The Mickey Mouse Shell Gorgets


M - I - C --- K - E - Y    M - O - U - S - E       I can still hear the famous tune with those letters resonating in my head.  Walt Disney started his iconic television club show in 1955 and this old man (me – not Disney) was not even a teenager at that time.  But I tuned in regularly, as did probably millions of other pre-teen and teenage boys, to watch the show and especially the buxom raven hair beauty, Annette Funicello, with her round and sizable – er – uh – arg --- Mickey Mouse ears.  But only a few hundred years prior to that time, some American natives in the southern mountains created their own version of the club emblem with their odd appearing Mickey Mouse shell gorgets.


The South Appalachian Mississippian Culture, which was a politically centralized and socially elite polity, covered the area including the spine and much of the bordering region of the southern mountain range bearing its name.  There were most likely many individual chiefdoms living in and controlling sections of these mountains ranging from current southwestern Virginia through western North Carolina and northwestern South Carolina into northern Georgia and Alabama and across eastern Tennessee.  With agricultural crops, centering on corn and fertile land, being a major focus of all these groups, there was apparently much interaction and occasionally even warfare between these factions.  The social interactions probably included ceremonial corn festivals utilizing various forms of artistic imagery created by natives using natural materials acquired locally and through long distance trade.  These aborigines certainly made and used both simple utilitarian as well as anthropomorphic and zoomorphic effigy pottery vessels along with what we, today, would call prestige goods such as shell, clay and bird bone beads, mica ornaments, shell ear pins, ceramic nose and lip plugs or labrets, copper breast plates and marine shell gorgets.  They probably also made many of these ornaments using local woods which have not withstood the ravages of time in the acidic regional soils.  The shell gorgets were made in several styles including scalloped triskeles, rattlesnake engravings, human face mask effigies and cribbed designs.  These odd crib styles look like four straight or slightly curved logs laid out in a square motif such as would be seen if one looked down upon a topless log cabin or corn crib.  Or maybe they look like mouse ears.


Close to the small town of Swannanoa and near the banks of the Swannanoa River in mountainous Buncombe County, North Carolina, is a college by the name of Warren Wilson.  In the 1940’s an old Indian village next to the river was discovered and later in the 1960’s it was archaeologically investigated.  This ancient village, now known as the Warren Wilson Site (since it is a portion of the college campus), was the home of a group of natives who are acknowledged as being part of the Pisgah Phase of the South Appalachian Mississippian Culture, even though we have no idea just what they actually called themselves.  The heart area of this Pisgah Phase cultural entity was the rugged crest of the Appalachian Mountains now known as the Unaka Range that envelopes the Tennessee-North Carolina border.  The several hundred known Pisgah Phase village sites sprang out in all directions and for many miles from this mountainous center.  The actual word Pisgah comes from the biblical Mount Pisgah which is north of the Dead Sea in the Holy Land and from the five hundred thousand plus acres of the Pisgah National Forest in western NC.  These Pisgah Phase people are believed to have lived in their mountain homes from about AD 1000 to AD 1500 and their large territory extended from east of the Warren Wilson Site as far west a current Knox County, TN, as far south as Oconee County, SC and as far north as Lee County, VA.  On their lands they built their palisaded and open plaza villages, some of which featured large earthen temple mounds.  And there they raised their families, worshipped their deities, buried their deceased and grew their corn, beans and squash along the alluvial river bottoms and hidden mountain valleys.  These natives, who were most likely also associated with the more southerly Lamar Culture, were probably quite content in their hilly environment until the arrival of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century AD.   Whether by internal unrest concerning their arcane societal beliefs or by disease and greed brought by the Europeans or by a combination of both, the Pisgah Phase life style ceased to exist by name and by religious/economic credence sometime early in the sixteenth century AD.  The native’s existence, though, did continue within another group that archaeologists call the Qualla Phase but that is known to many Americans by another name – Cherokee.  But before their social communities ceased to exist, the Pisgah Indians made pottery and ornaments including the curious shell gorgets that are officially named the Warren Wilson style but are known by many scientists and collectors as the Mickey Mouse Gorget.


The manufacturing techniques of shell gorgets have been covered in other texts, so you will be herein spared the details of just how they were made.  Each regional group in the overall Mississippian Cultural Society had its own style of this shell jewelry.  The Warren Wilson motif would basically fall into the style that has several names including square cross or looped square or quadrilobed or crib.  They are shell ornaments that are in a basic square shape with four rounded external projections that look similar to the cartoon mouse’s ears – thus their colloquial name.  Some are unadorned without any type of excised decoration, while others were engraved with one or two lines near the edges.  These occasionally feature one or more carved circles or loops within the rounded corners.  Certain ones include drilled pits in the ear loops and a pit or depression in the center of the gorget and a very few feature a square, circle or cross in the midpoint of the ornament and which surrounds a drilled hole.  They usually have two suspension holes near one edge and these often show usage wear marks from being suspended on a thong around a person’s neck.  A few, though, feature no evidence of being worn and possibly were intentionally made to be interred with deceased society members.  These gorgets are normally small being only in the one to two inch round/square sizes which makes them among the most diminutive of all the shell pendant types.  Their manufacture dates to about the AD 1300-1500 time frame which easily fits in the cultural cycle of the Pisgah Phase people.  These ornaments had some definite contemporary relationship to the circular Lick Creek style rattlesnake engraved shell gorgets since several of the Lick Creek type adornments were excavated during the scientific work at the Warren Wilson Site.  As of this time, though, there are no answers as to just what that connection was.  The Lick Creek engraving style is normally found in modern Tennessee north of the Knoxville area which is in the extreme western edge of the Pisgah natives land.  They are, however, dated to the same time period as the Pisgah Phase gorgets at AD 1300-1500.  Of course that leads to the unanswerable question of why shell artifacts that are normally found in east-central Tennessee would be discovered so far away in Buncombe County, NC.  These Warren Wilson ornaments also have a likely connection to the bird effigy shell gorgets, called Cox Mound, that have been found mostly in northern Alabama and southern Tennessee.  The Cox Mound shell decorations usually have an engraved looped square in their interior center which is essentially identical to the exterior shape of the Warren Wilson types.  This leads to another question of just what is the commonality of these two ornament types that were made so many miles apart.  And again there are no answers.  Like all shell gorgets, the Mickey Mouse types are not common and they are much rarer than many of the other marine shell embellishments.  These artifacts will definitely fit into the artifact group that are acknowledged as “do not know just how few were actually made” but a reasonable estimate would be maybe one hundred based on the known quantity that have been found.  But whether fewer or more than one hundred of these gorgets were made by the Amerinds, these shell ornaments are a definite curiosity.  The common field mouse (also known as the house mouse) was not an animal existing in North America circa AD 1300-1500.  They came to the hemisphere as unwanted ship stowaways along with Spanish and French explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and they then colonized both continents.  Since the rodents did not exist in the Western Hemisphere during the Pisgah Phase times, the natives would have not had them or their ears as a gorget style fabrication stimulus.  We shall probably never know what influenced one or more native craftsmen to make these unusual shell body decorations but we can be sure that it was not Annette Funicello and her round and sizable – er – uh  -- arg - - -  I probably should not go there again.  I shall simply end with the statement that the Pisgah Phase natives, for whatever reason and from whatever inspirations, made and used these very rare and odd looking Warren Wilson style ornaments that we now often call the Mickey Mouse shell gorgets.



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