Mammalian disk

Carchi-Nariño, Capulí

Not on view

This disk, most likely a pectoral or ear ornament, is made of metal sheet. The design shows a mammalian face with semicircular eyes above which there are eyebrows comprised of circular dots. The creature has a triangular nose, a mouth in the shape of a double-headed arrow, and a trapezoidal element that extends from the mouth and suggests a tongue. Ears are outlined in a relatively rectilinear fashion on either side of the face, perpendicular to the central relief, and each ear shows an ornament hanging from it.

The sheet is made of gold. There may be some copper present given the pink tones of certain areas of the relief decoration. To create the object, metalworkers engaged in a multi-step process. They likely chiseled the circular shape from a larger sheet. In order to produce the decoration, the metalworkers placed the sheet in a hemispherical cavity and hammered the sheet to fit into this cavity, creating the basic hemispherical relief at the center of the disk. Between the edge of this relief and the edge where the decoration meets the plain outer region, the artists chased the metal, or hammered it from the front, to create a recessed area around the central design of the mammal’s face. They then created the finer details of the pectoral: the mammal’s face, its ears that extend into the plain outer region, and the repeated circular motif above and below the face. These details were achieved through repoussé, a process of hammering from the reverse. Annealing (please see definition in note [1]) was likely used in between hammering cycles in order to soften the metal and make it more conducive to working. Finally, burrs on the reverse indicate that an artist perforated the ornament from the front, at the center above the mammal’s face. A person could wear the ornament by suspending a thread of cotton or another fiber through this perforation.

The itinerary of the disk after its excavation also has shaped its appearance today. For instance, there are some scratches on the obverse and more on the reverse. These developed from the process of polishing, likely carried out after the object’s excavation, in order to enhance its luster. On the reverse, there is some oxidation visible in the recessed areas, particularly the row of circular depressions above and below the face, the depressions that comprise the eyebrows, and the proper right eye. The presence of oxidation likely stems from the reality that these areas were more difficult to clean. This disk is part of a corpus of metal disks made in the Carchi-Nariño region and beyond, into coastal Ecuador, that could be described as tincullpas. The Carchi-Nariño region includes the Andean highlands of southwestern Colombia and northwestern Ecuador, bordered by the coastal lowlands to the west and the tropical lowlands to the east.[2] The name tincullpa may be a variation of tincurpa, which was recorded by the Spanish missionary Pablo José Arriaga (1621) in Peru for metal plates or clasps. It is a Quechua term and also has been applied to describe ear pendants that appear similar to the pectorals. Indeed, tincullpas of the size of the present example do seem to be found in pairs, potentially as ear ornaments.

There are two nearly identical disks that Lleras (2015, fig. 62) associates with the Carchi-Nariño region. These show a human face at center, surrounded by 13 circles, with one perforation at the top of each. The diameter of each disk is 11.9 cm, slightly larger than that of the present example. The object at the Metropolitan may be an ear ornament, and one of a pair. However, its partner is not in the Museum’s collections. At the same time, it is important to ask how scholars interpret these objects as ear ornaments. They may have arrived at this inference because of the high similarity in form and iconography between two objects or because of their accession to museum collections as pairs. Alternatively, such disks were worn as pectorals (see below).

Many of the disks similar to this example also show the heads of mammals, often with human features. Such motifs are especially evident in La Tolita-Tumaco materials produced in the coastal lowlands to the west, where scholars (e.g., Ugalde 2009) have identified them as showing feline or specifically jaguar characteristics. Rodríguez (1992, 82-83), however, has drawn attention to the height of the ears and the long tongue as indicators of a kinkajou (Potos flavus). The latter feature may be depicted as an attached strip of metal on some disks (please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 1987.394.231 for further information).

Other such disks are part of the Jama Coaque tradition, which extends from ca. 350 B.C. to Spanish colonization, according to the online database of the Centro Cultural Libertador Simón Bolívar (Guayaquil) (CCLSB).[3] Jama Coaque artists are especially known for their ceramic figurines. The geographic focus of this tradition is the northern Manabí province of coastal Ecuador. A disk similar to the present example shows a mammalian face at center, 16 repoussé circles around it, and two rows of finer embossed decoration between the more prominent registers, similar to the two “ear pendants” mentioned above. Gutiérrez (2011, fig. 50d) associates this disk with the Jama Coaque tradition. The CCLSB online database reports, however, that it was recovered from Piedra Hollada at Tulcán, in Ecuador (situating it in the Carchi-Nariño region) and assigns the disk to the Manteño tradition of metalworking. These discrepancies likely reflect the reality that, without archaeological context, the attribution of objects to particular traditions can become a challenge. It is certainly possible that materials were excavated from places to which they were traded, rather than where they were produced. María del Carmen Molestina (personal communication, 2017) suggests this may be the case for 36 tincullpas that were deposited in a ceramic vessel in a human burial at Alchipichí, in the northern highlands of Ecuador (see also Jijón y Caamaño 1920). The disks from these contexts have greater affinity to those ascribed to the Manteño-Huancavilca tradition, such as Metropolitan Museum of Art 1987.394.231, which often appear to be made of gilded copper. The faces at the centers of these disks are also human or more broadly mammalian, but the features are less rounded than those of disks like the present example.

