Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Bird Finial

5th–10th century
H. 4 3/4 in. (12.1 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 357
Perched atop a thimble-shaped cap, a bird figure adorns this gold staff finial, a decorative element that would have once crowned a wood staff. The bird’s tail bears a chevron design, and the chest is ornamented with a series of nine open spirals that emulate elaborate plumage. Its wings are understated, as if folded at its sides, alluded to only by a small outward curve on either side of the chest. Braided wire lines the base of the finial cap, while simpler wire elements frame the bulging eyes. The beak is defined by two deep grooves at the base, and is slightly open with a widening near the center. The three rows of spiral crests on the bird’s head is a common Zenú decorative motif in avian figures inspired by the helmeted curassow (Paujil de Copete) bird. While Zenú artwork is renowned for its naturalism, particularly in the representation of local fauna, artists often emphasized the most beautiful elements in the animal, sometimes even incorporating prized traits from related species. The entire work, including the false-filigree detail ("false" because it only mimics the filigree technique), was cast using the lost-wax technique.

The staff finial is designed to fit on the head of a long, thin wooden staff. Small nails would have been driven in to the two orifices at the base of the finial to affix it to the staff. Only the gold finial survives, since the wooden staff would have deteriorated in the humid tropical climate of the Caribbean lowlands in northwestern Colombia.

Finials functioned as emblems of rank and office in Zenú society. Priests and chiefs had primary rights to gold, a mineral that played an important role in structuring social hierarchies by reinforcing the prestige of elite members of society. The figures of animals and humans on the finials may have functioned as family emblems or as other means of social identification. While a few examples of carved bone finials have been found in the nearby Tairona region, staff finials are a predominantly Zenú art form.

Andrés A. Bustamante, 2015

Published sources
Bennett, Wendell Clark. Ancient Art of the Andes: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in collaboration with the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. New York: Museum of Modern Art by Arno Press (1966), p. 144, illus.

Further reading
Falchetti, Ana María. El oro del Gran Zenú: Metalurgia prehispánica en las llanuras del Caribe colombiano. Bogotá: Banco de la República, Museo del Oro (1995).

Legast, Anne. La fauna en la orfebrería sinú. Bogotá: Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales, Banco de la República (1980).

Sánchez Cabra, Efraín. Zenú/Urabá. Bogotá: Banco de la República, Museo del Oro (2008).

Jones, Julie, ed. The Art of Precolumbian Gold: The Jan Mitchell Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985).

Jones, Julie, and Heidi King. "Gold of the Americas." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 59, no. 4 (Spring, 2002).
[John Wise Ltd., New York, acquired by 1945; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1949, on loan to the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1958–1978

Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, 464.

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