Anthropomorphic head pendant


Not on view

This hollow metal pendant is in the form of a human head. It was made primarily by lost-wax casting. The person depicted in the pendant wears a nose ornament, a separate triangular piece made of metal sheet. The cast head appears to be gold or likely a gold alloy with copper, while the pink hue of the nose ornament suggests it has higher copper content. A casting core made of ceramic would have been present in the space of the hollow interior; it was almost entirely removed after the metal’s solidification. The walls of the pendant, measured at the bottom edges on the reverse side, are 0.8 to 1 mm thick. All of the features discussed here, except the triangular nose ornament, were originally designed in wax as one continuous piece (please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.569.13a, b for a more detailed discussion of lost-wax casting). The pendant is the work of Zenú peoples, who have lived and live today in the Caribbean Lowlands of Colombia. This object is part of the group called "anthropomorphic pendants" or "colgantes antropomorfos" by Ana María Falchetti (1995, 91–97).

The headdress consists of cast filigree spirals that have only partially preserved. "Cast filigree" refers to the appearance of a wire design but one that is actually created by casting the metal rather than shaping it as wire. There appears to be metal connecting the spiral on the proper right with the two central spirals. Given a slight extension of metal on the proper left top of the head, it can be presumed that there was once a spiral or another element in this location, too. The central part of the headdress is very thin (0.6–0.7 mm near its edges) but is set back from the front edge of the head. It is positioned at the center of the top of the head, which is flat, plain, and elliptical in shape. Observing the interior of the pendant, it is clear that the elliptical top is part of the same piece as the front and the back, and they all were cast together; there is no visible discontinuity at the edges.

The designers of the pendant made a horizontal chevron band that stretches across the forehead. The band consists of three registers of short parallelogram-shaped notches. Among the three registers, the directions of the notches alternate and point at 45 degrees to each other. The metal and wax workers created the eyes by impressing the pliable front surface of the wax model. The areas that remained elevated form the two semicircular eyes, which are at the same height as the metal outside of the depressed area. The nose projects out from the head, sloping downward to a point and expanding into the nostrils on the sides, which blend into the rest of the face. The tip of the nose has been perforated, allowing for the suspension of the nose ornament. The diameter of this circular perforation is 2.8 mm.

The separate nose ornament is made of sheet that was hammered to the present thickness (0.2–0.3 mm near its edges) and then chiseled to shape. There is a circular perforation whose diameter is 4.7 mm in the middle of the long side of the ornament. The perforation has relatively irregular edges, and it may have been made by chiseling away metal, leaving a very narrow opening at the top of the ornament. This feature allowed the ornament to pass through the perforation of the nose, and then be suspended. The ornament can be moved into different orientations to a certain extent. If I move the pendant forward and backward, the ornament strikes the pendant once in the backward motion, producing a light, quiet sound. If I move the pendant in a more rotating motion, the ornament strikes the pendant a couple of times with each motion, yielding a louder sound.

Beneath the nose, and hidden from view unless the nose ornament is lifted upward, a narrow elliptical cavity is visible to represent the person’s mouth. This feature was formed by again impressing the wax, but not as deeply as was done in the eye region.

On the reverse of the head, the cast filigree spirals in the headdress are visible. Between the two central spirals, there is a loop that was designed by joining three relatively circular threads of wax when the wax model was constructed. The loop is 1.5 mm thick and 3.6 mm wide. It was prepared at the same time as the rest of the wax model was, and they were part of the same casting operation. A person could have threaded material through this loop and suspended the pendant, producing sound when the ornament was attached and the pendant moved. Otherwise, the reverse surface is plain.

The rough edges of the pendant’s headdress suggest that this part is incomplete. Two similar head pendants from San Marcos, Sucre (Falchetti 1995, pl. 35) show elaborate, mostly symmetrical headdresses that include the cast filigree spirals seen on the pendant discussed here, but also a wider cast filigree design that fills out a semicircular area as well as hooks at the top from which spangles may be suspended. In these two cases, the spirals are present around the border of the top of the head and project from the top edge of the semicircular area.

