Gorgets of Newtown
Posted On: 03/19/2018 - 2:33pm, Posted By: Bob Genheimer, Curator of Archaeology
As I finished cleaning the dirt from a cereal bowl-shaped shell disk found in backdirt, a depressing thought crossed my mind. At age 27, it knew that no matter how long my archaeology career lasted I would never find anything as cool as this again. I had peaked, and I had hardly got started. The cause of these thoughts was a triple-drilled marine shell gorget carefully engraved with the image of a mountain lion or panther. On its back, the panther faces the viewer with its large front and back paws in the air, and its bushy tail against its belly. As my cleaning slowly revealed the outline of the panther, I felt my skin tingle. Prehistoric art of this caliber is extremely rare in the Ohio Valley, and I was the first person to see it again in over 1500 years.
Line drawing of panther gorget. Drawing by Leeanne Mahoney.
As rare as the panther gorget is, it was not the first one found at the Newtown Firehouse site during construction activities in 1980. An even more spectacular engraved gorget was located during backhoe trenching for a new building foundation. Like the panther gorget, this gorget was also made of marine shell, and had been drilled three times, allowing for it to be suspended around the neck. But unlike the panther gorget, whose animal symbolism was a comfortable fit with our Western sensibilities, the new gorget was engraved with the image of a opossum, an animal who is rarely thought of in glowing terms in our modern society. The opossum is seen in profile curving around the interior of the shell. It is undoubtedly a opossum because it has a hairless prehensile tail.
The panther and opossum gorgets discovered in 1980. Photo by Robert Webber.
Line drawing of opossum gorget. Drawing by Leeanne Mahoney.
The Newtown Firehouse site is something of an enigma. While producing some of the most spectacular prehistoric art in the eastern United States, we do not know its layout or boundaries because it is located within a dense urban area. It is only when holes or trenches are dug in the ground that it reveals itself. It is also a time period we know little about. Radiocarbon dates indicate it was occupied sometime during the 5th century AD. This is immediately after the more well known Hopewell period (ca. BC/AD boundary to ca. AD 400), and before the development of quasi villages several hundred years later. Is this fabulous art representative of the time period, or is the Newtown Firehouse site unique? Only further research will tell.
Fast forward 34 years later to Valentine’s Day, 2015. An excavation crew installing a utility box more than 150 feet from the firehouse (now the Village of Newtown’s Administration building) encountered a dish-like object at approximately 3 feet below grade. You guessed it – another engraved marine shell gorget. This one is engraved with the image of a composite animal or chimera. The head, primary feathers, and tail feathers of a bird are joined by the feet and tail of a mammal, most likely another panther. And, the bird may very well be a Carolina parakeet.
The new bird/cat marine shell gorget discovered in 2015.
So, I was wrong after all. There are still great things to be found, and I’m sure there are many more lurking under the surface.
Line drawing of new bird/cat gorget. Drawing by Viki Woodworth.