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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Gold in the Ancient Americas

In the ancient Americas, gold was a manifestation of the sacred, and objects fashioned from it were a means of connecting with a supernatural world. Far from passive deposits of wealth, objects made of gold were active agents in an ongoing engagement with powerful forces. Gold was particularly closely associated with the sun; indeed, it was often thought of as an excretion of this divine entity. In Colombia, ritual specialists would place objects made of gold or copper-gold alloys outside in the sun so that they might recharge their generative powers. Works made from gold were therefore potentially efficacious, redolent of sacred places and divine forces (69.7.10).

Gold was highly valued for its rarity and ability to reflect light, making it a natural choice for displays of rank and authority. Its immunity to decay has made it a potent symbol for immortality and enduring power worldwide, yet parts of the ancient American world never fell under the sway of gold’s allure. For example, the Classic Maya—whose city-states flourished in what is now Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and southern Mexico—displayed little interest in the metal, despite its extensive use by neighbors to the south (1977.187.22).

Gold was first exploited in the Andes by the second millennium B.C., and from there goldworking gradually spread north, reaching Central America by the first centuries A.D. and arriving in central Mexico before the end of the first millennium A.D. Metalworking was adopted later than other arts in Mexico, but the technology was quickly mastered, and the brilliance and inventiveness of Mixtec and Aztec gold-working traditions remain second to none (2017.675). For example, a gold labret—an ornament worn through the lower lip—cast in the shape of a serpent ready to strike, is a tour de force of Aztec metalworking. The artists who fashioned it not only mastered the essentials of lost-wax casting but took them one step further, by casting the serpent’s retractable tongue as an integral part, creating a gleaming, moveable ornament that surely would have terrified the wearer’s enemies on the battlefield (2016.64).

In the ancient Americas, gold was used primarily to create high-status regalia, including ornaments and vessels, but it was also occasionally used in votive objects, such as small figurines deposited in sacred wells, lakes, or mountaintops, removed from circulation and human view (1992.92.1, .2). More often, however, gold was deployed by high-ranking individuals as part of carefully orchestrated performances designed to project magnificence. Dramatic visual effects were paramount, and ancient American artists created ingenious headdresses, collars, and other works, often with multiple component parts such as dangles or bells, that were designed to reflect light and to dazzle, even from great distances. Such ornaments were, in large part, about establishing identities; they were for asserting status, privilege, separation, and distinction (66.196.24). Sumptuary laws controlled who was able to own what; in both the Inca and Aztec empires, gold was limited to those individuals upon whom the emperor had bestowed the privilege, such as members of the royal family and the nobility.

Most ornaments were worn on or near the head, emphasizing its prominence as a locus of perception and communication, and perhaps offering symbolic protection to one of the most vulnerable parts of the body. Artists excelled at creating ornaments for the ears and chest, locations that offer a high degree of prominence and options for attachment without obstructing sensorial functions. In South America, however, artists also created nose ornaments. Suspended from the nasal septum, they would obscure the mouth, masking its movements and perhaps contributing to the projection of the wearer as a supernatural being (1979.206.1236).

In the Andes, elaborate gold vessels became prominent in rituals and statecraft in the latter half of the first millennium A.D. (1991.419.62). Metalsmiths on Peru’s north coast developed a near-industrial level of production of beakers made from gold sheet, presumably used in life before they were deposited by the dozen in tombs of high-status individuals. Perhaps the most spectacular objects from this region are large funerary masks, also made of sheet gold. Cinnabar, a red mineral pigment, covered much of the cheeks and forehead of some masks, obscuring the gold surface and suggesting that inherent values of the metal were prized above its surface appearance (1974.271.35).

In the sixteenth century, the Spaniards’ seemingly insatiable appetite for gold puzzled indigenous Americans, for things of incalculable value to them—such as Spondylus shells, greenstones, and fine textiles—were initially ignored by Europeans. The Spaniards’ bottomless desire for gold directly or indirectly led to one of the most devastating losses of life in global history, through dangerous forced labor in mines but primarily through the introduction of diseases for which the native population had no resistance. Though some objects were sent back to Europe as curiosities, most works of Precolumbian gold discovered in the sixteenth century were melted down into ingots for ease of transport and trade. Gold, perhaps the most mutable of metals, would be “reborn” in a new form, remade in the service of new kings and a new god. It would not be until the late nineteenth century that ancient American works of art in gold would be valued in their original form, rather than for their material.