Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Figure Pendant

A.D. 6th–16th century
Central American Isthmus
Central Caribbean (Costa Rica) or Greater Chiriquí
Gold alloy
H. 2 1/2 x W. 1 1/2 x D. 5/8 in. (6.4 x 3.8 x 1.6 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
Not on view
Metalworkers in the Central American Isthmus made this figure pendant by casting an alloy of gold through the lost-wax process. A thick, horizontal loop on the back of the figure’s head suggests that it could have been worn by a person, but without archaeological context, it is difficult to suggest who wore it or in what setting. People may have circulated and displayed such objects to produce or reinforce power for their clan, or group of specialists (Ibarra 2003; also see Bozzoli 1975). These gold objects would have been accessible to a wide array of people and not concentrated in the hands of a select few.

The present figure wears a headdress that includes a trapezoidal element at center, a double band lower at center, and spiral-ended plumes that extend from either side of the head and out above it. The eyes and mouth are partially or completely closed, and there is a triangular nose between them. The arms of the figure are bent and project forward. Each hand holds a vertical instrument shaped like a bar with flaring ends. The figure’s knees are also bent and extend in front of the feet. The figure does not stand upright on its own due to the position of the feet, which angle slightly upward at back.

Metalworkers cast this object in one piece by using a ceramic core in order to give the object its depth. This core, which was removed after casting, once occupied the cavity visible on the figure’s reverse. The metalworkers built a wax model around this core and then added ceramic investment around the model. This investment would have come in contact with the core. (For more information on lost-wax casting, please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 1974.271.48). Working with wax was fundamental to fabricating this figure. The artists shaped individual threads of wax to form the spiral-ended plumes on the headdress and made light incisions in the trapezoidal element when it was formed in wax.

There is some porosity in the figure’s lower half on the obverse and more on the reverse, especially on the proper right arm. This porosity arose through the trapping of gas molecules as the molten metal cooled in the process of casting. Overall, it is clear that the metal was highly polished on the front. This polishing may have occurred after the figure’s excavation.

This figure is important because, in its technology and iconography, it manifests the historical relationships of communities in the Central American Isthmus and Colombia. It can be described as an object in the "Early Quimbaya style," referring to the assemblage of goldwork from sites in the middle Cauca Valley and Central Cordillera of Colombia whose dates extend from 300 B.C. to A.D. 700.[1] The closed or partially closed eyes are a hallmark of this style (see, for example, 1974.271.48 and 1991.419.22). Such figures may hold objects in their hands, as the present example does, occasionally identified as poporos (lime containers) or rattles (Pérez de Barradas 1965, fig. 8). There were clearly relationships that involved the exchange of materials and/or knowledge between people in the Isthmus and in northern Colombia. Examples of Early Quimbaya-style objects include a head ornament recovered from Hakiuv in the Talamanca region of Costa Rica (Stone 1977, fig. 128) and another in the Museo del Oro Precolombino in San José (Banco Central de Costa Rica 660 in Aguilar 1996, fig. 34). This figure also shares certain traits with Darién pendants (Types 3 and 4 especially), named for their initial identification from the area just south of the Darién region, stretching from Panama into Colombia (see, for example, 66.196.20 and 1977.187.16) (Falchetti 2008; Harrison and Howe 2017). These pendants, particularly from the Quimbaya and Yotoco traditions of metalworking, show figures wearing ornaments on the sides of their heads comprised of long parallel lines that turn into spirals at their ends.[2] Such pendants also have been recovered from various regions of Costa Rica (Falchetti 2008, fig. 62), providing further evidence of interchange.

The fabrication of this figure, involving an open back, suggests it was likely produced by metalworkers in the Central American Isthmus rather than in Colombia. Lost-wax casting of figures with open backs has been associated with metalworking in the archaeological regions of the Central Caribbean of Costa Rica (Fernández 2004, 35) and Greater Chiriquí (Cooke and Bray 1985, 44). To compare, Quimbaya metal figures are typically made by lost-wax casting, but they are hollow and fully enclosed. These two Isthmian traditions of metal production jointly span from approximately the 6th to 16th centuries A.D. The present example is indicative of even further interchange within and beyond the Isthmus. Some small human figures with iconographic and formal similarities to this example were recovered in the North Pacific and Central Valley regions of Costa Rica, but, based on compositional analysis, were likely made with metal from Panama (Fernández 2015, 70-74). Another similar human figure, in a gold-copper alloy, was recovered with other metal objects and jades in a funerary context at Finca Linares in the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica (Guerrero 1998, fig. 22). Still other figures carrying rattles, or in one case, birds, in their hands and cast with open backs were excavated from the Cenote Sagrado at Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, Mexico (Lothrop 1952, figs. 96-97).

