Poporo (Lime container)

Early Quimbaya

Not on view

This object is a poporo, or a container for powdered lime. It is hollow and made of cast metal. There is an opening at the top of the poporo, with a ridge around the opening’s circumference. Moving away from the top, the poporo widens, and the shape of its upper region is conical. At the widest point of this region, there is a cast filigree band that wraps around the circumference. The general outline of the object curves inward before branching outward to form the majority of the poporo, which is relatively rectangular. Its long sides, however, are curved.

On the obverse, the center of this main region shows a standing female figure. This figure is framed at top and on the sides by cast filigree bands of approximately the same thickness as that of the filigree band in the upper region. On the reverse, the only designs are three cast filigree bands in the same locations as they appear on the obverse. This is distinct from another poporo, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1991.419.22, that shows figures on the obverse and reverse. In the case of the present example, the long cast filigree bands connect with each other as they extend over the main region of the poporo.

The figure on the obverse is consistent with depictions of people by artists in the Quimbaya region (see, for example, 1974.271.48), specifically in the Early Quimbaya tradition (300 B.C.–A.D. 700). It also shares features with the work of artists in the Central American Isthmus in certain cases (see 1979.206.777): with their eyes closed or partially closed, people wear bands around the top of the head, the neck, wrists, waist, knees, and ankles. The figure may be female given that the artists have depicted the chest as pronounced. Women are often portrayed on Quimbaya metalwork (see Uribe 2005), and their presence is manifested in the entire object (see below). The bands on the head and neck are cast filigree. Like those in other locations on the poporo, these designs appear to be braid-like. The bands on the other parts of this person’s body are different from these: they consist of several rows of distinct rectangles. The person’s forearms and hands point upward. The soles of their feet align with the bottom of the container. Overall, the figure emerges out of the poporo: the head, arms, chest, legs, and feet are all in relief.

Metalworkers made this poporo through lost-wax casting. (For more details on this process, please see the Quimbaya ornament 1974.271.48.) It was cast as one piece and the metalworkers used a ceramic core to fill the hollow space inside. The poporo has a gold color with some pink tones. It is likely made of an alloy of gold with copper. The addition of copper to gold helps to reduce the metal’s melting point and facilitates the reproduction of fine details in the cast object. There may be complementary or alternative motivations for this choice that are situated in the local practices and beliefs of the people who made and used the object.

In working with wax, the artists would have delicately shaped the wax model to create the relief on the figure. They designed the cast filigree bands by braiding wax and impressing these braids onto the main wax model. (For other examples of this technique, please see a range of objects from the Zenú region of northern Colombia, such as 1974.271.58.) The artists designed the bands around the wrists and other locations on the figure’s body in a different way. In these cases, they added wax to the surface and then made fine incisions into the wax to create the distinct rectangular blocks that are visible.

Today, the poporo shows a number of fractures, particularly in the lower part of the upper region. There is a continuous fracture that extends around a significant portion of the circumference. Another appears on the proper left side of the poporo, at the level of the figure’s waist. On the figure, some of the details have been obscured. For instance, some of the rectangular blocks on the waistband are not completely defined, with metal blending them together. This likely resulted from an issue with the ceramic investment that was built around the wax model. In the casting process, this investment prevents excess molten metal from entering certain parts of the casting.

When consuming coca (Erythroxylum novogranatense), people in the northern Andes may scoop lime powder out of a container like this one. The lime powder is usually made from limestone or shells. Mixing the lime with the coca leaves that people chew helps to activate some of the beneficial properties of the coca plant, which can serve as a stimulant and help reduce fatigue or hunger. Wiedemann (1979, 280) reports that some people mix the lime source with coal or dung and burn this mixture. They then add water, dry the mixture, and finally crush it into powder.

