Nose Ornament


Not on view

This metal nose ornament was created by Zenú metalworkers in the Caribbean Lowlands of Colombia through lost-wax casting, without a core, followed by hammering. (For more information on lost-wax casting, please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.569.13a, b). The ornament consists of gold or an alloy of gold with copper. Some ceramic figurines show a person wearing a similar ornament by passing the central loop through the septum of their nose.[1] It is uncertain whether this could have been accomplished with a metal ornament such as the present example.

The entire ornament was first designed in wax and then cast as one piece. The metalworkers formed the two horizontal extensions out of sheets of wax and attached a solid semi-circular loop of wax to bridge these extensions, applying light pressure and/or heat to blend the wax of the loop on to the extensions. This blending is especially visible on the reverse of the ornament. The artists created the design seen on either side of the ornament’s central opening by alternating three columns of a braided design with two plain vertical bands. They formed each braided design by plaiting four wax threads. The direction of the plaiting, appearing as chevrons in each column, is the same across all six columns: all point downward. Joining the braided designs and the plain bands to form two separate blocks, the metalworkers then attached this combined design to the surface of the extensions on each side of the opening. They made separate blocks of this braided design, each consisting of two columns of four plaited threads, and attached them at the opposite ends of the extensions. The chevrons that appear on these blocks all point upward.

The semicircular ends of the ornament also were designed in wax and cast with the rest of the object. These ends consist of a plain semicircular area, which is bordered by nine open circles on the proper left and ten open circles on the proper right.[2] The metalworkers formed each circle by wrapping a small thread of wax. The ends of the thread are visible on the ornament’s reverse and usually appear at the edge of the circle that touches the plain semi-circular area. On each end, the circles are enclosed by a plain band that would have been made of a single wax thread. The different parts of these end designs were connected by applying light heat and/or pressure during construction of the wax model.

After the object was cast, the artists hammered the long horizontal extensions to expand the width of the ornament. These hammering marks are visible on the ornament’s reverse. Some appear circular and some elliptical, the latter of which may owe their appearance to the broadening of formerly circular hammering marks as the artists continued to hammer. The extensions are relatively malleable today, suggesting that they were left in an annealed state. In other words, they were softened through heating after having been hammered. A similar Zenú nose ornament (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.190.325d) that is much longer (48.9 cm) also has extensions that are notably soft and malleable.

On the reverse of the present example, there is porosity visible on the plain semi-circular areas of the ends and around the central opening. This porosity would have appeared in casting, as gas molecules were trapped in the molten metal. Thus, we can assume these regions were not hammered; otherwise the porosity visible on the surface would have been removed in the process of hammering. There is a slight protrusion of metal at the top of the central loop, which, given its prominent location, may have been the location of a sprue or another part of the gating system that facilitated the movement of molten metal into the casting apparatus. The metalworkers likely removed most of this sprue and polished it down, still leaving a remnant of its presence.

Also on the reverse, especially at the external ends of the extensions as well as the area near the central opening on the proper left, there are fine metal extrusions that emerged from an incomplete investment. The investment would have been designed to prevent molten metal from seeping into areas the artists did not intend to cast. There are scratches on either side of the horizontal extensions from polishing that likely took place after excavation. There is a small amount of soil in the crevices of the open circular design on the proper right, areas that were difficult to reach in the process of cleaning after excavation.

This object belongs to the group of Zenú metalwork defined by Ana María Falchetti (1995, 72, 75, 77, fig. 25c-d) as "nose ornaments with horizontal extensions" ("narigueras con prolongaciones horizontales") and specifically to Type 2f, which includes such nose ornaments with flat extensions, crescent-shaped ends, and some degree of openwork, consisting of braided designs and circles. Interestingly, the ornaments of Type 2f tend to be between 12 and 16 cm in width, while the width of the present example is much greater, 25.5 cm. Three examples that Falchetti (1995, table 3) identifies are from the San Jorge River Basin, and one is without archaeological provenance. The provenance of the present example is defined as possibly the San Jorge River Basin, although the size of this overall assemblage is quite low.

Among the Zenú nose ornaments with horizontal extensions at the Metropolitan, this object is notable because of the artists’ decision to incorporate a braided design and a circular design (made of individual circles), two features that occasionally appear together, in alternating registers, on other forms such as staff heads (e.g., University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA SA2713 from near Ayapel) and ear ornaments (e.g., Museo del Oro [Bogotá] O1408 from the San Jorge River Basin). In some cases (e.g., University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA SA2715, a staff head from near Ayapel), each element of the circular design is made of two concentric circles, and these rows of circles alternate with registers of braided design. The artists who fabricated these ornaments shared certain technical gestures, particularly in terms of working with wax, and applied them in different combinations and locations on various objects. The meanings of these different designs are uncertain. Sáenz (2008, 118) has suggested that these cast filigree designs "mimic the skins of mammals and the feathers of birds" ("simularon los pelambres de los mamíferos y las plumas de los aves").[3] The question may be one to discuss with people working metal in Zenú communities today. In recent centuries, people in Mompox, in the Zenú region, have been practicing filigree, using wire rather than casting metal. Today, they work typically in silver, and people’s memories point to early Zenú and Spanish Colonial-period metalworking traditions as origins of their practice (Lobo 2014).

For further information on the context of Zenú metalwork, please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 1979.206.542.

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

Related objects: 1979.206.543, 1979.206.544, 1979.206.545, 2008.190.325a–i

[1] For example, a ceramic figurine (Museo del Oro [Bogotá] CS4198 in Falchetti 1976, fig. 74.3) from El Japón in the Sucre department of Colombia appears to show a person wearing a similar nose ornament in this way.

[2] These orientations assume that the person wearing the ornament displayed it with the braided designs visible.

[3] Mammal skins are suggested by the presence of these circular designs on the aforementioned staff head that depicts a feline creature (SA2713) and, from the same funerary context near Ayapel, a breastplate that shows a feline with circular spots created through repoussé over its body (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA SA2703).

Further reading

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

Lobo, Jimena. "Changing Perspectives: The Archives of Memory and Material Culture." Archaeological Review from Cambridge 29, no. 2 (2014): 69-87.

Sáenz Samper, Juanita. "Llanuras del Caribe – Tradición Zenú." In Museo del Oro, 108-123. Bogotá: Banco de la República, 2008.

Nose Ornament, Gold, Zenú

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