Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Avian Bell

Date:
A.D. 900–1520
Geography:
Costa Rica or Panama
Culture:
Greater Chiriquí
Medium:
Gold
Dimensions:
H. 1 1/2 in., Wt. 0.663 oz. (3.8 cm, 18.8 g)
Classification:
Metal-Ornaments
Credit Line:
Gift and Bequest of Alice K. Bache, 1966, 1977
Accession Number:
66.196.6
Not on view
This bell with a pear-shaped resonator is surmounted by a finial in the shape of a bird, possibly an eagle or vulture, in a position suggesting that it is landing from flight. The wings of the bird are outstretched and its feet are grounded. The bird has a tuft or crest on top of its head that consists of a semispherical dome on top of a circular band. Each of its semi-spherical eyes is set into a circular band and attached to each side of the head. Its beak curves downward; the upper and lower jaw were originally formed with two separate pieces of wax, and the upper piece hooks over the lower one. Like other bells from the Central American Isthmus, the present example was lost-wax-cast, meaning that all of its metal was originally designed in wax. Casting, and slow cooling, is confirmed by the dendritic appearance of the base of the finial. When making the model of the bird, the metallurgist carefully joined four bands of wax to form each wing and six bands of wax to form the tail. On close inspection, the semi-cylindrical form of the bands (now in metal) is preserved; the wings and tail were not formed from one continuous piece of wax that was later chiseled to provide detail. The metallurgist cut the ends of these wax threads forming the wings and tail only after joining; there is a clean break at their ends, indicating one stroke of a chisel was likely used to shorten the wax. These bands of metal suggest the markings of the bird, such as the alternating rows of black and white seen on the tail and/or wings of the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja). Alternatively, its prominent beak resembles that of the king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) and its caruncle. A taxonomic specification may be impossible, or indeed inappropriate to the epistemologies of the peoples who made these objects.

The bird sits on a suspension loop, which is 3.9 mm high. This loop is comprised of two threads of metal that were joined when they were wax. Unlike another bell in the Met’s collection, 1978.514.43, here the two threads that form the loop have not been polished or smoothed, making them appear as if they are one. However, similar to the other bell, there are two bands that wrap around the base of the finial to make it distinct from the resonator. The resonator’s surface is very rough, suggesting that it was not polished after casting or much after excavation; scratches and porosity are noticeable. The width of the resonator, crossing the resonator opening, is 13.7 mm, and the perpendicular width is 16.2 mm. Close to the top of the resonator opening, the wall is 1.4 mm thick. There is a clapper that appears to be metal that moves around and strikes the walls of the resonator. In this case (cf. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1978.514.44), there is notable deformation at the resonator opening, particularly to the right of the “6” (part of the object number label) and on either side of the opening in this area. The opening is also relatively asymmetric. It is possible that the clapper was added to the resonator after casting the bell; the metallurgist hammered the edges away from each other, inserted the clapper, and then hammered them again the opposite direction to draw them closer, preventing the clapper from escaping. An alternative is that the clapper was cast with the bell, and the artist removed the core material after casting allowing the clapper to move freely.

Birds are a common motif in Isthmian art, that is, art from the region of Central America that includes present-day Panama, Costa Rica, and part of Pacific Nicaragua, and they were often depicted in metal and jade. The harpy eagle, known for its double-pointed crest on adults, is the subject of a range of Veraguas-Chiriquí cast pendants (e.g., Metropolitan Museum of Art 1991.419.8, Banco Central de Costa Rica 766, Dumbarton Oaks PC.B.307), but this frequently represented bird also has been suggested to be a king vulture or a hummingbird (Cooke 1984). Drawing on ethnography of Talamancan peoples, Aguilar (1996) associates this range of eagle/vulture/hummingbird pendants and objects that depict anthropomorphized birds with the flight of shamans, who may carry a deceased person to the underworld. He proposes that bells that appear on some such pendants facilitate communication with spirits during this process of shamanic flight. In the Bribri conception of the world, birds play communicative roles, alerting shamans of dangers and carrying messages to Sibö, the creator deity (Bozzoli 1975, 150).

In Spanish colonial accounts and other ethnographies, however, it is evident metal production and use were not limited to religious contexts. Indigenous peoples traded metal objects, including the so-called “eagle pendants” (see 1979.206.540 and 1991.419.8) and metal in unworked form, occasionally for cacao. These pendants—of which there is a range of designs—may have been an identifying tool of different ethnicities. The circulation of these pendants in the Talamanca region is documented after the Spanish conquest and into the 20th century (Ibarra 2003). The social organization of metalworkers in the Central Caribbean of Costa Rica and Greater Chiriquí is uncertain, but the Bribri identified a clan, inokÖLdiwak, as the “owners of the creek of money” or “of gold” among other clans such as akterwak (“owners of a variety of avocado”) and amukwak (“owners of Agave sp. [sic]”) (Bozzoli 1975, 36; alternate translation in Ibarra 2003, 389).

