Articles

THE SCALLOPED SHELL TRISKELE

 

In the southeastern mountains of the territory now known as the United States, many of the ancient American Indians lived in a complex civilization during the diminishing years of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.  The natives in the region further south and west had already, chronologically, moved past this involved culture.  But the people living in the Appalachians were still worshipping the perplexing array of South Appalachian Mississippian deities and crafting the ceremonial and prestige objects required by their societal priests and kings for devotional purposes.  They made ritualistic stone axes, steatite and clay smoking pipes, stylistic ceramic pottery and many personal ornaments, especially out of marine shells.  These shell decorative jewelry type items included beads,  pendants, ear pins and the various engraved shell ornaments called gorgets.  These gorgets were often carved so as to stylistically emulate turkeys, raccoons, spiders, felines, snakes and humans as well as the very elegant and unusual scalloped shell triskeles.

 

Shell gorgets were generally made from a portion of the outer whorl of a marine mollusk shell, those usually being the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico lightning whelk or conch, though the carapaces of other oceanic or fresh water snails were also occasionally used for these ornaments.  The shell was tediously cut by the natives, using very sharp flaked stone knives, into circular shapes that varied from less than two inches across to more than six inches in diameter.  The determining factors as to the sizes of these gorgets was the willingness of the craftsman to work at severing the extremely hard calcium carbonate home of the invertebrate animal along with the overall dimensions of the gastropod shell – the bigger the animals casing, the bigger could be made the gorget.

 

The incising on most all shell gorgets is normally on the concave side, which is the side that faced inward when the mollusk lived in the dwelling.  The Scalloped Shell Triskele engraving normally consists of three elements.  In the center is the design element for which the artifact is partially named – a triskele.  It consists of three carved bent or curved branches or volutes radiating from the center of the gorget and usually, but not always, it is counterclockwise.  On the outer edge of this triskele are two concentric circles enveloping the centered spiral.  Normally within these engraved rings there are smaller disks with drilled pits or depressions centered within each and more drilled indentions, often in rows, are usually between these smaller circular motifs.  This layout of concentric hoops is often referred to, by collectors and scientists, as an ophidian band because of its stylistic resemblance to a snake body design and that was quite possibly the intention of the shell artists.  The ancient mountainous supernatural god-like monster called Great Serpent or Uktena may be stylistically represented by this serpent body band. The final elements of this gorget type are the scallops that comprise the outer margin of the entire artifact.  These curved segments are often ellipsoidal in shape and are separated by deeply engraved spandrels.  Some of these gorget types have had the scallops anciently ground away or perhaps never had them but this type is exceedingly rare.  Usually the bodies of these triskele gorgets are solid but on occasion the Indian artists pierced the ornamental carcass with cutouts called fenestrations, which comes from a Latin word translated as “windows”.  There are always two final piercings in these ornamentations - those being small holes drilled near an edge so the gorget could have been suspended by a thong around a native’s neck.

 

The scalloped shell triskele gorgets were made during the time period of AD 1450 to 1750 and normally in the region from modern Georgia and Alabama northwards into the Carolinas and Virginia and Tennessee.  They have been found, though in extremely rare situations, in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Ohio and were made from the original shells that had been traded inland from the coastal regions.  Today it is acknowledged that the native society known as the Dallas Culture made many of these triskeles along with shell rattlesnake engraved and human face masks gorgets, stone spatulates, zoomorphic pipes and monolithic axes. And they have even been found along with European traded glass beads and iron tools which show that the natives made and used these items after the arrival of the sixteenth to eighteenth century intruders.  Modern scientists have noted two distinctive types of scalloped triskele gorgets that have been given the names Nashville Style I and Nashville Style II.  Both forms have all the basic features – the centered triskele, the ophidian band and the edge scallops.  The Style I, though, is more balanced and symmetrical with the scallops being more even sized and rounded or ellipsoidal shaped.  The tiny pits encased in the ophidian band are carefully drilled in neat rows and the suspension holes are usually bored in two adjacent spandrels.  The quantity of edge scallops normally varies from ten to eighteen with the majority having about fourteen.  The Style II gorgets have workmanship that is more crudely done.  The excising is inferior and particularly noticeable are the short triskele volutes and the margin scallops, which are only roughly oval or even square edged.  The drilled pits are randomly placed and suspension holes are haphazard.  The quantity of scallops varies from eight to fourteen with ten being the average.  Both styles have been found throughout the regions as shown above but most scalloped triskele gorgets have been discovered geographically in the vicinity of Nashville, Tennessee near the Tennessee River and its tributaries – thus the style names given to them.  Both types of these artifacts have been often, but not always, found in funerary associations and usually with the remains of women and infants of undetermined sex.  Because of this feminine/motherhood connection, it is presumed that the gorget design had some significance as symbols of women and/or childbirth.  Most of these artifacts, that have been recovered, exhibit abrasions of the suspension holes which allow for a good guess that females wore the gorgets during their lifetimes rather than the objects being made only as burial items.

 

When initially cut and engraved, these gorgets were most likely very beautiful with their pinkish pearlescent concave surfaces being seen when worn by the native Dallas Cultural women.  The incising certainly would have removed some of the iridescent nacre or mother of pearl surface but enough would have remained to have been brightly shining in the sunlight as the art object dangled around a native’s neck.  Today, of course, after being underground for several hundred years, all this gleaming natural finish is gone.  That fact, though, should not stop anyone from enjoying the rarity and overall beauty of the scalloped shell triskele.

 

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