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America before Columbus: a Mississippian view of the cosmos

The gorget, a finely carved neck ornament from the Mississippian period, reveals rich cultural history. Found in Tennessee, it symbolizes the complex societies that thrived in North America before European colonization. The gorget's design connects to stories of life, death, and regeneration, reflecting the agricultural cycle. Cities like Cahokia, with advanced corn-growing technology and unique art styles, were bustling hubs of these societies. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Female Presenter] We're in the National Museum of the American Indian, looking at a gorget, this is a neck ornament, it's only a few inches high, but it's very finely carved. - [Male Presenter] Made out of shell, so the material probably came from the Gulf of Mexico, but the object was found in the middle of Tennessee, in a large town site called Castalian Springs, that was active about 1200 to 1300, right in the middle of what we call the Mississippian period. - [Female Presenter] And it was found in a burial mound. - [Male Presenter] It was excavated in 1891 by an amateur named William Myer. We know from his notes that the burial mound had over 100 burials in it, but this burial was one of the earliest, right at the base of the mound, and it was unusually elaborate, there was not only this gorget, but there were others, one placed on his or her throat, the others gathered in a little bundle between his or her feet, he or she had shell beads, and pearl beads, and other ornaments as well, so it's a very important individual that very likely was important to the founding of the site. - [Female Presenter] So let's define the Mississippian period. - [Male Presenter] It's a number of different ways of organizing society, that maximized the ability to grow corn beads and squash but particularly corn in bottom land areas so that's why the big towns are often located on rivers, and then in ideology, a way of thinking about the world which includes some mythology, stories, culture heroes, and how this ties to the political authority. - [Female Presenter] So during the Mississippian Period we see the growth of towns, often characterized by mounds, by fortifications, and by plazas in front of the mounds. - [Male Presenter] One of the characteristic aspects of Mississippian architecture is what we call the platform mound, which is a big earthen structure with a flat top, and what you don't see today is that there was a wooden structure on top, often a residence for an important person, or a temple. The original Mississippian town was the city of Cahokia. - [Female Presenter] This was the biggest city in North America, with upwards of 30,000 people. - [Male Presenter] Small towns, and larger towns, spread out from Cahokia, taking the ideology, taking the corn growing technology, taking the art style, and spreading it out across a lot of east and north America. The interesting thing about it is that evidently it's multi-ethnic, so it's not simply a single people or culture expanding, but the ideas, and the object associated with those ideas, expanding across the country and being adopted by local traditions. Cahokia dispersed about 1350 or so, but the present day Osage, Ponca, Quapaw, Kansa are very likely the descendants of Cahokia people. - [Female Presenter] So when we think about what the Europeans saw when they came here, we can sometimes fall into thinking about it as a wilderness, but in fact, there were major cities here, like Cahokia. - [Male Presenter] We're accustomed to thinking of North America as a wilderness but I remind people often of De Soto's journey across the south-east, where he encountered one big Mississippian town after another till he got to the Mississippi Valley, and there are four to five towns up and down the Mississippi. - [Female Presenter] So let's talk about this gorget and it's beautiful carving, we see a figure who appears to be running, or in motion, his right knee is bent, his left leg is bent behind him, and his right arm holds a head, and the left arm holds a weapon, a mace. - [Male Presenter] There are many of these gorgets, they are exchanged between the different towns among leaders, and to own one was a testimony to your status as a leader. There are elements of some Osage stories that kind of fit the design that we see here. Look carefully, you'll see the figure has this odd fork shape round his eyes, that is a reference to a marking on a bird, a Peregrine Falcon. We know from other gorgets like this, where there are figures that have more bird attributes, they may have wings, they may have talons, so this figure has a human form but he also has a bird form. - [Female Presenter] And so we believe that this figure that we see in Mississippian iconography is linked to a culture hero named Morning Star. - [Male Presenter] Well we call him Morning Star, and Morning Star of course is the planet Venus. In the morning it rises in the sky just before the sun, and as the sun sets, it descends right after the sun. So the story, that corresponds to this, that we think fits pretty well, is that the Morning Star, a falcon, and his twin brother traveled to the underworld to retrieve the remains of their deceased father, who had been captured, and so he's holding the remains of his father as he rises into the sky, and this is a story that has to do with birth and death, - And regeneration. - And regeneration, which is tied to agriculture of course, because you plant your seeds, and you hope things grow from them, and so, this cycle of regeneration, the cycle of life and death, is tied to the human world, is tied to the agricultural world, and it's symbolized in mythology in images you see like this. - [Female Presenter] The circular shape of this gorget emphasized by the circles incised around the edges I think this makes that point too, about cycles of life and death and regeneration. - [Male Presenter] I think so, images of this bird man, Morning Star figure I found in cave art, rock art locations all throughout this area of the mid-west, and in other media as well, sometimes in copper. - [Female Presenter] The figure is head up, but we can see on the right two small circles, and so we know that the figure that we see on the gorget would have looked up at the wearer. - [Male Presenter] Pulling the head of the deceased father if that's in fact who he is, up into the sky world. - [Female Presenter] In Mississippian ideas of the supernatural, we have a world above, and a world below, with the earthly in the center. - [Male Presenter] A customary way of thinking about this is the native world is that the earth is a disc, and it faces the sky during the day, but as it turns, it faces the night sky, the underworld, that rises up above our terrestrial world. - [Female Presenter] He's heavily adorned, he wears a necklace made of beads, he's got beads around his legs, this elaborate loin cloth, and a really fabulous headdress too. - [Male Presenter] And ear spools, they're very likely made of local mica, he's holding that wonderful mace, made of stone in one hand. The headdress has this odd configuration which may also relate to this Morning Star story, where bows and arrows play a prominent part, but there is a Mississippian style of bow, they put tufts of feathers on either end, which are represented as like little balls, so that is another symbol that's associated with this story and with the bird man figure. - [Female Presenter] We're so fortunate to have this gorget to remind us of these complex cultures that lived in North America before contact, before European colonization. - [Male Presenter] And the rich legacy of art making, and these kind of objects circulated among different people of leadership and authority, they are incredibly complex in their iconography, to convey these complicated ideas so it's a rich visual legacy, which we probably haven't paid as much attention to as we should. (piano music)