Once this process is complete, people store the lime powder in a container such as the present example. They often use containers made of gourds instead of ones made of metal, a practice that continues into the present. The form of this poporo, especially the lower half, can be considered akin to the basic shape of a gourd (see Plazas 2016, 266 and Uribe 2005, fig. 15 for further discussion and examples of this form). The perforation at the top of this poporo would have allowed a person to insert a stick (palillo) (e.g., Metropolitan Museum of Art 1991.419.23) and scoop out the lime. A ring of lime and saliva may form around the edge of the poporo’s opening, as a person cleans off the palillo.

Poporos and other containers can play active roles in reproducing the world and the social relations within it. An example often cited is the use of poporos by Kogi communities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia (see Reichel Dolmatoff 1950, 78–79). Young Kogi men receive a poporo when they become adults. The poporo is a manifestation of female genitalia, and the palillo acts as male genitalia. Using the palillo to remove lime from the poporo is the practice of sexual intercourse.[1]

Some poporos also may serve as funerary vessels and contain cremated human remains (Plazas 2016, 274–75). These include several metal poporos that are part of the "Tesoro de los Quimbayas" from La Soledad in Quindío (Gutiérrez 2016, table 1). While some people buried the deceased in chambers associated with deep tombs in the middle Cauca Valley, other people in the Quimbaya region used ceramic and metal vessels to contain the ashes of the deceased (Langebaek 2016, 282).[2] For further examples of poporos and their iconography, please see 1991.419.22.

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


Related objects: 1974.271.48, 1979.206.451, 1979.206.554, 1991.419.22, 1991.419.23

[1] Kogi people also consider the larger gourds used as water containers "as a uterus and as the fruit of the Mother" ("como útero y como ‘fruto’ de la Madre") (Reichel Dolmatoff 1950, 259). To consider a practice more local to the Quimbaya region, Emberá-Chamí communities today associate chocó with women (Vasco Uribe 1987, 89–92 in Uribe 2005). Chocó are containers employed for the fermentation of maize to make chicha, a type of drink with a long tradition in the Andes, and the use of these vessels contributes to reproducing the community.

[2] The latter practice is seen at the site of El Volador in the Valle de Aburrá in the Central Cordillera, where the ceramic-metal association is notable in another way: a metal bead and a metal nose ornament were each found within a ceramic funerary vessel. Their deposition probably occurred between the first and fourth centuries A.D. (Uribe 2005, 65).

Further reading

Gutiérrez Usilos, Andrés. "Iconografía y función del ajuar funerario del Tesoro Quimbaya: Contexto arqueológico para una interpretación sobre el conjunto conservado en el Museo de América." In El tesoro Quimbaya, edited by Alicia Perea, Ana Verde Casanova, and Andrés Gutiérrez Usillos, 91–154. Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, 2016.

Langebaek Rueda, Carl Henrik. "La arqueología quimbaya y la maldición de Midas." In El tesoro Quimbaya, edited by Alicia Perea, Ana Verde Casanova, and Andrés Gutiérrez Usilos, 279–89. Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, 2016.

Plazas, Clemencia. "Inventario de orfebrería quimbaya clásico." In El tesoro Quimbaya, edited by Alicia Perea, Ana Verde Casanova, and Andrés Gutiérrez Usillos, 261–78. Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, 2016.

Reichel Dolmatoff, Gerardo. Los Kogi: Una tribu de la Sierra Nevada, en Colombia. Vol. 1. Bogotá: Editorial Iqueima, 1950.

Uribe, María Alicia. "Mujeres, calabazos, brillo y tumbaga: Símbolos de vida y transformación en la orfebrería Quimbaya Temprana." Boletín de Antropología Universidad de Antioquia 19, no. 36 (2005): 61–93.

Vasco Uribe, Luis Guillermo. Semejantes a los dioses: Cerámica y cestería Embera-Chamiì. Bogotaì: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 1987.

Wiedemann, Inga. "The Folclore of Coca in the South-American Andes: Coca Pouches, Lime Calabashes and Rituals." Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 104, no. 2 (1979): 278–309.

Poporo (Lime container), Gold, Early Quimbaya

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