Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Bell

Date:
A.D. 500–1520
Geography:
Costa Rica or Panama, Central Region
Culture:
Greater Nicoya, Central Region (Costa Rica), Greater Chiriquí, or Greater Coclé
Medium:
Gold
Dimensions:
Diam. 1 1/16 in. (2.7cm)
Classification:
Metal-Ornaments
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. Nathaniel Spear, Jr., 1978
Accession Number:
1978.514.44
Not on view
This pear-shaped bell, made by lost-wax casting, has a finial that consists of a suspension loop, which is 6.5 mm high. Unlike two other bells in the collection, 1978.514.43 and 66.196.6, whose suspension loops appear to have been fabricated using two threads of wax each, the loop of the present example was made with only one thread of wax. The loop in this case was polished on its top, likely in the location of a sprue, a channel that would have facilitated the movement of molten metal into the ceramic mold. This sprue would have solidified as metal and, to remove traces of its presence, a founder would have cut it off and then abraded and polished the area. The casting technique is further confirmed by the local porosity at and dendritic appearance of the base of the finial. There is one band of metal that demarcates the top of the resonator, which is polished and retains scratches. Porosity is also seen in regions like the corner between the top band and the resonator’s body that would have been more difficult to reach in polishing operations; indeed the polishing would have closed these pores. The resonator contains a metal clapper that has a dull golden color, and this clapper was likely cast in place; there are no traces of deformation in the area of the resonator opening that would suggest the metal was worked in order to insert the clapper into the resonator. The resonator opening is highly symmetric with edges that curve inward and are relatively clean (cf. MMA 66.196.6). The width of the resonator, in the direction that includes the resonator opening, is 16.1 mm, and the perpendicular width is 15.8 mm. At the top of the resonator opening, the thickness of the bell’s walls is 1.7 mm.

Metal bells have been recovered from a range of Central American and Colombian contexts but are more typical of the International Group of metals, dating typically to after 500 AD and which involved object fabrication in the Isthmus, than of the Initial Group, which includes metal imported to the Isthmus made by practitioners of the Quimbaya, Urabá, and Zenú metallurgical traditions, among others, in Colombia (Cooke and Bray 1985; Uribe 1988).

The bells of the form of the present example that have known archaeological site provenance tend to appear as isolated finds or in pairs or small groups. It is difficult to pinpoint a particular archaeological region from which this bell came because of this form is relatively spatially dispersed. A spherical plain bell, around 2 cm in height, with suspension loop and band separating the bell’s top from its resonator, was recovered from Finca Linares, a site near the Culebra Bay in northwestern Costa Rica, along with a frog figurine and a human figurine, all three in metal (Herrera 1998). These were recovered from a human burial, around the person’s neck, along with two serpentine pendants, providing unusual evidence of metal and greenstone in the same funerary context for the Bagaces period ( A.D. 300–800).

Two bells were recovered from La Fábrica, located in the Central Valley of Costa Rica and dated to ca. A.D. 600–800 given the predominance of late Curridabat ceramics (Snarksis 2003, 178). These bells are copper-based and were associated with deer antlers beside a paved ramp leading to a residential structure.

One hundred and twenty-one bells, including some plain bells in the form of another example in the Met’s collection, 1978.514.43, are part of the Minor Keith collection from a cemetery at Panteón de la Reina, located in the valley of the Chirripó del Pacífico River, which was in use likely around the time of occupation of the nearby Rivas site, from A.D.1000 to A.D.1300 (Quilter 2000). This collection is currently located at the American Museum of Natural History and at the Brooklyn Museum. Keith collected artifacts while laying the groundwork for the establishment of the United Fruit Company, a multinational corporation that dispossessed local banana growers of their lands (Chomsky 1996; Quilter 2000, 180).

Turning to the Greater Coclé region, at least eight spherical and pyriform bells (Penn 40-13-105a-h), were found in the neck region of a deceased human in the upper level of the three-level Burial 11 at Sitio Conte, a large cemetery (ca. A.D. 450–900) on the Río Grande, north of Parita Bay in Panama where excavations established a ceramic sequence for the Greater Coclé archaeological region (Sharer and Hearne 1992, 106, pl. 41). Burial 11 dates to the later half of the Sitio Conte occupation (Plazas 2007, 55). These eight bells are each between 1.2 and 1.9 cm in height, all lost-wax-cast and relatively plain in design, and have a suspension loop at top and one or more bands between the top and the resonator. One bell was recovered from Burial 18 and another from Burial 25: the former (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA, 40-13-178) (2.6 cm high) is a double bell with each finial showing a figure with crocodilian and feline characteristics and the latter (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA, 40-13-198) (3.2 cm high) has a finial that includes an anthropomorphic armadillo, features a chevron band in the upper part of its resonator, and contains a gold clapper (Sharer and Hearne 1992, 106, pls. 42, 44). Three other bells, two of which are in fragmentary condition, were found in Grave 5 (which contained 15 individuals) associated with a human male. The complete bell is plain but again has a suspension loop and bands between its top and resonator. O’Day (2014) argues that metal objects adorning this individual allowed him, in death, to transform into a being with multivalent visual abilities, adopting the perspectives of the human and animal figures that feature in his ornaments.

