Breastplate in the form a bird

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta - Tairona Period900/1600

Museo del Oro, Bogotá

Museo del Oro, Bogotá
Bogota, Colombia

This finely-made, gilded tumbaga breastplate is in the characteristic style of Tairona metalwork, full of standardised symbolic elements. The bird, which has a prominent beak, has a hunched body with the wings tight against it, and in its claws is a two-headed snake like the ones that the chieftains portrayed on other breastplates hold in their hands, close to their waist. The cut sheet it is leaning against is also shaped like a bird, but with spread wings and tail as if it were in flight. Other schematised zoomorphous figures, probably also of birds, can be recognised. This ornament hung from the chest of a leading figure in Tairona society in the years immediately prior to the European conquest in 1500. Having birds on the chest was already a very ancient custom by then, as old or almost as old as it was for chieftains to wear gold ornaments. After it was first discovered in the central Andes around 2500 B.C., metalwork spread rapidly through much of pre-Columbian America, not as a sign of wealth but as a symbol of sacred power, of divine origin, of governing classes. Birds have been a cosmological symbol for a vast number of Amerindian societies, past and present, not just those that have used metalwork. In a cosmos imagined as consisting of superimposed levels, birds can fly to the upper worlds in order to negotiate and obtain powers there, frequently solar and masculine; snakes and other animals communicate with the underworld, which is wet and feminine, so that complementary powers of fertility guarantee equilibrium and that life will continue in our world. EL


  • Title: Breastplate in the form a bird
  • Creator: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta - Tairona Period
  • Creator Lifespan: 900/1600
  • Creator Nationality: Colombia
  • Creator Death Place: Colombia
  • Creator Birth Place: Colombia
  • Date: 900/1600
  • Physical Dimensions: w93 x h123 mm
  • Type: Goldwork
  • External Link: People and Gold in Pre-Hispanic Colombia
  • Technique: Lost wax casting and hammering in tumbaga with depletion gilding
  • Finding: Colombia
  • Accession number: O23820

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