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This plaque shows a human figure at center flanked by two animals, which are shown in profile. The heads of the three figures extend above the plaque while the rest of their bodies appear in relief on the plaque’s surface. Metalworkers in the Aguada tradition in Northwest Argentina made this plaque through lost-wax casting likely between A.D. 450 and 900. Based on analyses of similar plaques, its composition is probably an alloy of copper (L. González 2004, 209).

The central figure on the plaque faces the viewer and shows human characteristics. They wear a headdress that involves a rectangular element at top featuring several circular open spaces, and a circular band on each side. The two eyes are circular, the mouth is elliptical, and the nose is triangular and more pronounced than the other facial features are. The figure’s body is decorated with a range of geometric designs. There are zig-zag motifs among others on the torso, pairs of circles on the arms, and a rectangular lattice-like pattern on the legs. Two zig-zags emerge from either shoulder. The figure’s arms are bent, and the elbows point upward. Each hand has four fingers, and an arrow-like extension, possibly the representation of a cutting tool, is attached to the proper left hand.

The figures on either side show mammalian and reptilian features. They are largely identical. One exception is that the figure on the proper right extends across a greater length of the plaque. The heads of the two figures also appear to be slightly different, but this may be the result of preservation (see below). The two figures face the viewer. Each has a rounded nose that sits slightly above two circular eyes. The figure’s mouths, like that of the central figure, appear to be partially open. Their bodies show circular motifs much like those that are seen on the arms of the central figure. The tails of the figures curl inward, and each of their feet shows four toes that resemble the leaves of a sprouting plant. Each figure features two ears that extend above the head. It is possible that all four once resembled the proper left ear of the proper right figure, which ends in a circle enclosing a cruciform design. At some point in the itinerary of this object after its fabrication, these other three ends broke off. The reverse of the plaque is smooth and plain, but the silhouettes of the three figure’s heads are visible at top, above the main portion of the plaque.

Porosity on the front and back surfaces relates to the trapping of gas molecules as the metal cooled during casting. Analyses of similar Aguada plaques suggest that these are typically made with an alloy of copper and tin, possibly containing small concentrations of other elements (see, for example, Cabanillas et al. 2002). The tin content varies in these plaques, but as L. González (2004, 209) emphasizes, the decision to alloy copper with tin was a deliberate choice on the part of the metalworkers. Copper, tin, gold, and silver sources are present in Northwest Argentina, specifically in the Valliserrana region, with the copper and tin appearing in separate sources (A. González 1979, fig. 2). Similar plaques are believed to have been fabricated in this region, located in the central valleys of the Catamarca province.

Overall, there are around 30 known plaques of this form. The present example is slightly smaller than other plaques in this corpus, whose average maximum dimension is approximately 15 cm (L. González 2004, 196). The plaques are important because they raise questions over the relationships between peoples in Northwest Argentina and other regions, including Tiwanaku, a major urban center located in Bolivia on the southern edge of the Titicaca Basin. At Tiwanaku, two rectangular plaques in this form were found (Posnansky 1945-58, III, pl. LXXXIXa, b). They were likely part of active material exchanges—some metal objects found in Northwest Argentina appear to have been produced in the Tiwanaku region (L. González 2004, 182). In the Northwest, the plaques were fabricated during a time of settlement growth and increasing social inequality, and specifically in the Valliserrana, the construction of new ceremonial centers and emerging craft specializations. While a number are associated with Aguada (A.D. 450-900), important for its developments of lost-wax casting and the use of tin bronze, communities produced rectangular plaques into later centuries, from around A.D. 900 onward. These later plaques, however, show changes in iconography—for instance, there is rarely a central figure—and sometimes in technology, including the use of two-part molds (A. González 1992, 251).

The most famous object in this corpus is the Placa de Lafone Quevedo, named after an early director of the Museo de La Plata in Argentina. Created around A.D. 700, this plaque was found near Andalgalá in Catamarca. The ears of the animals on the present example, which all once may have ended in circular designs enclosing cruciform motifs, are strikingly similar to the ears on the two animals that flank the central figure on the Placa de Lafone Quevedo. Biloni et al. (1990) identified the plaque as a copper-tin alloy made by lost-wax casting with polishing undertaken after casting.[1] They also found that, after casting, the metalworkers finished some of the low-relief designs through engraving. The central figure of the Placa de Lafone Quevedo is known as the "Figure with Empty Hands" ("Personaje de las Manos Vacías"), often accompanied by animals, as it is on this plaque. The central figure on the present plaque appears more likely to be the figure referred to as the "Sacrificer" ("Sacrificador"). Its distinguishing feature is the implement that it holds in its proper left hand, which may be a cutting tool. On other discs, this figure usually carries axes, knives, or heads in their hands, and they are accompanied by animals at their sides. Otherwise, the figure on the present plaque could be interpreted as the "Figure with Empty Hands."