Similar bells with avian finials (e.g., 10-4573 and 10-B1320 in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City) were recovered from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá in Yucatán and were likely imported from the Central American Isthmus (Cockrell et al. 2015; Pillsbury et al. 2017, cat. nos. 167.1, 167.2). The resonators of some of these bells may have been intentionally crushed before deposition. Harpy eagles and other birds are featured on carved greenstone pendants, occasionally shown in anthropomorphized form and with varying degrees of abstraction, from the Greater Nicoya and Central Caribbean regions of Costa Rica. One was found with a necklace of wooden beads, as part of a funerary bundle (Burial 4) from the site of La Regla; a wooden element from the nearby Burial 5 was dated to 500 (+/- 70) cal. BC (Beta-35853) (Guerrero et al. 1991, 27-29). Birds were not only depicted in portable objects, but also consumed as part of people’s diets. Varied avian fauna were eaten by people living at Sitio Sierra, on the Santa María River, 12.5 km inland from the Parita Bay on the Pacific side of Panama (Cooke 1984). The birds that people ate, including ducks, herons, owls, and woodpeckers, would have been living in marshy or woodland areas, not in the rainforest. Birds also were part of funerary assemblages at Sitio Sierra and at Cerro Juan Díaz, where remains of passerines were recovered (Cooke and Jiménez 2010). Today, Buglé peoples in northern Veraguas capture diverse bird species, by using traps, slingshots, or rifles, but they find many of these species and other game in gardens and fallows, while occasionally venturing into more forested areas to pursue them (Smith 2005).

Bryan Cockrell, Curatorial Fellow, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas 2017

References
Aguilar Piedra, Carlos H. Los usékares de oro. San José: Fundación Museos Banco Central, 1996.

Bozzoli de Wille, María E. “Birth and Death in the Belief System of the Bribri Indians of Costa Rica.” PhD diss., University of Georgia, 1975.

Cockrell, Bryan, José Luís Ruvalcaba Sil, and Edith Ortiz Díaz. “For Whom the Bells Fall: Metals from the Cenote Sagrado, Chichén Itzá.” Archaeometry 57.6 (2015): 977-995.

Cooke, Richard C. “Bird and Men in Prehistoric Central Panama.” In Recent Developments in Isthmian Archaeology: Advances in the Prehistory of Lower Central America, edited by Frederick W. Lange, 243-281. Oxford: BAR, 1984.

Cooke, Richard and Máximo Jiménez. “Animal-Derived Artifacts at Two Pre-Columbian Sites in the Ancient Savannas of Central Panama: An Update on their Relevance to Studies of Social Hierarchy and Cultural Attitudes towards Animals.” In Anthropological Approaches to Zooarchaeology: Colonialism, Complexity and Animal Transformations, edited by Douglas V. Campana, Pamela Crabtree, S.D. deFrance, Justin Lev-Tov, and A.M. Choyke, 30-55. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010.

Guerrero M., Juan V., Ricardo Vázquez L., and Federico Solano B. “Entierros secundarios y restos orgánicos de ca. 500 A.C. preservados en un área de inundación marina, Golfo de Nicoya, Costa Rica.” Vínculos 17 (1991): 17-51.

Ibarra, Eugenia. “Gold in the Everyday Lives of Indigenous Peoples of Sixteenth-Century Southern Central America.” In Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and John W. Hoopes, 383-419. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2003.

Pillsbury, Joanne, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds. Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017.

Smith, Derek A. “Garden Game: Shifting Cultivation, Indigenous Hunting and Wildlife Ecology in Western Panama.” Human Ecology 33, no. 4 (2005): 505-537.
[John J. Klejman, New York, until 1962]; Alice K. Bache, New York, 1962–1977 (partial gift from 1966)

Derek A., Smith. "Garden Game: Shifting Cultivation, Indigenous Hunting and Wildlife Ecology in Western Panama.." Human Ecology vol. 33, no. 4 pp. 505–37.

Cooke Richard. "Bird and Men in Prehistoric Central Panama." In Recent Developments in Isthmian Archaeology: Advances in the Prehistory of Lower Central America, edited by Frederick W. Lange. 44th International Congress of Americanists. Oxford: B.A.R., 1984, pp. 243–81.

Guerrero M., Juan Vicente, Ricardo Vázquez L., and Federico Solano B. "Entierros secundarios y restos orgánicos de ca. 500 A.C. preservados en un área de inundación marina, Golfo de Nicoya, Costa Rica." Vínculos vol. 17 (1991), pp.15–51.

Aguilar Piedra, Carlos H. Los usékares de oro. San José: Fundación Museos Banco Central de Costa Rica, 1996, pp. 30–55.

Ibarra, Eugenia. "Gold in the Everyday Lives of Indigenous Peoples of Sixteenth-Century Southern Central America." In Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, edited by Jeffrey Quilter, and John W. Hoopes. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2003, pp. 383–419.

Cooke Richard, Máximo Jiménez, and A. M. Choyke. "Animal-Derived Artifacts at Two Pre-Columbian Sites in the Ancient Savannas of Central Panama: An Update on their Relevance to Studies of Social Hierarchy and Cultural Attitudes towards Animals." In Anthropological Approaches to Zooarchaeology: Colonialism, Complexity and Animal Transformations, edited by Douglas V. Campana, Pamela Crabtree, S.D. deFrance, and Justin Lev-Tov. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010.

Cockrell, Bryan, José Luís Ruvalcaba Sil, and Edith Ortiz Díaz. "For Whom the Bells Fall: Metals from the Cenote Sagrado, Chichén Itzá." Archaeometry vol. 57, no. 6 (2015), pp. 977–95.

Pillsbury, Joanne, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds. Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017.



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