Finial: bird

Zenú (Sinú)
600–1200 CE
more object details

General Description

The pre-Hispanic goldwork of Colombia is traditionally classified by archaeological zones, or regions, each with stylistic associations, varying in iconography and technology: Zenú (Sinú) and Tairona in northwestern Colombia; Muisca in the central highlands southeast of Bogotá; and in the southwest, Quimbaya, Calima, Tolima, and Nariño. The richly varied works were primarily objects of personal adornment. Pendants, headdress elements, pectorals, bracelets, anklets, and nose and ear ornaments probably functioned as ceremonial regalia for elite men. Sixteenth-century records and recent research indicate that Sinú gold objects derived from the Gran Zenú region, thus attributed to the Zenú people who occupied the region during the 16th century conquest and whose descendants occupy the east of the lower Sinú River today.

Zenú (Sinú) ornaments often feature delicate spirals, intricate line-work, and braided elements in cast filigree. Of the various types of gold objects associated with the Zenú culture, the best known are semi-circular openwork nose and ear ornaments and finials, often called staff heads after their presumed function. Birds are the dominant theme for the finials, and this appealing example embodies several characteristic features. It is decorated with an elaborate headdress of delicate spirals and braided gold filigree. The long beak of the bird ends in a downward curve; the solid crest and beautiful openwork on the body suggest showy plumage. This finial features lost-wax casting, the use of a gold-copper alloy ("tumbaga"), and refined false-filigree decoration made by skillfully manipulating thin threads of wax. The image is flattened and bilaterally symmetrical for maximum decorative effect—craftsmen thus also cleverly adapted the natural forms of totemic creatures to the functional demands of the jewelry. Though it in unclear what type of bird is represented, the sharply hooked beak may indicate it is a bird of prey, likely an owl.

Bird ornaments are a common theme among the cultures of Intermediate Central America, depicting a variety of sizes and styles and representing a number of different bird species, though their exact meaning is unknown. Pendants and other objects of personal adornment were likely worn on ceremonial occasions, and similar pendants were still being worn at the beginning of the 16th century conquest. Bird imagery remained important to indigenous peoples of the region into the 20th century. For many peoples of the ancient Americas, birds were likely mythic figures, often considered intercessors between sky and land. Bird ornaments may have offered protection to the wearer, and when represented in gold, such as this example, they are doubly powerful.

Drawn from

  • Carol Robbins, "Bird-form finial (1976.W.438)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 180.

  • Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Ceremonial mask (1976.W.321)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 33.

  • Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Headdress ornament with heads flanked by crested crocodiles (1976.W.319)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 34.

  • Anne R. Bromberg, Dallas Museum of Art: Selected Works (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1983), 45.

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [1976.W.298; 1976.W.297; 1976.W.292], A. H. Meadows Galleries.

  • "Owl Finial (1979.206.920)." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (August 2009).

  • "Nose Ornament (1979.206.545)." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.,.545/. (August 2009).

Fun Facts

  • The goldsmith's fingerprints appear on the surface of the final under the bird of the beak.