Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Nose Ornament

A.D. 1–1000
Colombia, Caribbean Lowlands
H. 1 1/4 x W. 6 1/4 in. (3.2 x 15.9 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
Not on view
This solid metal nose ornament was first cast by the lost wax technique, likely using gold or an alloy of gold with copper, and then hammered to its present shape and thickness. There are some archaeological ceramic figurines that show a person wearing a similar nose ornament by passing the central, semicircular loop through the septum, but it is uncertain whether this could be accomplished with a metal version, like the present example.[1] A possible alternative is that the central, semicircular loop would have fit over a person’s nose and the interior edges would have pressed into the nostrils, securing the ornament to the face. This ornament is the work of Zenú people, who lived and live today in the Caribbean Lowlands of Colombia. It belongs to the group, defined by Ana María Falchetti (1995, 74, 77), known as "nose ornaments with flat, horizontal extensions and half-moon ends" or "narigueras con prolongaciones horizontales planes y remates semi-lunares."

On the obverse, the central loop connects to two rectangular elements. Each element has the appearance of a braid. The artist created this design by plaiting wax threads during the construction of the wax model. Each rectangular element consists of four columns, and each pair of columns was produced by plaiting four threads. These rectangular elements are slightly raised from the plain elongated metal that extends from the loop toward the ends of the ornament. Presumably, during construction of the wax model, the artist made the plaited "filigree" design separately and then affixed it to the plain surface with light pressure and/or heat. 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).

Along their lower edges, the elongated areas are flat. Their top edges angle downward from the loop at the center to the arrows and spiral motifs at their ends. The surfaces of these plain areas show porosity toward the center but for their majority show hammering marks on the obverse and reverse. This feature suggests that the areas with marks were part of the original casting—there are no joins apparent to suggest that the object was made in parts. After the metal solidified, the artist hammered the ornament to thin and further shape it. Thus, the entire object was first designed as a wax model (please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.569.13a, b for a more detailed discussion of lost-wax casting).

The plain elongated areas terminate in arrow-like motifs. These motifs also show hammering marks. A spiral motif appears at the tip of each arrow. This latter motif consists of a central loop that flows into a spiral on either side. The spiral motif is cast filigree: it has the appearance of wirework, but it was actually designed in wax and then cast in metal.

On the proper right of the object, there is a slight protrusion of metal from the top surface onto the bottom profile of the ornament. The protrusion covers some of the elliptical braided motif in this area. There is a slightly less obvious protrusion noticeable on the bottom profile associated with the proper left side. These two protrusions may be the remnants of the gating system used in the lost wax process. After the metal solidified, these features may have extended farther from the ornament and then were cut and polished, leaving them in their present appearance.

There is substantial porosity in the loop, in the plain areas around the braided motifs, on the reverse, in the areas where the braided motifs appear on the opposite side, and in the spiral motifs at the ends of the elongations. This porosity relates to the gas molecules that may have been present in the molten metal. One reason why they may not appear on the other parts of the ornament—the plain elongated parts—is that these areas were hammered, an action that would have consolidated the metal, removing traces of porosity visible on the surface.

Some polishing of the surface has taken place after casting and hammering. This is especially clear on the proper right spiral motif, at its base and its intersection with the arrow. On the spiral closer to the top of the object, the base of the spiral shows no porosity but instead a smooth gold color that is identical to the metal on the arrow tip.

This nose ornament especially aligns with Type 2e of the classification system of Falchetti (1995, 77, fig. 25b). This type includes spiral motifs at the ends of the extensions, wire-like designs around the interior opening, and evidence suggesting they were cast and then further shaped by hammering. Interestingly, Type 2e shows ends that are more arrow-like than half-moon-like, contrasting with the many other type varieties, but similar to the present example. Two examples of this type variety are from Urabá, which is west of the Momposina Depression, the nexus of early Zenú occupations and metalwork. The archaeological provenance of this object, given that there are examples of this type variety from Urabá, is the broader region of the Caribbean Lowlands.

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

[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. For the purposes of this label, this central loop will be considered the top of the ornament.

Related objects: 1977.187.13, 1979.206.542, 1979.206.544, 1979.206.545

Exhibition history

Museum of Primitive Art, Precolumbian Gold Sculpture, Oct. 29, 1958 - Feb. 8, 1959, catalogue no. 35, checklist no. 49, ill.; Birmingham, AL, Birmingham Museum of Art, Pan American exhibition, Feb. 5-29, 1960; Los Angeles, LA County Museum, Gold Before Columbus, Mar. 19 - May 15, 1964, cat. no. 98; Museum of Primitive Art, Masterpieces from the Americas, May 20 - Nov. 11, 1964; Museum of Primitive Art, The World of Primitive Art, Jul. 12 - Sept. 11, 1966, no catalogue; New Orleans, Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, Art in Ancient and Modern Latin America, May 10 – Jun. 16, 1968, cat. no. 191; Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art, May 10 - Aug. 17, 1969, extended to Sept. 1; Leningrad, Hermitage Museum, Gold of Precolumbian America, loan exhibition from Metropolitan Museum of Art to Ministry of Culture, USSR, Aug. 4 - Oct. 1, 1976; Moscow, The State Museum of Representational Arts, Oct. 15 - Dec. 15, 1976; The Kiev State Historical Museum, Jan. 5 - Mar. 1, 1977, cat. no. 101, ill.


Falchetti, Ana María. The Goldwork of the Sinu Region, Northern Colombia. MPhil diss., University of London, 1976, fig. 9.4.

Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, 247, bottom photo, middle ill.

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.
[John Wise Ltd., New York, until 1957]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1957, on loan to the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1957–1978

Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 247 center.

Falchetti de Sáenz, Ana Maria. El oro del Gran Zenú: Metalurgia prehispánica en las llanuras del Caribe colombiano. Bogota: Museo del Oro, Banco de la República, 1995.

Jimena Lobo. "Changing Perspectives: The Archives of Memory and Material Culture." In Archaeological Review from Cambridge. Vol. vol. 29, no. 2. 2014, pp. 69–87.

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