined by O'Brien and Wood (1998:223).

The gorget has been treated in detail by Philip Phillips and James A. Brown in their study of the shell engravings from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Okla., (Phillips and Brown 1978) a study that reinforces the Middle Woodland derivation of the gorget. Phillips and Brown note that engraving on shell may be traced back at least to Hopewellian times, if not before, though Hopewellians preferred to engrave on bone–particularly on human bone. Hopewell art was elaborate and often realistic, and Phillips and Brown named one of their styles the "Fairfield style," using the Fairfield jaguar gorget as a type specimen. They also compare it with the "ocelot" engraved on bone from the Ohio Hopewell site (Phillips and Brown 1978:157-58; see also Muller 1966:167-68). In short, the Middle Woodland derivation of the style seems assured.

Regardless of the age of the gorget, the parallels it revels with an important religious motif in Mesoamerica cannot be ignored. The jaguar was a symbol of the underworld, and it figured in countless Mayan glyphs. For all of this, every Mesoamerican archaeologist who has seen the gorget has said that its engraved jaguar does not resemble any known Mesoamerican art style (Richard A. Diehl, pers. comm., 1999).

For decades, complex earthworks and related materials in southeastern United States were believed to have been derived, in some fashion, from prototypes in central Mexico. Robert Silverberg, as late as 1968, summarized the position as follows:

Beyond much doubt the basic Mississippian ideas stemmed from Mexico, for they follow Mexican thought in many ways.... Though the Mexican influence on Hopewell and Adena is still a matter for conjecture, there is little doubt that Mexican thought underlies the Mississippian Tradition (Silverberg 1968:296).

These were the ideas that led archaeologists in the southeastern United States to "see" similarities between the two areas when in fact there are none. It simply was taken for granted, and it seemed "obvious" to them that the elaborate developments in the Southeast had been "influenced" by the high cultures of Mexico.

Today, rather than seeing this complex of "Mississippian" features as deriving from Mesoamerica, we see the complex developments in the eastern United States as having a long and independent development that does not require an outside source for its genesis. In short,

...Mexican connections are discounted, for as many experts have pointed out, the styles and themes of the Southern Cult resemble those of earlier Eastern Woodland societies much more closely than anything from Mexico. The arrival of maize and beans over a period of many centuries hints at sporadic and indirect contacts with the south, but the introduction of these plants was a far from major symbolic or mythical event. Everything points to both Mississippian architecture and cosmology being an indigenous North American development (Fagan 1995:448).

Unlike the American Southwest, where there was a long history of direct trade with sources in Mexico, not one single artifact of undoubted Mesoamerican origin has been found, anywhere, in southeastern United States. If—and this is a very big IF—there is any relation between the central American concept of the jaguar and the animal depicted on the Fairfield gorget, it represents either the independent use of that animal, or some unknowable form of stimulus diffusion from Central America. Like my colleagues, I prefer to think of our southwestern Missouri artifact as an independent use of the jaguar.

References Cited

Chapman, C.H.
1980 The Archaeology of Missouri II. Columbia:University of Missouri Press.

Chapman, C.H., and E.F. Chapman
1964 Indians and Archaeology of Missouri. Columbia:University of Missouri Press.

Fagan, B.M.
1995 Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent, second edition. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Hall, E.R.
1981 The Mammals of North America, Vol. 2. New York: John Wiley.

McKinn[e]y, J.J.
1954 Hopewell Sites in the Big Bend Area of Central Missouri. The Missouri Archaeologist 16(1):7-54.

Moorehead, W.K.
1922 The Hopewell Mound Group of Ohio. Fieldiana, vol. 6, no. 5. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History.

Muller, J.D.
1966 An Experimental Theory of Stylistic Analysis. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University.

O'Brien, M.J,. and W.R. Wood
1998 The Prehistory of Missouri. Columbia:University of Missouri Press.

Phillips, P., and J.A. Brown
1978 Pre-Columbian Shell Engravings from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma, Part 1. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Sears, W.H.
1953 Excavations at Kolomoki, Season III and IV, Mound D. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Silverberg, R.
1968 Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth. Greenwich, Conn.,: New York Graphic Society.

Waring, Jr., A.J., And P. Holder
1945 A Prehistoric Ceremonial Complex in the Southeastern United States. American
Anthropologist
n.s. vol. 47(1):1-34.

Webb, W.S., And R.S. Baby
1957 The Adena People No. 2. Columbus: Ohio Historical Society.

Wedel, W.R.
1943 Archeological Investigations in Platte and Clay Counties, Missouri. United States National Museum, Bulletin 183.

Wood, W.R.
1961 The Pomme de Terre Reservoir in Western Missouri Prehistory. The Missouri Archaeologist 23:1-131.

Wood, W.R.
1962 A Stylistic and Historical Analysis of Shoulder Patterns on Plains Indian Pottery. American Antiquity 28(1):25-40.

Wood, W.R.
1967 The Fristoe Burial Complex of Southwestern Missouri. The Missouri Archaeologist 29.

Young, B.H.
1910 The Prehistoric Men of Kentucky. Louisville: J.P. Morton.

jaguar gorget drawing
Figure 1. Engraved shell gorget from Mound 2, Fairfield mound group, 23BE6.

 

drawings
Figure 2. Artifacts from the Hopewell site, Ohio. Neither dimensions nor scale were given in the original text and illustrations:
a, mammiform object;
b, upper torso of an ocelot engraved on human bone
(Moorehead 1922: figures 30 and 64).


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