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A version of this essay appeared in Volume 32(2) of Indian Artifact Magazine during May, 2013.

Prehistoric Mortuary Lots from Arkansas — the O'Connell Collection

Richard Michael Gramly, PhD
North Andover, Massachusetts
American Society for Amateur Archaeology

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe objective of this essay is to put on record a cluster of remarkable prehistoric artifacts that was part of the John O'Connell (b. 5/21/1940 in Chicago, IL) collection, which was dispersed at a Hesse Gallery sale in Otego, New York on August 30, 2012. The artifacts were featured as Lots 93, 94, 96, 97, 112, and 360. In the case of box Lot 360, only a small, oval, 2-hole gorget — possibly made of cannel coal — belonged to the cluster.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalSeveral months prior to the Hesse sale I examined the O'Connell collection, which was brought to my home for appraisal by a lawyer from Connecticut. He was handling the dispersal of Mr. O'Connell's estate and had been referred by T. Swierczynski. Swierczynski, an amateur archaeologist, was O'Connell's employer when he worked for the Brittany Company and resided in Meriden, Connecticut. Judging by the numbering on boxes that contained four marine shell gorgets, 12 bone pins, an hematite boatstone, 13 tubular shell beads and a stone gorget, all these artifacts were once associated. They may have been unearthed together at an archaeological site and obtained by O'Connell or his father, Leo, when they lived in Arkansas. John's parents (Leo and Adrian) were employed by the Federal government. It appears that they were stationed in Arkansas after World War II and collected ancient artifacts from the surface as a family past time. The O'Connells accumulated nearly a thousand complete, large projectile points during their residence in Arkansas. Many of them belonged to the Gary type of the Woodland Period. These points and some others from Maryland, Pennsylvania and New England, which been collected later by John himself, were offered in the August, 2012 sale.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalBoth the shell gorgets and the bone pins suffered damage and loss that may have occurred during excavation. Breaks had been mended and cracks stabilized with hide glue. The glue had become brittle with age and was easily removed. Some of the surfaces of the artifacts are fragile and deteriorated; while, others are well-preserved and retain an high polish.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe three largest shell pieces (Figures 1-3) have been cut from the outer wall of a large conch. Each bears a circular hole about the diameter of a quarter (25-cent piece) near its center plus a series of smaller, drilled perforations along one margin. One gorget has five perforations, another has four, and the third (and smallest) one has three. The total of 12 perforations is matched by 12 tubular shell beads, which, one may believe, were affixed to the gorgets by passing cords through the drill-holes.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe fourth shell gorget in the cluster (Figure 4) is circular and has one small drilled perforation at its center, which was possibly intended for affixing a thirteenth tubular shell bead.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAll four shells are devoid of incised designs. Designing would be expected on this class of artifact had they been used during the Mississippian era. The lack of designs, the presence of a central hole, and positioning of small drill-holes along one margin on three of the O'Connell pieces are reminiscent of Glacial Kame objects from the Mid-West (see Converse 1983 for examples, but especially Figure 50E). Glacial Kame is a mortuary complex that dates to the Early Woodland or Terminal Archaic period and falls within the first millenium B.C.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe three largest shells with their cupping or curvature would conform closely to the back of a human head, and it is reasonable to believe that they served as hair ornaments. Each large shell gorget may have been kept in place with a set of four bone hairpins (three large and one small). Some or all of these pins could have been thrust through the central hole and underneath hair close to the scalp — effectively anchoring the shell in place.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalWhat we cannot know is: Were pins of identical design used to affix individual gorgets OR were pins of all three designs used as a set?

