Ancestral Wisdom The Principle of Duality

Breast-shaped breastplate. Caribbean Plains. Zenú Culture. Early Period -200/1000


Title: Breast-shaped breastplate
Creator: Caribbean Plains (Zenú) - Early Period
Date: -200/1000
Physical Dimensions: w270 x h205 mm
Type: Goldwork
Location: People and Gold in Pre-Hispanic Colombia
Technique: Hammered and embossed gold
Finding: Colombia, Antioquia, San Pedro de Urabá
Accession number: O31829

This chest plate with the rounded shape of feminine breasts, hammered and embossed in high purity gold, was manufactured by a goldsmith in the mid course of the San Jorge River in the Caribbean plains. For sure this goldsmith was a master in his art: the lines delimiting the circumferences are perfectly finished, as well as the full outline. The central orifices allowing for the chest plate to hang from the neck of an important person were probably made with sharp pointed tools in wood or highly polished stone ensuring perfect circles and rounded edges.

These types of chest plates were buried with their owners under the roundness of the burial mounds of the Zenú. The gold ornaments represented the sacred power of the leaders and their capacity of summoning the community when directing ceremonies and rituals, as well as the work in the extensive plantation fields with drainage technology. The mammal shaped chest plates were not only used by the women holding important religious positions, but also by male chieftains, in their interest in promoting agriculture and human fertility. Maybe by using these ornaments they could magically obtain the symbolic and biologic virtues of women. JSS

Rotating disk
Nariño Plateau. Late Period. 600/1700

Nariño Disk

Title: Rotating disk
Creator: Nariño Plateau - Late Period
Date: 600/1700
Physical Dimensions: w150 mm
Type: Goldwork
Location: People and Gold in Pre-Hispanic Colombia
Technique: Hammered tumbaga with depletion gilding
Finding: Colombia, Nariño, Pupiales
Accession number: O21222

Unique for their careful manufacture, and their unknown use, the spinning discs of Nariño are one of the riddles in American archaeology. Their motives play with the symmetry related to the central hole, either exclusively with the glossing always crossing the centre, either by rotating one same motive, once, twice, four, five, six or eight times. We can add “infinite times” to this restrained list if we admit with the mathematicians that the circles –the only decoration on some of the discs– are polygons with infinite faces.

The golden and burnished surface of this disc was partially covered in wax or mopa-mopa (Elaeagia utilis, Wedd) resins, and dipped in acid: the protected parts preserved their shine, while those exposed to the corrosive agent took a more matt finish. Similar techniques of “resist painting” were used in the Nariño region to decorate ceramics and wooden objects.

Why would a society at the top of the Andes be so interested in perfection of the shapes? First we must understand that these societies were very skilled weavers, and you require a good knowledge of mathematics to knit. A blanket is the equivalent of the Orthogonal Cartesian System with lines and straight angles, rows and columns; a round basket allows for the same rotating designs we see in the discs. These, more than a basket, would require perfect symmetry if we consider they were made to watch them spin, suspended from a cord from the centre hole frequently showing signs of wear due to friction on the bottom face of the object. When the identical shiny shapes would spin they would produce the hypnotic effects typically used in shamanic religions. EL/CP

Pre-Hispanic peoples observed the universe as balancing and opposing forces, mind and spirit, earth and sky, life and death, feminine and masculine. However, it is among the Andean peoples that this philosophy is the most entrenched. They developed a structure of social behavior and thought that had a dual character, expressed symbolically through opposites in nature.

The Andean metalwork reveals a particular interest in geometry. Symmetrical compositions may suppose to reveal a deliberate search for order, harmony and balance. The Pastos people consider that women have something masculine and men have something feminine, thereby blurring the gender lines and seeing everyone as an important member of the society.