In the case of this head pendant, there is a major loss of approximately a half of the back of the head. This loss makes the interior of the head visible, including the reverse details of the face, thereby showing the extent to which the wax was impressed by the artist (cf. Falchetti 1995, pl. 13). There is also porosity across the surface of the present pendant, likely related to gas molecules trapped in the molten metal during casting. Furthermore there are surface losses, particularly above the proper right eye, and cracking, especially in the area on the reverse, immediately above the major loss. This last feature may be related to the metal’s natural corrosion. The surfaces of the pendant and ornament appear to have been polished. On the reverse interior, there is some carbonized core material in the depressed areas of the nose and the mouth that was not removed with the majority of the core material after casting.

Falchetti (1995, 91) proposes that the pendants in this group were worn around a person’s neck but without reference to past or present contexts of their use; most objects in this group have one or two suspension loops. Falchetti interprets the crowns on these pendants (potentially, in this case, the chevron band) to be representations of actual ornaments made of vegetable fiber, the cast filigree spirals as feather headdresses, and the depressions around the eyes and into the cheeks as suggestive of facial paint. Five of the seven objects from this group come from the San Jorge River Basin. The two other pendants from that study were recovered from the Sinú River Basin and Urabá, respectively.

The Zenú region shows some of the earliest evidence of human occupation in Colombia. The archaeological site San Jacinto 1, in the Serranía de San Jacinto, was occupied as early as ca. 4000 B.C., with evidence of people making pottery and harvesting wild grasses to obtain seeds (Oyuela-Cacedo 1996). Communities have also been documented in the lower San Jorge River Basin as early as the 9th century B.C. (Plazas et al. 1993, 10; Plazas et al. 1996, 64). Around the 8th century B.C., at the onset of a period of drought, people began constructing a canal system considering that this area was prone to flooding. The canals were separated by artificial earthen platforms on which people lived. The system allowed for better drainage of the land that flooded during rainy periods and also helped to channel water throughout the area (Berrío et al., 2001; Falchetti 1995, 18; Plazas and Falchetti 1981, 19). Settlements in these areas proliferated during the more humid years between 150 B.C. and A.D. 500 (Plazas et al. 1996, 76). At its greatest breadth, the hydraulic system covered 500,000 hectares in the Momposina Basin, where the Cauca, Magdalena, and San Jorge Rivers meet, and 150,000 hectares around the lower Sinú River (Falchetti 1996, 10).

In the San Jorge River Basin, people created pottery known as Modelled and Painted, featuring cream colored vessels with modeled and appliquéd designs and red-painted geometric motifs (Falchetti 2000, 135; Plazas et al. 1993, 202). The River Basin provided fertile soil for cultivation of maize, manioc, chili peppers, and squash, and people supplemented their diets with aquatic fauna, including turtles and fish (Berrío et al. 2001, 163). There were also plentiful riverine sources of gold, especially around the Cauca and Nechí Rivers, supporting distinctive goldworking traditions (Falchetti 1995, 18-19). Typically working in gold and gold-copper alloys, Zenú metalworkers fabricated a range of forms primarily by casting metal or hammering metal sheet. Occupations in the Momposina Depression were concentrated between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1000, but some of the earliest Zenú metalwork appears to have been created in the first centuries A.D. (Falchetti 2000, 136).

After the 10th century A.D., the scope of settlements in the Momposina Depression appears to have dramatically reduced (Plazas et al. 1996, 76). At this time, there likely was interaction between Zenú and Malibú peoples, the latter of whom lived around the Magdalena River and moved into the San Jorge River region (Falchetti 2000, 147-148). These interactions may have produced a tradition of metalworking related to earlier Zenú practices, but concentrated in the Serranía de San Jacinto: in this tradition, people worked mainly with copper and gold-copper alloys with lower gold content than seen in other Zenú metalwork (Falchetti 1995, 32; Falchetti 2000, 145–47). This tradition shows a relation to the Betancí Complex, in which people produced a corpus of ceramics that included pedestal vessels, distinctive but also related to the Modelled and Painted tradition (Falchetti 1996, 15, 30). Just before Spanish colonization, the population density of the Lower Magdalena River, part of the Zenú region, was likely between 17 and 34 people for each square kilometer (Langebaek 2010, Table 2).