Other features that bear comparison are the motifs on the bodies. On the present example, the circular spaces on the three bodies are similar to those present on the bodies and long tails of feline creatures on an Aguada plaque in the Colección Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de la Argentina (see L. González 2004, 200). It has been suggested that stones were once attached to some of these circular spaces, but there is no material evidence to support this point (A. González 1992, 250). The circular spaces are also similar to those seen on representations of humans and animals on ceramics from the Aguada phase at La Rinconada, a site of residences, food production, and crafting in the Ambato Valley (Gordillo 2009, figs. 8, 11). On these ceramics, humans and felines frequently appear, and in some cases the illustrations suggest humans taking on the appearance of felines.

It is uncertain who would have worn a plaque like the present one—if it was worn—or in what contexts the plaque may have participated.[2] Ambrosetti (1904) proposes that these plaques may have been pectorals or otherwise adornments for people’s bodies, and suggests that some of the open spaces near the tops of the plaques may have been used as points of suspension. Presumably, if this plaque was worn, the figural scene would have faced the viewer, and the plain reverse side would have faced the wearer’s body. A. González (1992, 185, 201) proposes that the plaques would have been worn by a person involved in acts of human sacrifice, and that their scenes show a person transforming into a deity, adopting feline attributes in the process. It is unclear, though, if such acts occurred. More generally, the interpretation of this scene as a "sacrificer," placing the focus on the human at center with the creatures secondary to it, cannot be assumed (see Scattolin 2006 for a critical appraisal of terminology).

The relatively low number of rectangular plaques that are known today, paired with their broad geographic distribution and the intersection of their iconography with that of other media, raises the question over access to the plaques. Possession of the plaques may have been restricted to certain individuals or communities (A. González 1979, 164), but alternatively or perhaps complementarily, many people may have held knowledge of their existence and meanings.

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

Related objects: 1979.206.753, 1991.419.70, 2015.598, 2016.734.4, 2016.734.5

[1] Mariano Bonomo (Museo de La Plata) kindly suggested this publication.

[2] A. González (1992, 150-51) notes one interpretation of the plaques as producers of sound but dismisses this, arguing that this role is restricted to bells in later centuries in Northwest Argentina. Without archaeological or ethnographic contexts, or discussions with communities, consideration of the dynamic roles of these objects should be left open.

Further reading

Ambrosetti, Juan Bautista. Arqueología argentina: El bronce en la región calchaquí. Buenos Aires: Alsina, 1904.

Biloni, Heraldo, Francisco J. Kiss, Tulio Palacios, and Daniel I. Vasallo. Análisis metalográfico de la placa de Lafone Quevedo. Serie Difusión 7, Comisión de Investigaciones Científicas, La Plata, 1990.

Cabanillas, Edgardo D., Luis R. González, and Tulio A. Palacios. "Three New Aguada Bronze Plaques from Northwest Argentina." Bulletin IAMS 22 (2002): 12-14.

González, Alberto Rex. "Pre-Columbian Metallurgy of Northwest Argentina: Historical Development and Cultural Process." In Pre-Columbian Metallurgy of South America, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson, 133-202. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1979.

———. Las placas metálicas de los Andes del sur. Mainz Am Rhein: Verlag Philipp Von Zabern, 1992.

González, Luis R. Bronces sin nombre. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Fundación Ceppa, 2004.

Gordillo, Inés. "Dominios y recursos de la imagen: Iconografía cerámica del valle de Ambato." Estudios atacameños 37 (2009): 99-121.

Posnansky, Arthur. Tihuanacu: The Cradle of American Man. New York: J. J. Augustin, 1945-58.

Scattolin, María Cristina. "Categoremas indígenas y designaciones arqueológicas en el noroeste argentino prehispánico." Chungara: Revista de la antropología chilena 38, no. 2 (2006): 185-96.

Plaque, Copper alloy, Aguada

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