Animal pendant

Central American Isthmus

Not on view

This pendant depicts an animal, with features of a bird and a mammal. The animal is shown at rest, with its front legs and feet slightly elevated, suggesting alternatively that it is preparing to move. The object is solid and was made by lost-wax casting. Artists first designed the object as a wax model, all as one piece (please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.569.13a, b for a more detailed discussion of lost-wax casting).

The creature has protruding eyes in the shape of cylinders with rounded ends. It has a downturned nose and there is a wide, raised band of metal that extends from the tip of the nose towards the back of the animal, blending in with its tail. This band has three incisions, most likely made by the artist during the construction of the wax model. The incisions suggest the texture of the animal’s skin or pelage. The animal has four legs and feet. The legs project downward and diagonally and in all cases are inward facing. In turn, the four feet are outward facing. The artist indicated the legs and feet by incising the wax model in order to outline these features. Three incisions on each foot suggest the toes. The animal has a curly tail, pointing inward, that becomes narrower near its end. Overall, its head appears to be bird-like, especially in terms of its nose, while its body, tail, and four feet appear more mammal-like.

The two front feet each have one circular loop on the bottom. Each loop points inward and was originally made by shaping a thread of wax and joining it with the remainder of the wax model before the metal was cast. This appears especially evident on the animal’s proper left where the thickness of the foot and loop joined together is significantly greater than that of the same loop at the diametrically opposite end. The thickness of the proper left loop is 1.6 mm and its width is 2.4 mm; these dimensions of the proper right loop are 1.5 mm and 2.3 mm. The presence of the loops would have facilitated the pendant’s suspension by thread or another material. The loops’ location on the object suggests that, if worn, the pendant would have hung with the loops close to the body of the person and the animal’s head pointing upward.

The surface of the pendant is polished, especially on the top of the head, body, and tail, and on the outward facing sides of the legs and feet. There is porosity on the surface especially visible on the pendant’s underside. This porosity likely relates to the trapping of gas molecules in the molten metal during casting. There is a more pinkish tone to the underside, suggestive of greater copper content on the surface of this region of the pendant. If someone polished this object, whether after it was cast, or even after its excavation, this process would have affected the pendant’s elemental composition at its surface, which likely includes gold and copper. Copper is more prone to oxidation than gold is. As the object was polished, some oxidation would have occurred, removing copper from the surface and enriching it in gold. The underside may not have been polished to a similar extent. There is a small stub of metal at the front of the pendant, on the proper left suspension loop. This stub may be a remnant of the gating system used in lost-wax casting that the metalworker did not completely remove after the casting.

Museum records show that, when acquired, the object was thought to be part of the metalwork produced by the Zenú people who lived and currently live in the Caribbean Lowlands of Colombia or from the Coclé Region of Panama (AAOA Print Files for 1974.271.16). This is partially true, but there is a wide distribution of such pendants in Caribbean Colombia and the Central American Isthmus, and the dates of their fabrication and/or deposition span most of the 1st millennium A.D. [1] The earliest dates of metal objects from Caribbean Colombia, determined through a combination of stylistic study of the objects and the archaeology of the respective areas, are 200 B.C. for the Zenú area and A.D. 200 for the Urabá and Nahuange areas (Museo del Oro 2008). Dates of fabrication, determined by radiocarbon analysis of carbonized material in the preserved ceramic cores of the objects, vary slightly from the aforementioned dates. Plazas (1998) inferred that: a Nahuange nose ornament (Museo del Oro, Bogotá O22846) was fabricated between 90 A.D. and 535 A.D. (calibrated, Beta-108840) and two Zenú objects, a staff head (Museo del Oro, Bogotá O7504) and an anthropomorphic head pendant (Museo del Oro, Bogotá O6403) were fabricated around the 10th century B.C., reconciling the remarkably early dates that their separate radiocarbon analyses suggested, though there do appear to have been Zenú settlements in the San Jorge River Basin around this time (Plazas et al. 1993, 10; Plazas et al. 1996, 64).

People were working with metal farther south, including the middle Cauca Valley in Colombia, at these early dates. One of the earliest dates of fabrication is actually for a curly-tailed pendant (Museo del Oro, Bogotá O2023) akin to the Metropolitan example, but cast by Quimbaya metalworkers (375 – 115 B.C. [calibrated, Beta-97374]) (Plazas 1998, 30, fig. 5). Like the pendant at the Metropolitan, this Quimbaya object has an avian head and mammalian body and feet. Its tail is much thicker than that of the present example.