Related objects: 1974.271.48, 1974.271.58, 1979.206.451, 1979.206.545, 1979.206.775

Exhibition history:

Museum of Primitive Art, Precolumbian Gold Sculpture, Oct. 29, 1958–Feb. 8, 1959, checklist no. 54; Scarsdale, NY, Scarsdale Studio Workshop, Precolumbian Gold and Jade, Jan. 18–20, 1964; Museum of Primitive Art, Masterpieces from the Americas, May 20–Nov. 11, 1964.

Further reading:

Berrío, Juan Carlos, Arnoud Boom, Pedro José Botero, Luisa Fernanda Herrera, Henry Hooghiemstra, Freddy Romero, and Gustavo Sarmiento. "Multi-disciplinary Evidence of the Holocene History of a Cultivated Floodplain Area in the Wetlands of Northern Colombia." Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 10, no. 3 (2001): 161–74.

Cabildo Mayor Regional. Resolución N° 007. Córdoba–Sucre: Resguardo Indígena Zenú de San Andrés de Sotavento, 2010.

Chaves, Margarita and Marta Zambrano. "From Blanqueamiento to Reindigenización: Paradoxes of Mestizaje and Multiculturalism in Contemporary Colombia." European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 80 (2006): 5–23.

Drexler, Josef. "¡En los montes, sí; aquí, no!": Cosmología y medicina tradicional de los Zenúes (Costa caribe colombiana). Hombre y ambiente 69-70. Quito: Abya-Yala, 2002.

Falchetti, Ana María. "The Gold of Greater Zenú: Prehispanic Metallurgy in the Caribbean Lowlands of Colombia." In Precolumbian Gold: Technology, Style and Iconography, edited by Colin McEwan. London: British Museum Press, 2000.

———. El oro del Gran Zenú. Bogotá: Banco de la República, 1995.

———. "El territorio Gran Zenú, en las llanuras del Caribe colombiano: Arqueología y etnohistoria." Revista de Arqueología Americana 11 (1996): 7–41.

Langebaek, Carl Henrik. "¿Cuántos eran? ¿Dónde estaban? ¿Qué les pasó? Poblamiento indígena en la Colombia prehispánica y su transformación después de la Conquista." In Colombia: Preguntas y respuestas sobre su pasado y su presente, edited by Diana Bonnett Vélez, Michael LaRosa, and Mauricio Nieto, 27-52. Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, 2010.

Navarette P., María Cristina. San Basilio de Palenque: Memoria y tradición: Surgimiento y avatares de las gestas cimarronas en el Caribe colombiano. Cali: Universidad del Valle, 2008.

Oyuela-Cacedo, Augusto. "The Study of Collector Variability in the Transition to Sedentary Food Producers in Northern Colombia." Journal of World Prehistory 10, no. 1 (1996): 49–93.

Plazas, Clemencia, and Ana María Falchetti de Sáenz. Asentamientos prehispánicos en el Bajo Río San Jorge. Bogotá: Fundaciones de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales, Banco de la República, 1981.

Plazas, Clemencia, Ana María Falchetti, Juanita Sáenz Samper, and Sonia Archila. La sociedad hidráulica Zenú: Estudio arqueológico de 2.000 años de historia en las llanuras del Caribe colombiano. Bogotá: Banco de la República, 1993.

Plazas, Clemencia, Ana María Falchetti, Thomas van der Hammen, Pedro Botero. "Cambios ambientales y desarrollo cultural en el Bajo Río San Jorge." Boletín del Museo del Oro 20 (1996): 54–88.

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.

Turbay, Sandra and Susana Jaramillo. "Los indígenas Zenúes." In Geografía humana de Colombia: Región Andina Central IV, 3. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Cultura Hispánica, 1998.

Anthropomorphic head pendant, Gold, Zenú

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