Seated Figure

Late Quimbaya

Not on view

This figure shows a person in a seated pose. It is primarily made of fired clay and was produced by people living in the middle Cauca River Valley and parts of the Central Cordillera of Colombia, often referred to as the "Quimbaya" region. The eyes and mouth consist of narrow horizontal linear incisions, while the nose is rounded and projects outward. A metal ring has been threaded through the nostrils. The figure’s arms are bent and turn inward, with the hands resting on the knees, which are bent. There are seven circular perforations along the top of the figure’s head, while there are four across the forehead, two above the chest, two more at the waist, and one on the bottom of the figure. With the exceptions of those on the top of the head and the bottom of the figure, all the perforations extend entirely through the figure. There are four recessed bands or ligatures on the figure’s arms, likely indicative of ornaments, two closer to the shoulders and two at the wrists. These bands do not extend around the entire arm. Interestingly, the figure is top-heavy and needs support in order to sit upright, raising questions over how it was displayed and used in the past.

To make this figure, potters prepared two slabs of clay to form the head and main body together. Such slabs can be made by placing a lump of clay on a flat surface and rolling it with a tool or shaping it with the hands. The artists then joined the slabs, pressing their ends together and leaving a space in between to create the figure’s hollow interior. The eyes and mouth were represented by using a sharp and narrow tool to make long, deep slits in the clay. The neck was indicated by making a horizontal groove under the head. They formed the arms and legs by coiling clay—rolling out the clay or forming the coil with their hands—and joining these coils together. The nose and male genitalia were made directly by shaping clay. All of these components were then attached to the head and body.[1] To indicate the four bands, the artists excised clay from the arms, and to suggest fingers and toes, they removed clay from the hands and feet. Then, they made all the perforations on the figure using a rounded tool.

Next, the potters applied a pale ochre or light tan slip, a clay-rich liquid, to the entire surface, likely pouring the slip over the figure or wiping it onto the surface. A slip helps to make the porous clay more water-tight and also smooths the surface. Once the figure was dry, the potters fired it. The paste of the fired clay is tan in color, and Bruhns (1976, 150) has found that, for these figures, the paste typically contains a sand or gravel additive. After firing, it is possible that the artists then applied paint to the figure. Other examples of ceramic figures from this region, such as Metropolitan Museum of Art 1976.412.1 and 1976.412.2 as well as Museo del Oro, Bogotá (C04542), show black, red, or white paint, particularly on their faces. This feature may be indicative of the actual body paint a person wore. In the recesses on the arms and wrists of the present example, there is a white residue with a powdery consistency similar to that of the white paint of 1976.412.2. At a late stage, the potters burnished the surface, horizontally on the head and vertically on the body, lending a luster to the figure.

Patches of a black substance appear over much of the front of the figure, with the exception of the head. These patches likely arose naturally while the figure was buried.

The metal ring is made of one thin rod of gold that has been hammered to make it circular. The metalworker left a slight separation in the ring, allowing it to be threaded through the nostrils. It is certainly possible that the other figures from the Metropolitan mentioned above, which do not presently have metal nose ornaments, once did.

Artists produced this figure in the Late Quimbaya period, at a time of transformation in settlements in the middle Cauca Valley and Central Cordillera. More specifically, figures of this type have been associated with the Caldas Complex (ca. A.D. 1200–1400) that is part of this late period (Bruhns 1976; Labbé 1986). This complex often features pottery decorated with black paint on a red slip. Recently, these ceramic chronologies have been challenged after further excavations have revealed much longer and overlapping timeframes for some of the complexes once thought to be separate (Echeverry 2008, 32–36; Langebaek 2016, 284). Even in earlier periods, people in this region were likely in contact with communities in the Calima River Valley, to the southwest (Falchetti 2008, 48; Langebaek 2016, 281–82). This connection extends into later centuries. Sonso figures produced in the Calima region have a distinct appearance from those of the middle Cauca figures, but they also have horizontal slits as eyes and may include metal nose rings (see, for example, the Sonso figures in Herrera 2005, figs. VI.22, VI. 24).

Most of the middle Cauca slab figures have been recovered in northwestern Risaralda and western Caldas. Determining how they were used, or who they manifest, is uncertain without archaeological context or consultation with descendant communities.[2] One proposal is that they are caciques, or local political leaders, but the question is open (Arango 1976). The figures show a variety of poses, occasionally with hands raised, and the sex that is indicated may be male or female, or not indicated (see National Museum of the American Indian 9/9775 and 16/4420 for other examples from near Pereira and near Medellín, respectively). It has been proposed that the perforations along the top of the head were used to hold feathers, but this is also unconfirmed (Arango 1976, 58; Bruhns 1976, 153).[3] It is clear, though, that the figures were produced at a time when societies in the region had undergone changes in their organization. During this period, the region’s population was increasing. Archaeological studies in the Valle de Aburrá in northern Antioquia have shown that communities were becoming more interested in managing land with fertile soil for cultivation (Langebaek 2016, 286–88). This situation contrasts with prior centuries, when communities displayed a greater interest in controlling sources of gold and salt. Also, during this later period, the forms of ceramics and metals became more diverse.

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


Related objects: 1976.412.1, 1976.412.2, 1979.206.451, 1979.206.554, 1979.206.776

[1] Bruhns (1976, 153) found that potters often added some clay to the interior ends of the hollow arms and legs to help facilitate their attachment to the body.

[2] Today, on the western side of the middle Cauca Valley and towards the Pacific, Emberá-Chamí communities, who are native to this region, produce ceramic figures called chocó (Herrera 2005, 253–54; Vasco 1987, 89–92 in Uribe 2005). These figures are involved in the fermentation of chicha, a drink often made from maize. On these figures, the eyes are modeled and project outward, and the vessels are modeled rather than built from slabs. While no genitalia are shown, the figures are considered female as well as primordial beings, and each is individualized, depending on the person making it and the person receiving it.

[3] Harrison Gallego kindly provided clarification on this question.

Further reading

Arango Cano, Jesús. Cerámica quimbaya y calima. Bogotá: Plaza & Janes, 1976.

Bruhns, Karen Olsen. "Ancient Pottery of the Middle Cauca Valley, Colombia." Cespedesia 5, no. 17-18 (1976): 101–89.

Echeverry Messa, Darío. "Unidades domésticas y áreas de actividad prehispánica en el sector de Manizales (Caldas), Sitio Tesorito ST009." In Aguas arriba y aguas abajo: De la arqueología en las márgenes del Río Cauca, Curso Medio, edited by Luis Gonzalo Jaramillo E., 31–51. Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes, 2008.

Falchetti, Ana María. "The Darién Gold Pendants of Ancient Colombia and the Isthmus." Metropolitan Museum Journal 43 (2008): 39–73.

Herrrera, Leonor. "The Late Sonso Period and the Spanish Conquest." In Calima and Malagana: Art and Archaeology in Southwestern Colombia, edited by Marianne Cardale Schrimpff, 224–57. Bogotá: Pro Calima Foundation, 2005.

Labbé, Armand J. Colombia before Columbus: The People, Culture, and Ceramic Art of Prehispanic Colombia. New York: Rizzoli, 1986.

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, 279-289. Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, 2016.

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.

Seated Figure, Ceramic, gold, Late Quimbaya

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