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Staff finial with cayman figure

Caribbean Plains (Zenú) - Early Period-200/1000

Museo del Oro, Bogotá

Museo del Oro, Bogotá

Quite possibly this adornment decorated the end of a staff belonging to a Zenú chieftain, who was respected and recognized in the Caribbean plains around 1000 A.D. The artist carefully manufactured this lizard to represent the Crocodylus acutus abounding in the rivers and swamps in the region. In wax of bees without a sting, the goldsmith modelled the details of the body, skin, eyes, and eyebrows and intertwined tusks, and he also emphasised the features of the tail that the huge lizards move horizontally. The artisan stuck this wax model to a cone also made in wax and decorated with twisted threads to form a braid; then he added probably to the tip of the cone a wax cylinder ending in a funnel so it could then serve as the mouth to poor the cast metal. All this was covered with successive layers of clay: when they hardened they would form a mould that was susceptible to be heated in order to melt and bring out the wax inside and let the print of the lizard be empty and perfect on the inside.

Then the liquid metal –high purity gold– was poured into this clay mould. Once cool, the mould was broken to produce the lizard. We can notice that the goldsmith didn’t polish the piece carefully after removing the remains of the mould. He was satisfied with just cleaning it and using some type of abrasive over the tail and the edge of the cone. On the rough and irregular surface there still are traits of the jagged edges and pores resulting from insufficient temperature of the mould.

Although it is difficult to know the exact meaning of these lizards for the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the Caribbean Plains, their presence on the golden ornaments indicates a prevailing position in the cosmology and social order of the indigenous population. The current Zenú people in this region place human beings, within the organisation of the universe, as inhabitants of the land and the supernatural creatures called “spells” in the skies and underground. In the underground the spells adopt different shapes but the most outstanding ones are the gold animals: each lake or water spring has a gold animal as its spell; they own the paths and caves existing under water. The lizard is catalogued as an animal that can live on land and in the water, as well as underground. Its location in different categories grants it a special character, to the extent that it is considered the main gold spell, whose underground spirit holds the world. It is said that the Gold Lizard has the same dimensions as the Zenú reservation; any attempt to capture it, according to the indigenous people, could result in the end of the world. JSS

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  • Title: Staff finial with cayman figure
  • Creator: Caribbean Plains (Zenú) - Early Period
  • Date: -200/1000
  • Physical Dimensions: w45 x h109 x d31 mm
  • Type: Goldwork
  • External Link: People and Gold in Pre-Hispanic Colombia
  • Technique: Lost wax casting in gold
  • Finding: Colombia, Sucre, San Marcos
  • Accession number: O06405

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