Gold before the Conquest

Tairona, X-XVI C. Columbia A masterful use of molds, casting, wire and fusing.

Tairona, X-XVI C.
Columbia – A masterful use of molds, casting, wire and fusing.

Pure gold is an element that has incredible working properties.  Even a small quantity can be put to use creatively, it can be hammered thinner than tissue paper, into a foil, and draped over wood forms.  Unlike copper and bronze, it is a dream for casting,  naturally free from oxidation means successful pours without the discovery of flux or other special technology.  It can be melted again and again without degrading, giving it a reputation of purity.  It never tarnishes, retaining its polish, and because it is highly ductile, one part of an artwork can be fused with focused heat without damaging other areas of the work, allowing complex forms to be built up with ease.

Zapotec, XVI C. Oaxaca, Mexico Lost wax method, a rare finger ring.

Zapotec, XVI C.
Oaxaca, Mexico
Lost wax method, a rare finger ring.

At the same time, the unalloyed metal is too soft to be used a tool or weapon.  Between its workability, beauty, and lack of usefulness, gold’s chiefly sensible employment through much of history has been as a creative medium, producing delicate objects that require gentle handling – really only useful for pleasant gifts, offerings, ceremonial cups, religious objects, and jewelry.   As a result, the earliest appearances of civilization are accompanied by gold working to some degree, where trade made it available, and its earliest disposable, symbolic character meant it went into graves and other places where at times it survives, often as virtually the only artistic record of a culture.

Spain, XVI C. Goldwork at the beginning of the conquest

Spain, XVI C.
Ring – Gold, enamel, Columbian emerald.  Produced with materials from the conquest.

From a raw material that circulates widely in tribal cultures, weighted for the value of its beauty alone, gold’s value changes when more organized, more imperial culture develops, and it becomes a unit of money.  As a culture grows more sophisticated, we see more gold concentrated in palaces and temples, and ultimately we see wars fought over it, and with it.

International Style Panama, V-VII C.

International Style
Panama, V-VII C.

In addition to distinct regional styles that reflect expansive cultures with visual vocabularies all their own, there is an International Style, works that have a simplified, trade oriented appearance to them.  There are also gold objects made as tribute, such as Mixtec and Zapotec works produced as payment to the Aztecs in their own themes.  Much like the ball-courts indicate the international popularity of the games and identify centers of tournaments, gold-work was clearly traded and had centers of production.  One of the greatest was in modern day Central America, especially Panama and Costa Rica, where various styles were produced for trade with neighboring cultures.   Centers with the longest known continuous production were in modern day Columbia and Peru, where the Incas obtained the discovery that gold could be burnished to a razor fine edge, and was being employed in surgery.

What follows is a visual sampling of major gold working cultures in the Americas. The work is sorted by centuries, to give a scope for develop over time.

Peru Chavin V-II BC

Chavin, V-II BC
Peru

Nazca II BCE - V CE Peru

Nazca
II BCE – V CE
Peru

Zenu, II BCE-X CE Columbia

Zenu, II BCE-X CE
Columbia

Peru Moche Headhunters I-III C

Moche, I-III C.
Peru
Headhunters and Severed Heads

Moche, I-III C. Peru

Moche, I-III C.
Peru
Condors

Tolima II C. Columbia. The region is still producing gold today.

Tolima
II C.
Columbia. The region is still producing gold today.

 

Panama, IV-V C.

Panama, IV-V C.

International Style, V-VII C. Panama

International Style, V-VII C.
Panama

Darien or Venado Beach V-VII C. Panama

Darien or Venado Beach
Deer God, II-VII C.
Panama

Yotoco or Calima VII C. Columbia

Yotoco or Calima
VII C.
Columbia

Wari VII-X C. Peru

Wari
VII-X C.
Peru
Refined silver embossing

Coclé  VIII-XV C. Panama

Coclé
VIII-XV C.
Panama

Nariño  VIII-XV C. Columbia

Nariño
Hummingbirds, VIII-XV C.
Columbia

Coclé Alligator Necklace Panama

Coclé
Alligator Necklace
Panama

Coclé Jade Nose Ring Panama

Coclé
Jade Nose Ring
Panama

Popoyan IX-XVI C. Columbia

Popoyan
IX-XVI C.
Columbia

 

Tairona Butterfly X-XVI C. Columbia

Tairona
Butterfly X-XVI C.
Columbia

Veraguas X-XVI C. Panama

Veraguas
X-XVI C.
Panama

Chiriquí XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Chiriquí
XI-XVI C.
Costa Rica

Diquis Lobster XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Diquis
Lobster XI-XVI C.
Clay casting, Costa Rica

Diquis XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Diquis
XI-XVI C.
Employment of varied sand grit to create texture. Costa Rica

Tumbaga Pink Gold Alloy, X-XVI Columbia

Tumbaga
Pink Gold Alloy, X-XVI
Columbia

 

Inca, XII C. Peru

Inca, XII C.
Peru

Inca, XII-XV C. Peru

Inca, XII-XV C.
Peru
Masterwork of Repousse and Fusing

 

Bat Nose w Whale Tooth XII-XVI Panama

Bat Nose w Whale Tooth
XII-XVI
Panama

Mixtec Lip Plugs 3 Mixtec Lip Plugs 2

Mixtec Lip Plugs, XVI C. Mexico

Mixtec
Lip Plugs, XVI C.
Mexico

Aztec Heart Pendant, Tomb of Ahuizotl, XVI C. Mexico

Aztec
Heart Pendant, Tomb of Ahuizotl, XVI C.
Mexico