treasures of latin america
Oil on canvas, Prado Museum: Portrait of Don Francisco Arobe and Sons, 1599

Sharon Lorenzo reviews ancient Latin American treasures at the Met.

Nestled in the inner courtyard on the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC is an extraordinary show of 300 objects from 57 museums and 13 nations representing the best of kind from the ancient treasures of Latin America. Spanning from 1000 BC to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the mid 16th century, these works tell us tales of sophisticated polities whose secular and sacred objects reflected the high noble status of both men and women. With the assistance of new forensic technology such as electron microscopy which is used to obtain data from modern excavations, curators Joanne Pillsbury of the Met Museum and Timothy Potts of the Getty Center gathered these wonders from local archaeologists and multiple museums. They also translated each loan agreement from Spanish to English for the detailed legal negotiations involved in the shipping and insuring of these priceless artistic works.

Of the three hundred examples, the gold work shows how complex the processes were for artisans to hammer nuggets into sheets which were then made into wearable jewels with folding, piercing, and soldering with just the heat of a hand powered bellows. Gold had and still has a universal appeal, as the ancients considered it to the divine excrement of the sun: it was the semen of the sun god which was a life source with powers to link humans to the supernatural world.[1] The wearer of gold objects would be protected with divine powers which would scare off evil spirits. Worn in both the nose and the ears, the gold adornments, like those in the portrait of local chieftain Don Francisco Arobe from Ecuador, required piercing of the nasal septum and elongation of the ear lobes.

Bat figure nose ornament: Moche, Peru: 525-500 AD
Gold and turquoise ear spools of winged runners: Moche, Peru 400-700AD

In addition to the gold wonders, the show matches them with textiles made with indigenous bird feathers and llama wool. The two following examples from the Boston and the Virginia Museums of Fine Art show why American collectors valued these objects. The feather work is an open sided garment with orange, yellow and blue feathers woven onto cloth from the eastern slopes of the Andes range. Scholars have also studied the wool mantle with the images of animals and humans to see if there was evidence of any form of written language embedded in these dense weavings. They were often wrapped around the deceased leaders and found in royal tomb burials.

Tabard with feathers, 500-750 AD, Nasca, Peru
Mantle of wool, 450-175 BC, Paracas, Peru

One of the most intriguing finds in this show is the use of the spondylus shell found off the west coast of Latin America in the Pacific Ocean. They are thorny oyster- like marine bivalves which the ancients thought were symbols of fertility and abundance. The shells were obtained by local divers and then rendered into amazing objects such as these two: one pectoral necklace and another stirrup vessel which was made from a lost wax mold of the shell itself.

Libation Vessel with Spondylus Shells: 1470 AD, Inca, Peru
Pectoral of shell and turquoise, 200-800 AD Moche, Peru

We know from excavations of these royal tombs that leaders in these communities were interred with golden face-masks. We infer from information gleaned from Spanish conquistadors that these people assumed that upon death you became a venerated ancestor in your community. A mask like this one is 74 percent gold, 20 percent silver and 6 percent copper hammered and painted with cinnabar to achieve the red color. The checkerboard tunic was made from camelid fibers and woven into an abstract pattern for the Inca kings.

Funerary mask: Lambayeque, Peru: 900-1100 AD
Checkerboard Tunic: Inca, Peru: 1400- 1540 AD

One of my favorite objects in this show is a head piece of gold with shell inlays in the form of an eight armed octopus. On loan from the National Museum of Peru, this mythical creature rests on two feet like a spidery monster. He would no doubt scare away any tomb robber or minor thief with his gritted teeth and bulging eyeballs. Objects like these will not likely return to Fifth Avenue anytime soon so please enjoy this amazing show of ancient treasures this spring.

Octopus Frontlet: Moche, Peru: 300-600 AD Gold and shell inlays


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Feb 27-May 28, 2018


[1] Joanne Pillsbury, Luminous Power, Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, p. 7, 2018.