Nose Ornament


Not on view

Zenú metalworkers in the Caribbean Lowlands of Colombia fabricated this nose ornament, made of gold or an alloy of gold with copper. They employed lost-wax casting to create the object, designing all of the details originally in wax. (For more information on lost-wax casting, please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.569.13a, b). The workers used a core in the process of casting. They formed the horizontal extensions in wax around this ceramic core, which would have been located in the cavities now visible on the reverse. The core was removed from these locations after solidification of the metal. The use of a core helped to give dimensionality to these horizontal extensions and would have come into contact with the ceramic investment that the artists built around the entire object.

A person may have worn such an object by threading the central loop through the septum of their nose, as suggested by the manner in which these ornaments were worn on certain ceramic figurines.[1] However, it is uncertain whether this could have been accomplished with a metal ornament like the present example.

In the construction of the wax model, the artists formed two sets of six vertical threads of wax and added each set to the obverse surface of the horizontal extensions, on their interior ends. They also coiled two longer threads of wax to form two double spiral shapes, attaching these on the interior sides of each set of vertical threads. The attachment of these threads to the surface of the extensions was likely achieved by an application of light heat and/or pressure. Metalworkers added the central loop—made of a relatively thick semicircular band of wax—to the extensions after adding the design on the interior ends of the central opening. This sequence is evident by the blending of the loop’s end on top of the cast filigree design on the proper left of the ornament. Conversely, on nose ornament 1979.206.542, the loop was added before similar decoration was attached.

Each end of the horizontal extensions is comprised of a filled crescent shape, a band of braided design following the outer edge of the crescent, and a thin, plain band outlining the braided design. On each end, the braids would have been made originally by plaiting four threads of wax. The braids point in the same direction on both ends, and they are visible on the obverse and reverse of the ornament. These different components of the ends of the extensions were added to each other and to the tip of each extension with an application of light heat and/or pressure.

There is some porosity especially on the plain crescent-shaped areas at the ends of the extensions, resulting from the trapping of gas molecules in the molten metal. On the proper right side of the central opening, around the double spiral, dendrites—tree-like formations of large metal grains—are visible. Their presence suggests that the casting investment was likely pre-heated and that the metal was cooled slowly, promoting grain growth. On the reverse, there are two smooth nubs of metal covering the exterior ends of the cavities and two rough pieces of metal that extend outward from the bottom of the cavities. The nubs and the rough pieces are at similar positions on each side of the ornament. It is possible that these four features are remnants of the gating system that was used to cast the object.

This object is part of the group of Zenú metalwork defined by Ana María Falchetti (1995, 72, 77, 79, fig. 26e) as "nose ornaments with horizontal extensions" ("narigueras con prolongaciones horizontales") and specifically to Type 3c, in which the extensions are hollow, and the ends include a braided design. The only example of Type 3c that Falchetti references is actually the present example at the Metropolitan, and she reports that it is "high tumbaga" ("tumbaga alta"), meaning that it is an alloy of gold and copper with a high copper content. At present, there are no records of compositional analysis of this object, but its tonality does suggest the presence of some copper. It is important to note the double spiral motif seen on either side of the ornament’s interior opening. While double spirals appear on other Zenú nose ornaments (e.g., Metropolitan Museum of Art 1979.206.542), here the spirals emerge out of a single band. This design is suggestive of the "pectorals" that are seen in the metalwork of northern Colombia and the Central American Isthmus, at places or archaeological regions like Nahuange, on the Caribbean coast, north of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Museo del Oro, Banco de la República 2008, 129) and San Pedro de Urabá in northwestern Colombia (Uribe 1988), and Cerro Juan Díaz in the Azuero Peninsula in Panama (Cooke et al. 2000, fig. 8.1k-m). While there may be a formal relationship in the design, it is vital to recognize the local Zenú interest in cast filigree work, and its possible relationship to other practices of braiding, such as basket-making and particularly the long Zenú tradition of braiding the fibers of caña fleche, a local cane, to make the sombrero vueltiao (Sáenz 2008, 118; Serpa 2002, 123). Certain Zenú staff heads (Falchetti 1995, fig. 11), likely produced in the first millennium A.D., show people wearing such hats, occasionally with feathers emerging from them, but all in metal. 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).

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: New York, Museum of Primitive Art, "Precolumbian Gold Sculpture," Oct. 29, 1958 - Feb. 8, 1959, cat. no. 34, checklist no. 48, ill.; Birmingham, Al., Birmingham Museum of Art, "Pan American exhibition," Feb. 5-29, 1960; New York, Museum of Primitive Art, "Masterpieces from the Americas," May 20 - Nov. 11, 1964; New York, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, "The Art of Personal Adornment," Sept. 23-Nov. 7, 1965, cat. no. 310; New York, Museum of Primitive Art, "The World of Primitive Art," July 12 - Sept. 11, 1966; New Orleans, Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, "Art in Ancient and Modern Latin America," May 10 – June 16, 1968, cat. no. 193; New York, 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. 103, ill.


Falchetti, Ana María. El oro del Gran Zenú. Bogotá: Banco de la República, 1995, fig. 26e, ill.

Further reading

Cooke, Richard, Luís Alberto Sánchez Herrera, and Koichi Udagawa. "Contextualized Goldwork from ‘Gran Coclé,’ Panama." In Precolumbian Gold: Technology, Style and Iconography, edited by Colin McEwan, 154-176. London: British Museum, 2000.

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.

Museo del Oro, Banco de la República. Museo del Oro. Bogotá: Banco de la República, 2008.

Sáenz Samper, Juanita. "Llanuras del Caribe – Tradición Zenú." In Museo del Oro, 108-123. Bogotá: Banco de la República, 2008.

Serpa Espinosa, Roger. Los Zenúes: Córdoba indígena actual: La persistencia de la herencia étnica y cultural indígena Zenú en el Departamento de Córdoba. Montería: Gobernación de Córdoba, Secretaría de Cultura, 2000.

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.

Nose Ornament, Gold, Zenú

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