Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Turtle Bell

Date:
A.D. 900–1520
Geography:
Costa Rica
Culture:
Central Caribbean Region
Medium:
Gold
Dimensions:
L. 1 5/16 x W. 1 1/16 in. (3.3 x 2.7cm)
Classification:
Metal-Ornaments
Credit Line:
Bequest of Alice K. Bache, 1977
Accession Number:
1977.187.26
Not on view
This bell, in the shape of a turtle and with a pink-golden color, is reportedly from Línea Vieja, in the Central Caribbean region of Costa Rica. Two semi-spherical eyes protrude from the head, and the turtle’s mouth has been indicated with a chiseled line wrapping around the front of the snout. The shell is shown as characteristically dome-like and has a distinct border, a circumferential band of metal in relief around the upper half. The overall form has a symmetrical, spherical appearance and bears some resemblance to the turtle-shaped bells found in the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá in Yucatán (e.g., PMAE 10-71-20/C7711A or 10-73-20/C7739), likely imported from the Central American Isthmus.

The bell was cast through the lost-wax process. As the model of the bell was being created, a thread of wax may have been added down the middle of the shell’s top; a slight ridge is evident in this area especially closer to the turtle’s head. Likewise, the four feet, each with four toes that project, would have been shaped in wax and added to the wax body of the turtle. The tail, which curves slightly to the proper left, disrupting the otherwise symmetric appearance of the bell, also would have been added in wax before casting. Interestingly, viewing the object from the turtle’s underside, there appears to be a protrusion near the back of the turtle that could suggest a tail, but also could be the remnants of a sprue used to channel molten metal into the casting, though its end appears smooth. Under the turtle’s head, there is a suspension loop that would have been formed by joining two threads of wax—the distinction between the two threads is preserved in the cast metal. The loop is approximately 5.6 mm long and 3.5 mm wide. The resonator contains a clapper that appears to be metal, and this clapper was likely cast with the rest of the object. There are scratches on the surface but little porosity. The design of the feet suggests that the artist may have chosen to represent a freshwater or terrestrial turtle rather than a sea turtle.

“Línea Vieja” refers to the railroad that North American settler colonists funded in the late 19th century to facilitate the export of coffee and then bananas out of Costa Rica. The railroad was mainly constructed by workers from the West Indies. According to the 2000 census, Limón province, where Línea Vieja is located, has a population that is 74.4% Afro-Costa Rican and is also home to indigenous and Chinese communities (Philip 2013, 177). Turtles were consumed at a range of Isthmian sites, including Nacascolo, Vidor, and Palo Blanco, the last of which was occupied between A.D. 600 and A.D. 1300 in the Tempisque Valley of the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica, where the fragmented, sometimes burnt, shells of turtles were found in middens—likely comprising food waste—associated with funerary contexts (Chávez and Acuña-Mesén 1999). Three turtle species were identified among the remains, two of the Kinosternidae family and one of the Emydidae family. Indigenous groups of the Isthmus, including Malekus in northern Costa Rica, consume turtles today.

Turtles, and reptiles more broadly, were a common motif in Isthmian art, particularly in metal in the Veraguas-Chiriquí tradition, extending from around A.D. 900 to A.D. 1520, and this bell has analogues within that tradition. Two turtle-shaped bells were found along with 86 other metal objects from a burial east of Mound F at Farm 4 in the Diquís Delta. Architectural features at the site mainly date to the Palmar Phase (A.D. 1000–1500) (Badilla et al. 1997). However, turtles were featured in other media, such as shell, including the Spondylus spp. nose pendants (e.g., Art Institute of Chicago 1969.795, Dumbarton Oaks PC.B.391) recovered from funerary contexts at Playa Venado (ca. A.D. 550–850) in the Canal Zone of Panama. A Diquís pectoral disc (Museos del Banco Central de Costa Rica 516), made of metal sheet, shows a turtle from an aerial perspective, with its four feet splayed, and a line down the middle of its shell, produced by repoussé, set at the center of four conical bosses.

Bells have been recovered from several archaeological contexts in northern Costa Rica, including Finca Linares in the Guanacaste Province, where a cast bell was found in association with other cast metal objects, ceramics, and serpentine objects in a human burial (number 18), dated by the style of the metals to be part of the Initial Group (Herrera 1997): some works in gold and copper were likely made in and imported from the area of present-day Colombia before A.D. 500. Two copper bells were found associated with deer antlers at the Central Caribbean site of La Fábrica beside the paved ramps leading to a residential structure, dated based on ceramic evidence to the late Curridabat phase (A.D. 600–800) (Guerrero 1998; Snarskis 2003). Though the bell 1977.187.26 bears resemblance in terms of its design to other objects in the Veraguas-Chiriquí tradition, dispersed metal sources were available near and in the Central Region that could have been used to fabricate it. In addition to a hydrothermal deposit of native copper in central Costa Rica and a copper sulfate deposit in the Talamanca region, there is a hydrothermal deposit of gold, also containing silver and copper, in Guanacaste (Fernández and Segura 2004).

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

References

Badilla, Adrián, Ifigenia Quintanilla, and Patricia Fernández. “Hacia la contextualización de la metalurgia en la subregión arqueológica Diquís: El caso del sitio Finca 4.” Boletín del Museo del Oro 42 (1997): 112-137.

Chávez Chávez, Sergio, and Rafael Acuña-Mesén. “Presencia y uso de la tortuga en un sitio arqueológico del Valle del Tempisque, Guanacaste, Costa Rica.” Revista de Arqueología Americana 16 (1999): 195-197, 199-221.

Fernández, Patricia and José Segura Garita. “La metalurgia del Sureste de Costa Rica: Identificación de producciones locales basadas en evidencia tecnológica y estilística.” In Tecnología del oro antiguo: Europa y América, edited by Alicia Perea, Ignacio Montero, and Óscar García-Vuelta, 49-61. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2004.

Guerrero M., Juan Vicente. “The Archaeological Context of Jade in Costa Rica.” In Jade in Ancient Costa Rica, edited by Julie Jones, 23-37. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.

Herrera Villalobos, Anayensy. “Espacio y objetos funerarios en la distinción de rango social en Finca Linares.” Vínculos 22 (1997): 125-156.

Philip, Lisbeth. “Language Maintenance and Language Shift among Afro-Costa Rican Women.” In Language Contact: A Multidimensional Perspective¸ edited by Kelechukwu U Ihemere, 176-207. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2013.

Snarskis, Michael J. “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 Research Library and Collection, 2003.
[Andre Emmerich Gallery, New York, until 1976]; Alice K. Bache, New York, 1976–(d.) 1977

Badilla, Adrián, Ifigenia Quintanilla, and Patricia Fernández. "Hacia la contextualización de la metalurgia en la subregión arqueológica Diquís: El caso del sitio Finca 4." Boletín del Museo del Oro vol. 42 (1997), pp. 112–137.

Chávez Chávez, Sergio, and Rafael Acuña-Mesén. "Presencia y uso de la tortuga en un sitio arqueológico del Valle del Tempisque, Guanacaste, Costa Rica." Revista de Arqueología Americana vol. 16 (1999), pp. 195–97, 199–221.

Fernández, Patricia, and José Segura Garita. "La metalurgia del Sureste de Costa Rica: Identificación de producciones locales basadas en evidencia tecnológica y estilística." In Tecnología del oro antiguo: Europa y América, edited by Alicia Perea, Ignacio Montero, and Óscar García-Vuelta. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2004, pp. 49–61.

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