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Staff finial with anthropo-zoomorphous figure

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta - Tairona Period900/1600

Museo del Oro, Bogotá

Museo del Oro, Bogotá

Here we have an extraordinary symbolic object from the ancient inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta: a bone carving that was perhaps used for decorating a larger object to which it was tied. The aesthetic quality alone of the ancient bone texture catches our attention, as does the overall balance of the shapes and their complexity, while our eyes continually try to discover why one man is standing and the other is upside down. But the most captivating aspect of it all is the sense of the unknown we are left with from the scene. There is a man in the middle, standing, and the precise position of his legs convinces us that he is walking. This man's head, however, is that of an animal: it is a mask, with the jaws and ears of a feline figure, and we know that the Taironas wore masks carved from wood. As it is a mask, the feline figure does not have the eyes and the penetrating stare that usually typify representations of it. With his hands, this masked man, who also has a tail, is holding the ankles of a human body that is hanging in disorderly fashion on his back. Clearly, it is a corpse. Its bodily ornaments, except for the mask, are the same as those of the man who is carrying him, leading to doubt as to his identity. They are the jaguar-man and his defenceless prey. But above this body is a scavenger bird that is pecking the jaguar's head with a strange expression, as if the deceased were complaining to his sacrificer. There is another figure, in front, hanging from the mask. Its sinuous body makes it look like a snake, the traditional Tairona motif that emerges so often from the mouth on ferocious faces. It has the terrifying teeth and snub nose of Tairona snakes. But it has wings. Suspended like that, it is a bat, the bird of the night. It is the sharp-toothed vampire, one of the few Phyllostomidae that are not insect-eaters.

What could this object have meant? What event did the scene described so precisely refer to? And above all, what leading figure adorned his command stick with such a terrifying scene as this? EL

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  • Title: Staff finial with anthropo-zoomorphous figure
  • Creator: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta - Tairona Period
  • Date: 900/1600
  • Physical Dimensions: w68 x h53 mm
  • Type: Bone carving
  • External Link: Cosmology and Symbolism room
  • Technique: Carved on bone
  • Finding: Colombia
  • Accession number: H00123

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