Nose Ornament


Not on view

This solid metal nose ornament was fabricated through a combination of lost-wax casting and hammering. It is made of gold, or more likely, an alloy of gold with copper. 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 a person would have fit the opening at the center of the ornament over their nose and then slid the object down in order to fasten the object tightly, the long edges of the metal pressing into their nostrils. This ornament is part of the metalwork produced by the Zenú people who lived and currently live in the Caribbean Lowlands of Colombia. The object belongs to the group, “nose ornaments with horizontal extensions” or “narigueras con prolongaciones horizontales,” as defined by Ana María Falchetti (1995, 72-83).

All of the details of the object would have been designed in wax, by molding the wax or incising the wax, as the model was being constructed as part of the lost wax process (please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.569.13a, b for a more detailed discussion of lost wax casting). It is presumed that the entire ornament was cast as one piece and after casting some areas were hammered to further shape them.

The opening at the ornament’s center is topped by a thick, hemispherical loop (4.6-4.9 mm in thickness), which shows two hemispherical bands that wrap around its lower extremities. These bands are not visible on the reverse of the object. Interestingly, the loop itself resembles another form of Zenú object, the “nose ornaments in the form of an ‘n’” (“narigueras en forma de ‘n’”) according to the system of Falchetti (1995, 152, fig. 71). Metropolitan Museum of Art 2002.322.5 and 2002.322.6 are examples of this form.

The interior edges of the long extensions of the nose ornament are decorated with a motif of plain vertical bands alternating with braided vertical bands. The designs between the two edges are symmetric. Sitting proud of the surrounding metal on the obverse, these designs do not appear on the reverse. To make each register of braided decoration, the artist would have plaited four threads of wax. In constructing the wax model, they combined these registers with plain threads of wax, alternating them, to the form the present design, which appears in metal.

The exterior edges of the elongations each show braided vertical bands—which would have been made in a similar way to those on the interior edges—and, at their extremes, three spirals enclosed by a semi-elliptical band of metal. These spirals, like the braided designs, are an example of what is known as cast filigree: the metal has the appearance of being made with actual wire, but in reality, the artist carefully rotated a thread of wax to form a spiral, which was then cast in metal with the rest of the ornament. This decoration, unlike that of the interior edges, is visible on the reverse. 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).

The plain elongations were cast with the rest of the object. They show, especially on the reverse near the interior decoration, the porosity that is often seen as a byproduct of lost wax casting. They also have, again more visible on the reverse, small, roughly circular marks that were produced as the artist hammered the cast metal and made it thinner. This appearance and the associated fabrication technique are very similar to those seen on another nose ornament from a similar cultural context, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1979.206.543. The elongations become thinner from the center toward the spiral motifs, from, on the proper left, approximately 1.3 mm thick near the center to 0.9 mm thick near the spiral motifs.

On the decoration at the exterior edges of the elongations, as seen on the reverse, there is metal flash—small, likely unintentional additions that would have arisen from irregularities at the model-mold interface. There is an additional example of this feature on the reverse, immediately below the proper right side of the central loop. Adjacent to the spiral motif on the proper right extreme end, there is a more pronounced stub of metal that may represent a remnant part of the gating system for the casting. The artist may have removed most of it, but left a stub remaining, which they polished. There are scratches across the surface of the plain elongations, along with long pink patches that suggest higher copper concentration in these regions. The scratches and pink patches relate to polishing that may have been carried out after the object’s excavation. However, people certainly may have polished the ornament at an earlier stage in its itinerary, too. In the latter case, the polishing may have worn away some of the gold-enriched surface (please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 1974.271.16 for further details of this process).

Specifically, the present example belongs to Type 1b in Falchetti’s classification, in which the extensions are rectangular, there is a braided design on the interior edges, and there are spiral motifs at the exterior edges. An object almost identical to the present one is published in Falchetti (1995, fig. 23b) but lacks the band enclosing the spirals at the exterior edges and shows more rounded interior edges. This example—the only one documented for Type 1b in Falchetti (1995)—has no archaeological provenance. Nose ornaments from the broader Type 1 have been recovered from a range of locations in the Caribbean Lowlands, so this provenance is noted here.

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.

Exhibition History

Museum of Primitive Art, Precolumbian Gold Sculpture, Oct. 29, 1957 - Feb. 8, 1959, catalogue no. 38, checklist no. 53, ill.; Birmingham, AL, Birmingham Museum of Art, Pan American Exhibition, Feb. 5-29, 1960; Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum, Gold Before Columbus, Mar. 19 - May 15, 1964, cat. no. 97; Museum of Primitive Art, Masterpieces from the Americas, May 20 - Nov. 11, 1964; New Orleans, Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, Art in Ancient and Modern Latin America, May 10 – Jun. 16, 1968, cat. no. 192; 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, 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, p. 125, cat. no. 100, 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.

Nose Ornament, Gold, Zenú

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