Excavators at El Caño, a large funerary complex near the Río Grande, Panama and historically associated with Sitio Conte to its south, recovered a plain pyriform bell (#9450) from Tomb 2, dated to cal. A.D. 900–1020 based on radiocarbon analysis of material associated with this tomb, the largest and most complex so far known from the site (Mayo and Mayo 2013). The bell, found with Individual 7, is 3.2 cm high and includes two circumferential bands in relief separating the bell’s top from its resonator. Interestingly, its suspension loop is broken off, and its resonator is crushed. A pendant that shows two birds and a human head, also associated with Individual 7, has evidence of burning on its surface, and four associated pectorals were folded leading investigators to believe that these actions of crushing, burning, and folding were part of the funerary treatment this individual was given (Mayo and Mayo 2013, 14). A plain spherical bell (#AU10534) (1.2 cm high) with at least one relief band separating its top from its resonator was also recovered from Tomb 2, but associated with Individual 16.

The object discussed at present can be viewed by archaeologists as an ornament, given that this form is often recovered in association with human bodies. The contexts suggest that bells were worn or at least, by the presence of a suspension loop, that they may have been attached to another material. Their ability to produce sound is another aspect to consider. How can sound be interpreted when the focus of archaeology is so often on the visual and the tactile? In one way, recognition of people in the present in the Central American Isthmus and their practices may offer some suggestions for interpreting people’s relations with sound in this region in the past. Today, a range of indigenous peoples live in the Isthmus, including Borucas in the Diquís Delta, Bribris and Cabécares in the Cordillera de Talamanca, Ngäbe and Buglé peoples on the Caribbean in the area of Bocas del Toro, and Kuna and Emberá peoples also on the Caribbean side, farther to the east and south. These peoples may involve sound-making instruments in their daily lives and ritual practices; sound, especially spoken ritual narrative, is a creative act, capable of making events happen beyond the sound event itself. Bribris use rattles, wooden drums, and armadillo shells to produce sound, while Kunas use bamboo, bone, and wood to make panpipes and flutes and gourds to make rattles (Cervantes 2003; Smith 1997). Among the Kunas, there may be a close relationship between the human voice and musical instruments: certain men may chant while holding bamboo flutes close to their mouths. The fabrication and care of the flutes is the responsibility of individuals who have undergone training for the tasks (Smith 1997, 297). In this way, it is certainly possible that the bell discussed here is a living object and that it, in spite of its burial for several centuries, it remains part of a social context whether of descendant communities or of their ancestors who made and used this bell.

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

References

Cervantes Gamboa, Laura. Sounds Like Music: Ritual Speech Events Among the Bribri Indians of Costa Rica. PhD thesis. Austin: University of Texas, 2003.

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

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.

Hearne, P., and R. J. Sharer, eds. River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania,1992.

Herrera Villalobos, Anayensy. “Espacio y objetos funerarios en la distinción de rango social en Finca Linares.” Vínculos 22:125-156,1998.

Mayo, Julia, and Carlos Mayo. “El descubrimiento de un cementerio de élite en El Caño: indicios de un patrón funerario en el Valle del Río Grande, Coclé, Panamá.” Arqueología Iberoamericana (2013) 20:3-27.

O’Day, Karen. “The Sitio Conte Cemetery in Ancient Panama: Where Lord 15 Wore His Ornaments in ‘Great Quantity.’” In Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by Heather Orr and Matthew G. Looper, 1-28. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2014.

Plazas, Clemencia. Vuelo nocturno: El murciélago del Istmo centroamericano y su comparación con el murciélago tairona. Bogotá: Banco de la República, Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales (FIAN), Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos (CEMCA), 2007.

Smith, Sandra. “The Musical Arts of the Kuna.” In The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning Among the Kuna of Panama, 292-309. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1997.

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, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2003.

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.
Nathaniel Spear, Jr., New York, until 1978

Cooke Richard, 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. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985, pp. 35–45.

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

Hearne, Pamela, and Robert J. Sharer, eds. River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1992.

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

Herrera Villalobos, Anayensy. "Espacio y objetos funerarios en la distinción de rango social en Finca Linares." Vínculos vol. 22 (1997), pp. 125–56.

Smith, Sandra. "The Musical Arts of the Kuna." In The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning Among the Kuna of Panama, edited by Mari Lyn Salvador. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles, 1997, pp. 292–309.

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. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2003, pp. 159–204.

Plazas, Clemencia. Vuelo nocturno: El murciélago del Istmo centroamericano y su comparación con el murciélago Tairona. Bogota: Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales, Banco de la República, 2007.

Mayo, Julia, and Carlos Mayo. "El descubrimiento de un cementerio de élite en El Caño: Indicios de un patrón funerario en el Valle del Río Grande, Coclé, Panamá." Arqueología Iberoamericana vol. 20 (2013), pp. 3–27.

O'Day, Karen. "The Sitio Conte Cemetery in Ancient Panama: Where Lord 15 Wore His Ornaments in ‘Great Quantity." Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerica and Central America (2014), pp. 1–28.

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