Pendant: double-headed bird of prey

800–1200 CE
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General Description

Among the societies of Central America, gold ornaments were important symbols of power and prestige that expressed authority and status in life and in death. Made to be suspended around the neck, gold pendants were still worn by local inhabitants of the Caribbean coast when Europeans encountered them at the turn of the 16th century.

The image on this gold pendant is flattened and bilaterally symmetrical for maximum decorative effect. Although not visible from the front, suspension loops are located on the reverse at the center of each bird head—craftsmen thus cleverly adapted the natural forms of totemic creatures to the functional demands of this jewelry. The double-headed birds are fused together at the hips and neck so that they appear as a singular figure, though they each bear a separate set of taloned feet. They wear elaborate necklaces or collars, and large decorated wings extend from either side of each bird head, while the crescent-shaped base forms the long outspread tail of the figure. Though it in unclear what type of bird is represented, it is likely a bird of prey, indicated by the sharply hooked beak and taloned feet. Delicate spirals emanate from the tops of their beaks that may represent a caruncle (or comb), which is present on the top of the head of many bird species.

Bird pendants are a common theme among the cultures of Intermediate Central America. They are depicted 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. The principal deity of the present-day Bribri of Costa Rica, Sibo or Sibu (Creator of all things), takes the form of either a kite or buzzard with a collar around its neck, similar to the birds in this example. 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 twinned in gold, such as this example, they are doubly powerful.

Drawn from

  • Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Pendant with two frogs (1976.W.292), Pendant bell depicting a turtle (1976.W.301), Pendant depicting a batlike mask (1976.W.237)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 35.

  • 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.

  • "Double Eagle Pendant (1979.206.907)." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (August 2009).

  • "Eagle Pendant (1977.187.22)." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (August 2009).