Crocodilian Nose Ornament


Not on view

Zenú metalworkers, in the Caribbean Lowlands of present-day Colombia, made this nose ornament by casting gold, or an alloy of gold with copper, through the lost wax process. (For more details on this technique, please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.569.13a, b). Unlike other Zenú nose ornaments (e.g., Metropolitan Museum of Art 1979.206.543 and 1979.206.544), this one, like Metropolitan Museum of Art 1979.206.542 and 1979.206.545, shows hollow extensions, which were formed by casting the metal around ceramic cores. After casting, the metalworkers removed the core material from the cavities now visible on the reverse. Ceramic figurines show people wearing similar ornaments by passing the central loop through the nose’s septum, but it is uncertain whether this could be achieved with a metal ornament like the present example.[1]

The artists formed different parts of the ornament separately in wax but joined them together to cast the ornament as one piece. When they shaped the hollow extensions in wax, they enlarged the width in the area that is now the back of the crocodilian heads, where the creatures’ eyes are located. The internal ends of the extensions show a braided, filigree design. The artists did not design this in metal wire, but by casting metal. To form the braided motif, they plaited four threads of wax and wrapped these around the hollow extension; they repeated this step four times, creating two bands of four plaited threads on each side. 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). Through discussion with communities today, it may be interesting to consider the relationship between the technical gestures of braiding the wax and the long Zenú tradition of braiding caña fleche, the cane that people have used to make the sombrero vueltiao, variations of which may be depicted on metal staff heads (cf., Falchetti 1995, figs. 10–11) (also see Sáenz 2008, 118; Serpa 2002, 123).

On the present ornament, the resulting designs show chevrons pointing in the same direction on the same side of the opening, but opposite directions between the two sides. These braided designs wrap completely around the ends of the extensions except for a small space at the top. In this space, the artists attached a thick, semi-circular loop of wax during construction of the wax model.

On the internal sides of the braided design, the artists affixed a spiral design, again created in wax, to the hollow extensions. This motif shows two threads emerging out of the braided design and then leading into a coil. Farther down the extensions, the artists attached a coil of wax thread to the protruding areas of the extensions in order to suggest the eyes of the crocodilian creatures. They added another coil near each end in order to indicate a nostril. They incised the wax model, wrapping the incised design around the ends of the ornament, in order to show two rows rectangular teeth on each crocodilian head. On the proper right, the mouth is partially open, with a space between the top and bottom rows of teeth around most of the mouth. This space in the mouth connects to the open cavities visible on the reverse of the ornament.

The artists may have intended to leave an opening on the proper left mouth, too, but incomplete investment, the ceramic material built around the wax model that was meant to prevent metal from flowing into certain areas, likely impeded this effort. There is a slight protrusion of metal on the top of the central loop, a remnant of the gating system that was used to cast the object. After casting, and possibly after excavation, the object was polished, evident today by the presence of scratches visible on close inspection. The overall smooth surface of much of the ornament contrasts with the rough surface visible in the cavities on the reverse and in the small depressions in the centers of the crocodilian eyes and nostrils. There is porosity in some areas of the ornament, which relates to the trapping of gas molecules in the molten metal during casting.

The present example belongs to the group defined by Ana María Falchetti (1995, 72, 79, fig. 26f) as "nose ornaments with horizontal extensions," and specifically to Type 3d, where the extensions are hollow and the ends are in the forms of crocodile heads. Falchetti (1995, Table 3a) only identifies two examples of this type and neither has archaeological provenance. The form and some of the design elements, such as the central loop, the braided design, and the spirals that emerge from the braids, are suggestive of Early Zenú goldwork, which Falchetti (2000, 136) associates with the period from A.D. 1 to A.D. 1000. A Zenú metal staff head (Museo del Oro [Bogotá] O7505 in Legast 1980, fig. 85) shows a crocodile perched on a conical base, its head and snout similar to those of the animals depicted on the present example, but with its teeth formed by wax threads in the original wax model, rather than by incising into the wax. The crocodile, or alligator, is an important aspect of present-day, and perhaps early, Zenú conceptions of the world; there is an "alligator of gold" as well as "‘alligator’ spirits [that live] in golden palaces in the bottom of the rivers" (Falchetti 2000, 148).[2] The crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is considered to play a supportive and protective role in Zenú society (Sáenz 2008, 111). How did creating or wearing an ornament that shows this animal transform the artist or the wearer? These questions could be considered in conversation with people in Zenú communities today (see 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


[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.

[2] Falchetti (2000, 148) refers to this creature as an alligator, but the animal depicted on the present nose ornament, with its V-shaped snout and two visible rows of teeth matching in size, is more suggestive of a crocodile.

Exhibition history

New York, Museum of Primitive Art, "Sculpture of Primitive Peoples: Recent Acquisitions," Sept. 18 - Nov. 10, 1963, checklist no. 47; Palm Beach, Fl., Society of the Four Arts, "Primitive Art of Africa, Oceania, and Precolumbian America," Mar. 7 - 29, 1964, cat. no. 85; New York, Museum of Primitive Art, "Masterpieces from the Americas," May 20 - Nov. 11, 1964; New York, Museum of Primitive Art, "The World of Primitive Art," July 12-Sept. 11, 1966; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, "The Gold of Ancient America," Dec. 5, 1968 - Jan. 12, 1969; Chicago, Chicago Art Institute, Feb. 1 - Mar. 9, 1969; Richmond, VA, Richmond Museum of Fine Arts, Mar. 24 - Apr. 20, 1969, cat. no. 58, ill.;  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, pp. 124-125, cat. no. 99, ill.


Jones, Julie, and Heidi King. "Gold of the Americas." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 59, no. 4 (2002), p. 21, ill.

Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art- the Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 247, ill. (bottom photograph, at top).

Further reading

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

———. "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.

Legast. Anne. La fauna en la orfebrería Sinú. Bogotá: Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales, Banco de la República, 1980.

Lobo, Jimena. "Changing Perspectives: The Archives of Memory and Material Culture." Archaeological Review from Cambridge 29, no. 2 (2014): 69-87.

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.

Crocodilian Nose Ornament, Gold, Zenú

Due to rights restrictions, this image cannot be enlarged, viewed at full screen, or downloaded.

Open Access

As part of the Met's Open Access policy, you can freely copy, modify and distribute this image, even for commercial purposes.


Public domain data for this object can also be accessed using the Met's Open Access API.