Within the Zenú corpus of metalwork, the present example belongs to a group known as "pendants in the form of an animal with a raised tail" or "colgantes en forma de animal con cola levantada." This group was defined by Ana María Falchetti, and the Metropolitan example is especially similar to Type 3 of this group (Falchetti 1995, 121, fig. 55c), which shows an abstracted body and suspension loops that are part of its front feet. Most examples of this type have been recovered from the San Jorge River Basin. This object also resembles a similarly designed pendant in the form of a squirrel, with front legs and feet slightly elevated and its front feet turning into suspension loops, from the Serranía de San Jacinto to the north (Falchetti 1995, 121, fig. 56a).

Besides the Quimbaya and Zenú regions, such pendants also are present in the assemblage of metalwork from the site of San Pedro de Urabá (Uribe 1988, pl. 6). The assemblage tends to be assigned the date range of 200 A.D. to Spanish colonization (Museo del Oro, Banco de la República 2008). Pendants showing a single raised-tailed animal, or several conjoined raised-tail animals are found at San Pedro de Urabá. These objects bear more resemblance to the aforementioned Quimbaya pendant than to the example at the Metropolitan, but the basic form is shared, as well as, in some cases, the presence of suspension loops at the front feet. This site of San Pedro de Urabá, whose metal assemblage only came to be known as people unearthed archaeological materials during highway construction in the late 20th century, was likely a pivotal location for the exchanges of materials and knowledge that took place between northern Colombia and the Isthmus (Uribe 1988).

The earliest metalwork found in the Central American Isthmus dates to the first centuries A.D. and before A.D. 500 (Bray 1996, 309). Investigators arrived at these dates on the basis of the association between the metalwork and pottery in human burials. There are clear similarities in technologies, materials, forms, and iconography between metalworking traditions in Caribbean Colombia and the Central American Isthmus. Bray (1992, 34) argues that "the sudden appearance of metalworking [in the Isthmus], and its sophisticated, fully developed technology, argues for an introduction from the outside." However, it is important to imagine interactions of people beyond present-day national borders and even earlier states like "Gran Colombia" and to recognize the potential for autochthonous developments in metalworking in the Isthmus.

Some scholars (Bray 1992; Cooke and Bray 1985) have defined these interactions in terms of an Initial Group of metalwork (A.D. 1–500), during which people produced objects especially in the area of Colombia and exported it into the Isthmus, and then an International Group of metalwork (A.D. 400–900), where such long-distance interactions continued but people in the Isthmus were creating their own styles and forms. Bray (1996) actually merges these two, referring to them as Initial and International Groups (A.D. 200–900). Indeed, Bray (1992, 39) notes that the pendants in the form of "animals with recurved tails," especially as single animals (e.g., Metropolitan Museum of Art 1991.419.20), that are part of the International Group have antecedents late in the Initial Group, when they appear as multiple conjoined animals (e.g., Metropolitan Museum of Art 66.196.36) and that "the single version probably developed at the same time."

The raised-tail animal motif appears in the Coclé region not only in metal but also in agate, having been recovered more often in caches than in human burials (Lothrop 1937, fig. 169-174). The animal typically appears to be a monkey and, there is a perforation through the pendant, in the region of the animal’s hips, so that, when worn, the tail points up and the head points down. The metal versions of these pendants have suspension loops at the front feet, whether directly part of the feet or protruding from them. Among the smaller metal pendants of this corpus, there is one from Sitio Conte, along the Grande River, from Grave 32, a grave that contained three human bodies, that bears striking resemblance to the example at the Metropolitan (Lothrop 1937, fig. 174c). The pendant, in its illustration, is partially preserved but shows the protruding eyes, the incised stripe of metal from the head along the body, the raised, curled tail, and the downward-pointing feet of the Metropolitan example. There appears to be a feature underneath the neck, but I am uncertain whether this is a suspension loop or another element that relates to the loss of part of the front portion of the pendant. The primary differences are that: there are suspension loops on the front feet of the Metropolitan example and not on the Sitio Conte pendant; the former shows fuller, more rounded eyes, while the latter’s eyes are more pointed; and the curl of the tail is more pronounced on the latter than on the former. Two pendants, reportedly from Costa Rica, but very similar to the Sitio Conte example and the pendant in the Metropolitan are at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA (SA2774 and SA2775).