Nevertheless, Jama Coaque artists did take interest in the tincullpa form, and Jama Coaque people may have worn such disks. Gutiérrez (2011, 150) identified 27 ceramic male figurines that show these disks being used as pectorals. On an object in the collections of the Ministerio de Cultura (Quito) 12.7.85, the person is shown crouching, with the decorated disk extending from their chest to their stomach and even to their knees.[4] Interestingly, the Manteño disks appear to be on a different scale than the present example. They tend to be larger in diameter: for instance, 21.4 cm for an example in Lleras (2015, fig. 43) and 18 cm for Metropolitan Museum of Art 1987.394.231. It appears, then, that there are at least two separate traditions of making these tincullpas, one of larger copper-based disks that contain sharper, more rectilinear embossed decoration and one of smaller gold-based disks that show more rounded decoration. These disks also may have been used differently: one worn individually on the chest/stomach and one worn in pairs, possibly on the ears. Often the former show two perforations at top and the latter have one. But the groups are not mutually exclusive: a disk with an embossed mammalian face and circles around the edge, the decoration filling out the surface of the metal sheet completely, is ascribed to the Jama Coaque tradition, has a diameter of ~18 cm, and shows two perforations at top (Lleras 2015, fig. 24).

The present example at the Metropolitan is best situated in the Carchi-Nariño region as part of the Capulí complex (ca. A.D. 800-1500). There are three pairs of similar pendants, assigned to the Capulí complex, that are 8.8, 9, and 10.2 cm in diameter, all appearing to have a single perforation at top, showing mammalian or human faces at center in the collections of the Ministerio de Cultura (Quito) (1-17-84, 3-74-71, and 4-85-71) (Valdez and Veintimilla 1992, cat. no. 162-164). The Capulí complex originally referred to ceramics but now has expanded to encompass metalwork (e.g., Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.569.18). The relationship of Capulí with the Piartal or Piartal-Tuza complex of this region has been successively rethought. This has led scholars to return to the important question of the extent to which these finds of ceramics and metals index people, and the differences between people that these reveal (see Quintero 2012, 45-49). The question of who would have worn these pendants is difficult to answer without further context. If their role in the construction of power is considered, these disks may not have been the permanent possessions of one person. Leadership, at least based on accounts of the Nariño region in the 16th century, was episodic and held by many people across a relatively confined area (Gnecco 2006, 203). It is also possible that part of people’s intention was not to wear these disks but to accumulate them, or in a different way, to take them out of circulation by depositing them. The burial of a large group of disks in a single context at Alchipichí may be such an instance. The Jama Coaque ceramic figurines do suggest, however, that people wore at least the single disks on the front of their body.

The distribution of these disks covers a wide geographic region and perhaps a substantial duration. Thus, it is important to consider whether the disks’ portability and people wearing or carrying them influenced metallurgical innovations in the Andean highlands bordering Colombia and Ecuador, and in Coastal Ecuador. Sites in the Pimapiro district in highland Ecuador point to spatially broad interactions (Bray 2005). The presence of Capulí and Piartal-Tuza ceramics and circular house structures of similar scales imply connections to the north, deeper into the Carchi-Nariño region. Evidence of tropical birds at Pimapiro sites suggests interactions with people in the lowlands to the east. On disks such as the present example, the possible portrayal of a kinkajou or other tropical forest mammal adds to this question of such interaction across different environmental zones. These examples lead to the importance of considering the limits of pre-defined archaeological regions, to what extent they are fluid and, in reality, for whom they are useful. In the case of these disks, the social interactions and exchanges of knowledge that were involved when people displayed these disks to one another created a community of practice, likely extending across the highlands as well as between the highlands and regions to the west and east.

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

[1] In annealing, metalworkers apply heat to the metal in order to reduce the stress that has accumulated in it, thereby making it more conducive for working. Depending on the temperature of the heat applied, the metal may undergo recrystallization in which new metal grains are created in the place of older ones, further enhancing working properties.

[2] The archaeological region’s name refers to the Carchi province of Ecuador and the Nariño department of Colombia.

[3] The CCLSB is the former Museo Antropológico y de Arte Contemporáneo.

[4] The Ministerio de Cultura currently holds the collections of the Museo Nacional de Quito.

Related objects: 1987.394.231, 2008.569.18

Further reading

Bray, Tamara L. “Multiethnic Settlement and Interregional Exchange in Pimapiro, Ecuador.” Journal of Field Archaeology 30, no. 2 (2005): 119-141.

Gnecco, Cristóbal. “Desarrollo prehispánico desigual en el suroccidente de Colombia.” In Contra la tiranía tipológica en Colombia: Una visión desde suramérica, edited by Cristóbal Gnecco and Carl Henrik Langebaek, 191-214. Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, 2006.

Gutiérrez Usillos, Andrés. El eje del universo: Chamanes, sacerdotes y religiosidad en la cultura Jama Coaque del Ecuador prehispánico. Madrid: Ministerio de Cultura, 2011.

Jijón y Caamaño, Jacinto. “Los tincullpas y notas acerca de la metalurgia de los aborígenes del Ecuador.” Boletín de la Sociedad Ecuatoriana 1, no. 1 (1920): 4-43.

Lleras Pérez, Roberto. Metallurgy in Ancient Ecuador. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2015.

Quintero Guzmán, Juan Pablo. “El arqueólogo en el museo: Detrás del escenario del Museo del Oro en Pasto, Nariño.” In Los “teatros” de la memoria, edited by Luis González Jaramillo E. and Miguel Salge Ferro, 41-59. Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, 2012.

Rodríguez Bastidas, Edgar Emilio. Fauna precolombina de Nariño. Santafé de Bogotá: Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales (Banco de la República), Instituto Colombiano de Antropología, 1992.

Ugalde, María Fernanda. Iconografía de la cultura Tolita: Lecturas del discurso ideológico en las representaciones figurativas del Desarrollo Regional. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2009.

Valdez, Francisco and Diego Veintimilla, eds. Amerindian Signs: 5,000 Years of Precolumbian Art in Ecuador. Paris: Ediciones Colibrí, 1992.

Mammalian disk, Gold, Carchi-Nariño, Capulí

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