Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Website Search Box

Department of Anthropology

Mexican Masks in storage

Woodpecker Gorget

Figure 1. Click on the image for larger view.


After many years of obscurity, a recent sighting in Arkansas has brought the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) into prominence beyond the realm of ornithologists (Fitzpatrick et al. 2005; Gallagher 2005; Jackson 2004). The slightly smaller pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), however, remains wide spread even today in the southeastern United States. Woodpeckers observed by the prehistoric inhabitants appear as iconographic images in the southeast during late prehistoric times.

In the Second Annual Report of the American Bureau of Ethnology, W. H. Holmes described the diverse styles of marine shell gorgets from the southeast including a distinctive form with engraved woodpecker head images (Holmes 1883:283-285). Among examples he illustrated is one in the National Museum of Natural History collection shown in Figure 1. Unfortunately the image lacks details to definitively identify which species was the model.

These artifacts are now known to date to the Mississippian period beginning about AD 1000 in the southeast. In fact, the gorget shown in Figure 1 or similar ones over the years have been illustrated in descriptions of the Mississippian period and southeastern prehistory (Hudson 1976:131; Power 2004:117; Willey 1966:305).

The Woodpecker image engraved on the gorget in Figure 1 is combined with other motifs common in the late prehistoric iconography of the southeast (Howard 1968; Waring and Holder 1945). In the center is a cross surrounded by a sun circle. These symbols are enclosed within a square of four lines with looped corners. Each side of the square has a protruding woodpecker head. The interpretation of these motifs and this particular combination is open to conjecture. These are symbols possibly related to mythology or indicators of power and authority (Howard 1968: 45-47; Lankford 2004:208; Power 2004:116).

The gorget is one of several nearly identical ones. In a comprehensive survey of shell gorgets in the southeast, Brain and Phillips (1996: 9) call these the Cox type. These gorgets have been documented to occur mostly along the lower and middle Tennessee and Cumberland rivers in Tennessee and Alabama (Brain and Phillips 1996:9; Fundaburk and Foreman 1957: plate 43; Myer 1917; Thruston 1890: fig. 231; Web and DeJarnette 1942: plate 266).

Woodpecker images occur in other forms as well. For example, woodpeckers are incised on the bodies of pots found at the famous Moundville site on the Black Warrior River in central Alabama (Moore 1905). A very similar image is engraved on a conch shell dipper from the Spiro site in Oklahoma (Hamilton 1952: plate 101A; Howard 1968:45-47). Also, from Spiro are copper axes hafted in carved wood bird effigy handles that look like woodpecker heads (Hamilton 1952: 45).


— By James Krakker


References Cited

Brain, Jeffrey P. And Philip Phillips
1996 Shell Gorgets: Styles of the Late Prehistoric Southeast. Peabody Museum Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Fitzpatrick, John W. et al.
2005 Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America. Science 308:1460-1462.

Fundaburk, Emma L. And Mary D. Foreman
1957 Sun Circles and Human Hands. Montgomery, Alabama.

Gallagher, Tim
2005 The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Houghton-Mifflin, New York.

Hamilton, Henry W.
1952 The Sprio Mound. The Missouri Archaeologist 14.

Holmes, William H.
1883 Art in Shell of the Ancient Americas. Second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1880-81, pp. 185-305.

Howard, James H.
1968 The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex and Its Interpretation. Missouri Archaeological Society Memoir 6.

Hudson, Charles M.
1976 The Southeastern Indians. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Jackson, Jerome
2004 The Hunt for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Smithsonian Books, Washington.

Lankford, George E.
2994 World on a String. In Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South, edited by Richard F. Townsend, pp 207-217. The Art Institute of Chicago. .

Moore, Clarence B,
1905 Certain Aboriginal Remains Along the Black Warrior River. Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia, Journal V. 13 (2nd ser.).

Myer, W. E.
1917 The Remains of Primitive Man in Cumberland Valley, Tennessee. Nineteenth International Congress of Americanists, Proceedings, pp. 75-95.

Power, Susan C.
2004 Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents and Winged Beings. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

Thruston, Gates P.
1890 The Antiquities of Tennessee and of Adjacent Areas. Robert Clarke, Cincinnati.

Waring, Antonio J. and Preston holder
1945 A Prehistoric Ceremonial Complex in the Southeastern United States. American Anthropologist 47(1):1-34.

Webb, W. S. and David L. DeJarnette
1942 An Archaeological Survey of the Picwick Basin in the Adjacent States of Alabama, Mississippi , and Tennessee. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 129.

Willey, Gordon R.
1966 An Introduction to American Archaeology, North and Middle America, vol. 1. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.




[back to Anthropology Collections Management Page]

[ TOP ]