Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Crocodile-Head Figure Pendant

A.D. 800–1519
Costa Rica, Diquís Delta; Costa Rica
Gold (cast)
H. 2 1/4 × W. 2 1/2 × D. 3/4 in. (5.7 × 6.4 × 1.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift and Bequest of Alice K. Bache, 1966, 1977
Accession Number:
Not on view
This pendant features a zoomorphic being stretching a bicephalic serpent across its body. The figure also holds a severed leg in its mouth, signaling its role as a predator. Four abstract crocodilian heads with spiral eyes and snouts sprout from the head and feet of the creature, which is framed by two arched brackets. Composite creatures consisting of human figures with pronounced animal features occur throughout Costa Rica, signaling that beliefs and their expressions were shared by many groups. Local styles developed distinctive characteristics, however. Metalwork from the Diquís Delta area in southwestern Costa Rica is ornate and replete with detail. Spirals and twisted and braided rope proliferate, and danglers, tinkling like bells and glittering in the sunlight, sometimes conceal the figures behind them.

Costa Rica is the most northerly of the Precolumbian goldworking areas, which run from southern Peru and Bolivia on the west side of South America, along the Andean Mountain chain to Ecuador and Colombia, and from there across onto the Isthmus of Panama. This generally continuous region, in which ancient American goldworking technologies developed, intermingled, and expanded, ends approximately in southern Costa Rica. Costa Rican metalwork is thus consistent with southern technologies and imagery, although it has its own distinct, and quite strong, visual character. Depictions of predatory animals are common; crocodiles, felines, bats, sharks, and spiders appear in various guises, many anthropomorphized, and many with bared teeth showing. It is believed that the ability of such creatures to cause harm also engendered their capacity of inspire religious awe and respect. The major mountain ranges account for the creation of three cultural zones in ancient Costa Rica, where diverse ethnic groups developed distinct artistic traditions. The south-eastern zone of Pacific Costa Rica, near the Panamanian border, was the most important region for goldworking. It has yielded more gold objects than any other Costa Rican area. Early European accounts report that the tropical rainforest region of the Diquís Delta, where rivers come from the Cordillera de Talamanca, was particularly rich in gold. Each community owned a stretch of river where people panned for gold.
[Judith Small Gallery, New York, until 1962]; Alice K. Bache, New York, 1962–1977 (partial gift from 1966)

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