Ancestral Wisdom Leading With Wisdom

Vessel with a ceremonial scene
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Tairona Period 900/1600.
Details

Vessel with a Ceremonial Scene

Title: Vessel with a ceremonial scene
Creator: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta - Tairona Period
Date: 900/1600
Physical Dimensions: w220 x h115 mm
Type: Ceramic
Location: Cosmology and Symbolism room
Technique: Modeling in clay
Finding: Colombia
Accession number: C00738

Pottery objects like this one from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are preserved in numerous museum collections. Many of them are simple and roughly made, and this is probably one of the best decorated, even having some motifs and designs that are recognisable as being in Tairona period style. What makes all of them extraordinary is that they depict a ceremony with masked figures. The bottom of the container usually shows one or more snake figures (four here?), and sometimes containers with liquids. The masks take up the themes of Tairona pottery ocarinas, but also of ancient masks carved in wood that are still a sacred element of the rituals of indigenous groups on the Sierra Nevada, as photographs by German ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss show, which were taken when he visited the Kágabas on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta from November 1914 to April 1915. EL

Breastplate in the shape of a bat-man
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Tairona Period 900/1600.
Details

Breastplate in the Shape of a Bat-Man

Title: Breastplate in the shape of a bat-man
Creator: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta - Tairona Period
Date: 900/1600
Physical Dimensions: w113 x h106 mm
Type: Goldwork
Location: Cosmology and Symbolism room
Technique: Lost wax casting in tumbaga
Finding: Colombia, Magdalena, Ciénaga
Accession number: O16300

This character frequently seen in Tairona goldwork is definitely the representation of a chieftain or a priest. His imposing aspect could even inspire fear. The Tairona were governed by a powerful elite of shamans, and maybe the most important one was known as the bat-man because of his virtues, talents, knowledge and wisdom. Cast in tumbaga and then superficially enriched in gold, this chest plate represents a character dressed with a very ornate headdress made of feathers majestically represented in filigree geometric designs, parallel threads and side plates as bird heads. On its head it also has two birds with pronounced beaks. Feathers and birds seem to be disposed on a hair band with a visor providing a little shade to the eyes and with two small mushroom shaped prolongations. The septum is deformed to allow for a double cylinder nose adornment and the chin has a protuberance, an ornament under the lip like the ones made by the Tairona in stone or metal. These facial ornaments change the appearance and personality of the man thus converting him into a bat-man. The “mushrooms” on the head band would simulate the bat’s ears tragus, and the deformed nose and chin would also be related to the physical traits of some species of Chiroptera. These irreversible deformations would prove the definite and eternal devotion of a person as the community’s spiritual leader before all the other members of the community.

The man is naked except for a knitted belt or band made of twisted threads in opposite directions finishing in spirals in both ends. As on other occasions the tips of the spirals are replaced by snake heads, they are possibly a schematic representation of the bifid tongues characterizing the snakes. For the indigenous communities currently living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta the bats and the snakes are powerful symbols of the lower world, the feminine part of the cosmos. Definitely a character like the one depicted in this chest plate would be highly respected when he was present with his enormous headdress and the shining goldwork ornaments next to the temples in the high terraces of the Lost City or another city of the Tairona. JSS

Despite their sacred status, chiefs and priests went through complex and lengthy rituals and ceremonies before being allowed to rule.

It is necessary for a leader to internalize the wisdom necessary to rule with respect and peace. Chiefs, priests and priestesses are responsible for the protection, the health and the wellbeing of their community.