This figure, and others in this style, may have produced power not only in their fabrication and display, but also in the act of circulating them, to extend the ideas of Ibarra (2003). Ethnography of Bribri and Cabécar peoples in the Talamanca region of Costa Rica (Bozzoli 1975) shows the organization of people into different clans, including one of goldworkers. This ethnography and studies of Spanish colonial documents (Ibarra 1990) suggest that, in this region of the Isthmus, power historically has not been constructed by one person, but by groups of people, with their own internal hierarchies and specialized knowledge.

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

Related Objects: 66.196.20, 1974.271.48, 1977.187.16, 1979.206.1064, 1991.419.22

[1] The "Quimbaya" name relates to a group of people known to be living in this area in the 16th century A.D. (see 1979.206.529 for further information).

[2] Legast (1993) and Plazas (2007, fig. 24 and table 4) have considered these side appendages to be related to bats.

Further reading

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

Bozzoli de Wille, María E. "Birth and Death in the Belief System of the Bribri Indians of Costa Rica." PhD diss., University of Georgia, 1975.

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. "The Darién Gold Pendants of Ancient Colombia and the Isthmus." Metropolitan Museum Journal 43 (2008): 39-73.

Fernández Esquivel, Patricia. Museo del Oro Precolombino de Costa Rica. San José: Fundación Museos Banco Central de Costa Rica, 2004.

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

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.

Harrison, Ainslie, and Ellen Howe. "Evidence of Soldering Technology on Pre-Columbian Gold Pendants from Western and North-Western Colombia." Archaeometry 59, no. 5 (2017): 874-890.

Ibarra Rojas, Eugenia. Las sociedades cacicales de Costa Rica (siglo XVI). San José: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 1990.

———. "Gold in the Everyday Lives of Indigenous Peoples of Sixteenth-Century Southern Central America." In Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and John W. Hoopes, 383-419. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2003.

Legast, Anne. La fauna en el material precolombino Calima. Santafé de Bogotá: Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales, Banco de la República, 1993.

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

Pérez de Barradas, José. Orfebrería prehispánica de Colombia: Estilos Quimbaya y otros: Texto. Madrid: 1966.

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

Stone, Doris. Pre-Columbian Man in Costa Rica. Cambridge: Peabody Museum Press, 1977.
Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1956, New York, on loan to the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1956–1978

Related Objects

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints

Artist: Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi) (Italian, Urbino 1483–1520 Rome) Date: ca. 1504 Medium: Oil and gold on wood Accession: 16.30ab On view in:Gallery 609

Virgin and Child

Artist: Workshop or Circle of Hans Traut (German, ca. 1500) Medium: Oil, gold, and silver on linden Accession: 22.96 On view in:Gallery 641

Pendant with a Triton Riding a Unicorn-like Sea Creature

Artist: Reinhold Vasters (German, Erkelenz 1827–1909 Aachen) Date: ca. 1870–95 Medium: Baroque pearl mounted with enameled gold set with pearls, emeralds and rubies and with pendent pearls Accession: 1982.60.382 On view in:Gallery 542

Saint Giles with Christ Triumphant over Satan and the Mission of the Apostles

Artist: Miguel Alcañiz (or Miquel Alcanyís) (Spanish, Valencian, active by 1408–died after 1447) Date: ca. 1408 Medium: Tempera on wood, gold ground Accession: 76.10 On view in:Gallery 626

Pendant with Scenes from the Life of Christ and Two Saints

Artist: Reinhold Vasters (German, Erkelenz 1827–1909 Aachen) Date: ca. 1870–95 Medium: Verre eglomisé with enameled gold mounts and with a pendant pearl Accession: 1982.60.380 On view in:Gallery 542