Pectoral: three birds
The pre-Hispanic goldwork of Colombia is traditionally classified by archaeological zones, or regions, each with stylistic associations, varying in iconography and technology: Muisca in the central highlands southeast of Bogotá; Zenú (Sinú) and Tairona in northwestern Colombia; 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. In contrast, however, Muisca gold objects consist primarily of votive offerings. Muisca gold objects were usually comprised of a concentrated copper-gold alloy, known as tumbaga, and created by lost-wax casting. Objects often had multiple parts, and the surface was often left unpolished. Since the Muisca region lacked a source of gold, they traded other precious materials to acquire the metal.
Made to be suspended around the neck, the image on this gold pendant is flattened and bilaterally symmetrical for maximum decorative effect. It features three bird heads with undecorated wings that extend from either side of the outer two bird heads, while the crescent-shaped base forms the long outspread tail. Human faces decorate the base of each bird body. Though it in unclear what type of bird is represented, it is likely a bird of prey, indicated by the sharply hooked beak. Although not visible from the front, the suspension loop is located on the reverse at the base of the center bird head—craftsmen thus also cleverly adapted the natural forms of totemic creatures to the functional demands of the jewelry. It would have originally been worn hanging over the chest and would have created a dazzling golden image.
Bird pendants, common among the cultures of Intermediate Central America, are found in a variety of sizes and styles and represent a number of different bird species. Both single and double bird pendants are common, though their exact meaning is unknown. Pendants 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 pendants may have offered protection to the wearer, and when represented in multiple and in gold, such as this example, they are even more powerful.
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.
Carol Robbins, "Ceremonial mask (1976.W.321)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 178.
"Bird Pendant (1979.206.509)." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1979.206.509/. (August 2009).
"Bird Pendant (1992.121)." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1992.121/. (August 2009).