Raised-tail animal pendants also appear in shell, such as Spondylus spp., in the Coclé region. One such pendant (Cooke et al. 2000, fig. 8.7n) that appears mammal-like in form was found with other similar pendants, a large amount of perforated ocelot and puma teeth, "two polished stone bars," and the burial of a human adult and infant at the site of Cerro Juan Díaz, in the central Azuero Peninsula, where Feature 16, which included these burials, was dated by radiocarbon analysis to between A.D. 120 and A.D. 530 (calibrated, I-18679) (Cooke et al. 2000, 164). Coclé examples of these objects in metal include a pendant of two conjoined mammals from Tomb 8 at Las Huacas, on the Gulf of Montijo, which was found inside a red-and-buff jar (Cooke et al. 2000, 158, fig. 8.2l).

Early metalwork has been found in Costa Rica, at sites like El Tres de Guácimo, also known as Severo Ledesma, and La Fortuna, dated to between A.D. 200 and A.D. 650 (Fernández Esquivel 2015, 57).[2] Severo Ledesma is located along the Línea Vieja, the railroad constructed under the auspices of North American settler colonists in the late 19th century to facilitate the export of coffee and then bananas (Viales Hurtado 2001).[3] Doris Stone, whose father founded the Cuyamel Fruit Company, which would become part of the United Fruit Company, and Carlos Balser, a collector, excavated three of the 125 graves at the site and encountered raised-tail animal pendants in metal and the heads of such pendants in what they labeled Graves 1 and 2 (see Stone and Balser 1965). These pendants or pendant fragments were associated with pyrite mirrors, backed with inscribed slate. Such pendants are thought to have been fabricated in Mesoamerica between A.D. 420 and A.D. 520, according to Snarskis (2003, 175), and then traded into Caribbean Costa Rica. Stone and Balser (1965) suggest that the raised-tail animal pendants "were probably copied from Panamanian objects."

There are five examples of raised-tail animal pendants, ranging from 1.5 to 2.4 cm high, thus, approximately the same height or shorter than the present example, in the Museo del Oro Precolombino in the Banco Central de Costa Rica (BCCR-O-0058, BCCR-O-0062, BCCR-O-0063, BCCR-O-0067, BCCR-O-0068). These five are associated with the Southern Pacific and Atlantic Watershed regions. Though the Sitio Conte example and the Penn Museum examples more closely resemble the pendant at the Metropolitan, these five all show animals, with avian and/or mammalian features, whose front feet are connected to or become suspension loops. Priscilla Molina (personal communication, 2017) notes that other examples of this form are found in the Central Region of Costa Rica.

Farther to the north, a raised-tail animal pendant, mammal-like with suspension loops at its front feet (Lothrop 1952, fig. 93c), was found in the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, Mexico, as part of the major dredging project led by Edward Thompson, the US consul to Yucatán. Lothrop (1952) describes the pendant as "Coclé style." A raised-tail animal pendant, appearing to be predominantly copper, consisting of two conjoined mammalian or reptilian creatures, with suspension loops emerging out of their front feet, and now in a highly corroded condition, was found in West Mexico (Barba and Piña Chan 1989, 130). The latter is an especially unusual object because few like it have been recovered from this region, and most of the comparable objects, from the areas of the Isthmus and Colombia, tend to be gold alloys.

Overall, how were these objects used, and by whom? These are open questions. Most known examples were found in human burials, but, like the agate monkey-like Coclé pendants that were found in caches, these pendants were not necessarily worn on the body when they were deposited. An important facet of the pendants is that they are composite figures in some cases, like the Metropolitan example, and that there is variation in the creatures that are depicted between pendants. One example (Banco Central de Costa Rica 268) shows a relatively human face while the rest of the features are likely those of a non-human mammal.

Aguilar (1996, 96) notes that campesino communities in Costa Rica may associate the subjects of these pendants with anteaters and with a figure that "tends to visit our forests as ‘the owner of the mountain,’ whose strong howls cause fear and horror" ("suele visitar nuestros bosques como ‘el dueño del monte,’ cuyos fuertes audillos causan temor y miedo"). This example alone illustrates that there may be local meanings associated with objects that shape their production and emerge out of them.