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe three sets of differently designed pins are shown in Figures 5-8. The set of longest and most rugged pins likely was cut from deer metapodials (Figure 6). Their heads expand just slightly from the shaft, and all four are plain in design. One is represented by a tip fragment only; while, the others are complete — measuring approximately 9 ½, 9 1/4 and 3 inches in length. The second set (Figure 7) also appears to have been fashioned from metapodials; these pins are substantially shorter and the largest three have flat, neatly made heads. The longest pin in the set is 7 ½ inches. The shortest pin (L = 4 ½ inches) was obviously added to the set as its head does not match the shape of the others. Pins of the third set (Figure 8) are long, narrow and feature un-expanded heads with bands of incising. The longest surviving pin measures over 8 inches; while, the short fourth pin in the set is not quite three inches in length.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalPins of this size and quality are known from many regions in the central United States. A large series from middle-eastern Tennessee is pictured by Putty and Ham (2003). One of their specimens (2003: 308, third pin from top) closely resembles pins in John O'Connell's second set. Excavators believed that these Tennessee bone pins were used in the hair and that they remained in fashion for a long time (Late Archaic through Middle Woodland). No associations of bone pins with shell gorgets are reported by Putty and Ham.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe premier artifact of the O'Connell collection is a small boatstone, or boatstone-shaped artifact, of fine hematite (Figure 9). Many such objects are on record for Arkansas (Patterson 1937), and the diversity of forms suggest boatstones were made by many cultures over a long period. The O'Connell specimen belongs to the rare class of boatstones with a flat bottom and a neatly wrought keel groove. Several examples made of good quality hematite are reported for Sevier and Yell Counties, Arkansas by Patterson and figured by him (See Plate 20). The boatstone in the O'Connell collection is comparable in size (length = 2 5/8 inches; height = 1 1/8 inches) to several of Patterson's illustrated examples. Its weight is 59.5 grams.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalHow boatstones and boatstone-shaped objects functioned is unknown; however, the consensus is that they may have been atl-atl weights. Their streamlined shapes and provision for hafting (drilled holes, tie-on grooves, etc.) support this view.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe small (approximate length = three inches), elliptical, two-hole gorget — possibly made of cannel coal — in the O'Connell collection (Figure 10) has a counterpart in form and size at the Poverty Point site, Louisiana (Gibson 1985: Figure 7c). Many other nearly identical gorgets are known from Terminal Archaic and Early Woodland contexts across the mid-continent. Heavy use of cannel coal for ornaments and problematical objects began during the Early Woodland era, and eventually the raw material spread over a much wider region than just the lower Ohio River valley and its source at Cannelton, Indiana (see Converse 1983: Figure 23 for specimens that were anciently imported into Ohio). The O'Connell cannel coal gorget, if its identity is confirmed, might constitute a record for long-distance movement of this mineral.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalIn sum, the gorgets, pins, shell beads, boatstone, and 2-hole gorget formerly in the O'Connell collection may have common antiquity and, therefore, could have been unearthed within the same cultural zone — if not from the same features — at an archaeological site in Arkansas. The ghost impressions of a twilled bag that are preserved on the outer face of one of the shell gorgets (Figure 1) suggests some or all of these articles were deposited within a woven container. Another idea is that some artifacts lay in direct contact with a twilled mat. The mat may have lined a grave or perhaps covered a litter within a tomb. Human burials on litters are a well-known aspect of the late prehistoric Spiro phase in eastern Oklahoma and adjacent western Arkansas. Such a mortuary practice, we may expect, occurred at an earlier time within that region, as well.

References Cited

Converse, Robert N.

1983Amateur Archaeologist Journal
The Glacial Kame Indians. Archaeological Society of Ohio. Columbus.

Gibson, Jon L.

1985Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Poverty Point. Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission, Anthropological Study, No. 7. Baton Rouge.

Patterson, J. T.

1937Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Boat-Shaped Artifacts of the Gulf Southwest States. Anthropological Papers of the University of Texas 1(2). Austin.

Putty, Teresa K. And Don R. Ham

2003Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Birth of a Culture: Red Jasper Focus Culture of Middle- Eastern Tennessee. Terre Haute, Indiana.

Captions and Figures

Figure 1.Large gorget (diameter = 5 ½ inches) of conch shell having a central hole and five drilled perforations possibly intended for attaching shell beads. Note ghost impression of a twilled textile. Hesse Gallery photo.

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Figure 2. Large gorget (diameter = 6 inches) of conch shell having a central hole and four drilled perforations possibly intended for attaching shell beads. Hesse Gallery photo.

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Figure 3. Conch shell gorget (approximate diameter 4 inches) having a central hole and three drilled perforations possibly intended for attaching shell beads. Hesse Gallery photo.

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Figure 4. Circular conch shell gorget (approximate diameter = 3 inches) with a centered drill-hole possibly intended for attaching a shell bead. Hesse Gallery photo.

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Figure 5. The three different types of bone pins, O'Connell collection cluster. A, slightly-expanded head; B, flat head; C, unexpanded head with incised bands. A and B are made from deer metapodials.

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Figure 6. Bone pins with slightly expanded heads made of deer meta-podials. One pin is represented by a tip-section only. Length of longest pin = 9 ½ inches.

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Figure 7.Bone pins with flat heads and a fourth pin in the set with a broken head of another style. Length of longest pin = 7 ½ inches.

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Figure 8. Bone pins having unexpanded heads with incised bands. Longest pin = approximately 8 inches.

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Figure 9. Views of hematite boatstone, EX. O'Connell collection. The flat bottom and keel groove are noteworthy. Width of boatstone = 2 5/8 inches.

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Figure 10. Drawing from a photograph of a 2-hole gorget made from black stone (mineral) — possibly cannel coal. Greatest width = 3 inches (approximate).

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