Metalworkers made this ear ornament by lost-wax casting. (For more information on this process, please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.569.13a, b.) The entire piece was designed in wax at one stage, whether created from a pre-existing mold or not (please see below). The object has the appearance of filigree, that is, work in metal wire, but these wire-like elements in the design were built in wax and then cast as metal. The object is made of gold or more likely a gold alloy with copper. It appears nearly identical to Metropolitan Museum of Art 1974.271.58 but the surface of the present example appears more golden, while the other appears pinker. The ornament at hand feels heavier than the other one. Coarse, or large, metal grains, in a dendritic or tree-like form, are visible on the surface on both sides, suggesting that the workers pre-heated the mold and the molten metal cooled slowly, facilitating the growth of large grains. Like 1974.271.59, this ear ornament is distinctive of the work of Zenú artists, who lived and live today in the Caribbean Lowlands of Colombia. 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).
The ornament consists of a loop of metal at the top center that forms an incomplete circle, with a narrow space between two pronounced ends. This opening would have allowed a person to attach the ornament to their body, likely pushing the top pronounced end into their pierced ear. The bottom half of this central loop, which is distinctly flatter than the top half is, connects with a larger, semi-circular, flat region of metal that contains five registers of open work design: three rows of braided design that alternate with two areas of looped-and-twisted threads of metal. There is a thin band of metal above and below each braided register. In several areas, however, these bands are incomplete. To make the braided design in the wax model, artists plaited two threads of wax in each case. To create the larger open work design, they looped wax threads and slightly twisted them, forming many of these threads before joining them to produce several rows, likely with a light application of heat or pressure. This combination of braided designs and looped-and-twisted designs is also evident on other Zenú ear ornaments at the Metropolitan, including 1974.271.59, 2005.409.1a, b, and 2008.569.13a, b. However, the looped-and-twisted threads on 2005.409.1a, b have greater dimensionality than those on the other examples, including the present one.
Near the top of the ornament, there are two elements, one to the far left and one to the far right, just above each extreme end of the outer register of looped-and-twisted design. The elements have the appearance of stylized birds. The curl of metal on the exterior is suggestive of their tail, a small circle of metal closer to the interior indicates an eye, and the part that slopes inward suggests a beak or bill. In effect, the two birds, at opposite ends, face each other.
The obverse and reverse of each ornament are fairly identical, except for the orientation of the loop opening, which will be on the left or right depending on the face someone is viewing, or that someone is displaying while wearing the ornaments, and for the presence of material related to the gating system (see below) on the reverse of the loop.
At the top of the central loop, there is a small elliptical stub of metal that slightly projects from the surface and also wraps over onto the reverse of the loop. This stub is likely a remnant of the gating system that the metalworkers employed in casting this ornament. They removed most of the vestiges of this system after casting, but this one was left in place and appears to have been polished. There is a similar feature on Metropolitan Museum of Art 1974.271.58 where it appears less pronounced.
Besides a few differences that emerged in casting, such as the slight inconsistency in the outer braided design at top right on the obverse of the two ornaments (the present example and 1974.271.58), and in post-casting work, such as the extent to which a possible part of the gating system was removed, the two ornaments are nearly identical. Their casting may be an example of the indirect lost-wax casting technique, in which a mold is made of a pre-existing model, and this mold is then reused to make wax models that are nearly identical. Although these are more likely attributed to different extents of polishing after the objects’ excavation, the different colors of the ornaments could suggest that two separate alloys were used to cast them.
One way to discern the similarity between the two ornaments is to examine the orientations of the three registers of braided design, which align when the loop opening is in the same orientation. Conversely, on the two ear ornaments that comprise University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA SA2733, there are differences in the orientations of the braided design across the five registers that appear when the loop opening is in the same orientation: the pattern of registers on ornament A is right, left, left, left, left, and that on ornament B is left, left, left, right, left. Thus, the two were clearly made with different wax models, although their appearance from afar is quite similar. Many similar ornaments are identified by Pérez de Barradas (1965, pls. 115-123, 125 bottom object) as having been recovered from the region of the San Jorge River in Córdoba. They belong to the group defined by Ana María Falchetti (1995, 60) as “fine cast filigree, semi-circular ear ornaments” or “orejeras semi-circulares de filigrana fundida fina.” These ornaments have a wide geographic range in terms of archaeological provenance, across the Zenú region and including the Serranía de San Jacinto and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Falchetti 1995, table 2).
The birds that are depicted on the ornament align with one of the seven bird representations that Legast (1980, 19-23) describes for Zenú metalwork: “birds with a spiral body and variations; single or in a series, with the beak downward or horizontal” or “pájaros con cuerpo en espiral y sus variaciones; solos o en serie, con el pico hacia abajo o horizontal.” As Legast notes, the spiral actually encompasses all of the bird’s body beyond its head. The motif is also noted by Falchetti (1995, fig. 16a). One pair of ear ornaments from the San Jorge River region (Museo del Oro [Bogotá] O1402 and O1403 in Pérez de Barradas 1965, pl. 115, bottom pair) shows birds designed similarly to those on the present example, but have a more compressed appearance than those of the latter. Some Zenú people envision the universe as comprised of three different layers, the middle of which humans occupy, while above and below, there are particular spirits related to animals (Turbay and Jaramillo 1998). Birds, particularly aquatic birds, traverse these different worlds (Falchetti 2000, 138). Whether the artists who made this ornament were designing potentially two of these layers or worlds, the birds above the cast filigree design, is an open question and one that could be considered in discussions with Zenú metalworkers today (see Lobo 2014).
For further information on the context of Zenú metalwork, please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 2005.409.1a,b.
Bryan Cockrell, Curatorial Fellow, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, 2017
Related objects: 1974.271.58, 2005.409.1a, b, 2008.519.13a, b
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.
Pérez de Barradas, José. Orfebrería prehispánica de Colombia: Estilos Quimbaya y otros: Láminas. Madrid: 1965.
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.