These pendants are an important corpus because they reveal the challenges with studying a set of objects with a wide geographic distribution. With few indications of where specifically these objects were fabricated—sites of casting the metal, or hammering the agate—comparisons emerge ("Coclé style") that ignore the possibility of local production. In cases of objects without archaeological context, such as the present example, comparisons become one means of studying them. Thus, the closest analogues of the present example are from Sitio Conte, Grave 32 and two at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology suggested to be from Costa Rica. Thus, the provenance and chronology I have assigned them (Central American Isthmus, A.D. 1–900) encompass those of the comparative examples, but it is also important to recognize there are relatively similar objects from the Quimbaya, Zenú, and Urabá regions.

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

[1] Priscilla Molina, Curator at the Museo del Oro Precolombino, Banco Central de Costa Rica, offered especially helpful suggestions on the subject of these pendants.

[2] Snarskis (2003, 175) notes that the ceramic vessels from Severo Ledesma that Stone and Balser (1965, figs. 24-25) published date to approximately A.D. 400–600.

[3] The railroad was mainly built by workers from the West Indies (Chomsky 1996).

Related objects: 1991.419.20, 1991.419.19, 91.1.1166, 66.196.36

Further Reading

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

Barba, Beatriz, and Román Piña Chan. 1989. "La metalurgia mesoamericana: Purépechas, Mixtecas y Mayas." In Orfebrería prehispánica, 105–216. Mexico City: Corporación Industrial Sanluis, 1989.

Bray, Warwick. 1992. "Sitio Conte Metalwork in Its Pan-American Context." In River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from the Sitio Conte, edited by Pamela Hearne and Robert J. Sharer, 32-46. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

———. 1996. "Central American Influences on the Development of Maya Metallurgy." Los Investigadores de la Cultura Maya 4:307–29.

Chomsky, Aviva. 1996. West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, 1870-1940. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Cooke, Richard, Luís Alberto Sánchez Herrera, and Koichi Udagawa. 2000. "Contextualized Goldwork from ‘Gran Coclé,’ Panama." In Precolumbian Gold: Technology, Style and Iconography, edited by Colin McEwan, 154–76. London: British Museum.

Cooke, Richard G., and Warwick M. Bray. "The Goldwork of Panama: An Iconographic and Chronological Perspective." In The Art of Precolumbian Gold: The Jan Mitchell Collection, edited by Julie Jones, 35–45. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985.

Falchetti, Ana María. El oro del Gran Zenú. Bogotá: Banco de la República, 1995.

Fernández Esquivel, Patricia. 2015. Oro de Costa Rica: Metalurgia y orfebrería en la época precolombina. San José: Fundación Museos del Banco Central de Costa Rica.

Lothrop, Samuel Kirkland. 1937. Coclé: An Archaeological Study of Central Panama; Part I: Historical Background, Excavations at the Sitio Conte, Artifacts and Ornaments. Vol. 7, Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

———. 1952. Metals from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Museo del Oro, Banco de la República. 2008. The Gold Museum. Bogotá: Banco de la República.

Plazas, Clemencia. 1998. "Cronología de la metalurgia colombiana." Boletín del Museo del Oro 44-45:3–77.

Plazas, Clemencia, Ana María Falchetti, Juanita Sáenz Samper, and Sonia Archila. La sociedad hidráulica Zenú: Estudio arqueológico de 2.000 años de historia en las llanuras del Caribe colombiano. Bogotá: Banco de la República, 1993.

Plazas, Clemencia, Ana María Falchetti, Thomas van der Hammen, Pedro Botero. "Cambios ambientales y desarrollo cultural en el Bajo Río San Jorge." Boletín del Museo del Oro 20 (1996): 54–88.

Snarskis, Michael J. 2003. "From Jade to Gold in Costa Rica: How, Why, and When." In Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and John W. Hoopes, 159-204. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stone, Doris, and Carlos Balser. 1965. "Incised Slate Disks from the Atlantic Watershed of Costa Rica." American Antiquity 30:310–29.

Uribe, María Alicia. "Introducción a la orfebrería de San Pedro de Urabá, una región del Noroccidente Colombiano." Boletín del Museo del Oro 20 (1988): 35–53.

Viales Hurtado, Ronny. "La colonización agrícola de la región Atlántica (Caribe) Costarricense entre 1870 y 1930: El peso de la política agraria liberal y de las diversas formas de apropiación territorial." Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos 27, no. 2 (2001): 57–100.

Animal pendant, Gold, Central American Isthmus

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