A gorget is a pendant that was worn around the neck by Virginia Indians as a form of personal adornment. One of the earliest written observations of the use of gorgets among indigenous people in the Chesapeake region was recorded by Captains M. Phillip Amadas and M. Arthur Barlowe in 1584. Writing to the sponsor of their expedition Sir Walter Raleigh, they mention meeting some of the “people of the Countrey (sic)”, specifically Granganimeo, the king’s brother. “When we shewed him all our packet of merchandize, of all things that he sawe, a bright tinne dish most pleased him, which hee presently tooke up and clapt it before his breast, and after made a hole in the brimme thereof and hung it about his necke, making signes that it would defende him against his enemies arrows”.
Though Granganimeo seems to have wanted a gorget for protection, similar to elements of the same name that were part of the armor that Amadas and Barlowe were likely wearing at the time of their meeting, the adornment also functioned as a status symbol. Gorgets could be made of stone, shell, bone, or metal and had holes punched or drilled through to allow for hanging. There are only four known partial examples of stone gorgets in Jamestown’s collection and all are made from different stone types. Three of the gorgets were recovered from mixed strata on the site, meaning they were no longer part of their 17th century deposition.
One of the more intriguing examples found at Jamestown is made of slate. Unlike the others, this potential gorget was recovered from a 17th century context, deposited in the Fort’s second well along with other material after the well was no longer used. This indicates that perhaps this gorget was part of the local trade between the colonists and the Virginia Indians, and was thrown away with other trash at a time when its value was no longer recognized by the colonists at Jamestown.
Though incomplete, the general crescent shape and manufacturing characteristics suggest that this potential slate gorget is a reworked ulu. Ulus are semi-lunar knives that are typically associated with Inuit groups in the Artic, though they do appear in the Mid-Atlantic during the Archaic period. In fact, several ulus have been recovered from archaeological sites in eastern Virginia, including the Dismal Swamp and Tidewater regions. Of those, at least four others have a hole drilled through them. It is possible that the hole is actually a way to haft, or attach a handle to the blade as opposed to suspension such as you would see in a gorget. In the Artic, ulus were primarily used by women to process fish, though they would also be used for other tasks. While they were made of a number of materials, ground and polished slate is the most common. It is hypothesized that slate was more efficient at cutting and could be easily re-sharpened when compared to typical chipped stone tools, as well as easy to clean! Though unclear whether or not the presence of ulus in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic is a case of cultural transmission between groups or parallel invention, it is one of our favorite artifacts to highlight the innovation that indigenous peoples of North America displayed in so many aspects of their daily lives. It is also a great way to show that artifacts found in 17th century contexts can tell much bigger stories than we may at first consider.