Composition, Colour and Context in Muisca Votive Metalwork (Colombia, AD 600-1800)

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Introduction

The analytical study of pre-Columbian metalwork in America has traditionally been marred by a lack of context. While the aesthetic sensitivity and technical skill of indigenous goldsmiths have frequently been highlighted through the study of selected artefacts (often obtained through the antiques market), the anthropological value of such research remains limited. Taking a significant step forward, some seminal studies have focused on specific regions, such as the Andes (Lechtman 1977, 1979, 1988, 1994) or West Mexico (Hosler 1994, 1995), to characterise specific technical traditions and idiosyncratic values. This work has not only underlined the roles of the colour, brilliance, sound and symbolism of metals, but also, importantly, it has revealed distinct metallurgical expressions of the mosaic of cultures and value systems that existed in pre-Columbian America. More recent research has concentrated on individual, well-excavated sites, capitalising on contextual associations to provide richer reconstructions of important aspects such as craft organisation, metal value systems or community interaction. For example, in Sican, Peril (Shimada 1996; Shimada et al. 2000), in El Chorro de Malta, Cuba (Martinon-Torres et al. 2007) and in Lamanai, Belize (Simmons et al. 2009). Through these examples it has been shown that archaeometallurgy, like any other archaeological sub-discipline, can progress only through a closer integration of technical and contextual information.

This paper demonstrates the significance of the compositions of Muisca metalwork, using a large dataset of both published and unpublished analyses. Our original aim was to improve understanding of the technological tradition, but in the course of the study it became obvious that we could reveal and explain patterns in the chemical data only through reference to other objects found in the same assemblage. This is especially clear in the clusters of artefacts traditionally interpreted as votive offerings: we shall argue that all of the items in each of these offerings were manufactured as a single commission, and that their chemical compositions were adjusted as an integral part of the symbolic code. In some cases, these adjustments deliberately sought to encompass a spectrum of alloy compositions, defying any modern attempt at correlating ancient typologies with chemical composition. Furthermore, in contrast with most goldwork, ancient and modern, the study of Muisca metalwork shows that the artistic and technical effort was invested in the manufacture of wax models for lost-wax casting, rather than in the casting itself or the finishing techniques. In this we present a metallurgical interpretation that departs in many ways from dominant generalisations regarding pre-Columbian metalwork.

The Muisca and their metallurgical style

The eastern highlands of Colombia, integrating the present-day departments of Cundinamarca and Boyaca, constitute a geographically and ecologically diverse area, composed of plateaux crossed by valleys that connect this area with the Magdalena Valley in the west, and the eastern plains (Figure 1). When European conquistadores arrived in AD 1536, this region was inhabited by the Muisca peoples, the last population of a long indigenous sequence apparently related to the migrations of Chibcha-speaking groups from Central America around AD 600 (Lleras-Perez 1995); the 'Late Muisca period', starting in approximately AD 1200, is characterised by an increase in population density and political centralisation (Langebaek 1995: 87).

By the sixteenth century, the Muisca were the largest amongst all the Chibcha-speaking groups of the eastern range, and appeared to be divided into confederations formed by chiefdoms integrated by several villages, plus some independent pueblos or villages outside the chiefdoms' rule (Falchetti & Plazas 1973: 39-46; Londono 1996). …