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: A Pair of Peruvian Gold Ear Studs


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Among the objects displayed in the recent exhibition of Pre-Columbian Arts of Latin America, largely lent by the Heeramaneck Gallery, none was the focus of more startled attention than the pair of Peruvian gold ear studs acquired by the Institute last spring for its growing collection of Peruvian art. The delicate workmanship of these ornaments, together with their extraordinary size, make them objects of peculiar interest to an age which has itself displayed a mania for personal adornment.The ear studs represent a characteristic example of ancient Peruvian gold work, They come from the region of Lambayeque in northern Peru, and date from the late Chimu period. This would put them sometimes between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, when the Incas overwhelmed this ancient coastal people. That they were characteristic ornaments of persons of importance, even in the early period of Chimu dominance, is evidenced by the portrait potteries of the Mochica style. On many examples lent by Mr. Heeramaneck to the recent exhibition, chieftains and other personages were shown wearing ear studs of exactly this type. One jar in particular, representing the figure of a captive chieftain with his arms bound behind him, served as a perfect illustration of the costume and adornments of the Peruvian people of pre-Columbian times.The ear studs are made of large concave disks with beaded edges attached to a cylindrical tube which was inserted through the lobe of the ear. The disks are ornamental with an applied hammered gold motif depicting four figures wearing aureole headdresses. The chief figure, which may represent either Naymlap, the first ruler of the Chimu people, or a high priest, is standing on a horizontal bar borne by the other three figures. In his left hand he holds a beaker and in his right a bag with dangling pendants. His is an elaborate headdress that is also decorated with pendants. The three figures below, which appear to be half man and half beast, wear more modified headdresses. Those on the ends carry cups in their left hands but the one in the center is fully occupied in keeping the bar in place on his shoulder. This bar, terminating at the ends with monster heads, is a familiar motif in Coast Tiahuanaco and Chimu art, appearing sometimes on potteries and sometimes on textiles.The tubes of the ear studs are engraved with bands of cat monsters and birds treading on each other's heels as they march around the tube. The decoration is soft and rich in appearance, with considerable variety in the composition of the bands.It is the size of these tubes which has startled observers. To them it would seem impossible for the human ear to support such an object. Among the ancient Peruvians, however, the wearing of ear ornaments was a coveted distinction. Those to whom it was granted made a ceremony of piercing the ears, just as certain peoples do today. This rite was performed early in life, and as the subject grew and the ear lobes became stretched, larger and larger ornaments were worn in the ears. This same custom of wearing enormous ear ornaments prevails in Bali today.The workmanship of these ear studs is indicative of the skill of Peruvian goldsmiths in this field. They understood and used all the processes known to metal workers, such as plating, alloying, inlaying, embossing, engraving, hammering, and gilding, and it is noteworthy that they used the cire perdue method of casting. They looked upon precious metals not as a source of wealth but as a medium of decoration and ornament, and used it thus for wall decoration, jewelry, vessels, flat ornaments for adorning their clothing, and even fish hooks. To them it was something that would serve many purposes, either decorative or functional, and they used it lavishly.It was this abandon in using gold especially that made South and Central America the miracle lands of the Spaniards. In a way it was this abandon also which contributed to the disappearance of much of the beautiful metalwork of the Andean and Central American peoples. When the conquistadores arrived in the new world in the sixteenth century it is reported that they evinced such amazement and greed at the sight of the material wealth displayed before them that Montezuma was puzzled over the strange disease of the white man which could be cured only by gold. Unaccustomed to a civilization which esteemed precious metals only as means of ornament and decoration, the Spaniards looked upon the beautiful gold and silver treasures of the new world only as an inexhaustible supply of wealth for the Spanish treasury. They were not aware of the artistic value of the jewelry, gold cups, and other objects that appeared in such dazzling profusion before them, but they were not primarily interested in works of art. They were out for gold. So they ordered these exquisitely fashioned ornaments melted up and made into ingots for easier shipment back to Spain. The very artists who had labored so lovingly over their work were given the task of breaking it up, and as the delicate objects melted again to their original formless state they, too, must have ruminated over the inexplicable standards of the white man.It was in Peru that the greatest treasure stores were found, and it is now generally conceded that the development of metal working in South America anticipated that in Central America. It is obvious not only from the examples of metalwork still to be seen but from the reports of Spanish observers that the region which Pizarro found in control of the Incas was rich beyond belief in precious metal and in objects fashioned of it. So thoroughly was this treasure looted that comparatively few of the once numerous works of art now remain. For this reason, as well as for the quality of the pieces themselves, the Peruvian gold ear studs now in the Institute's collection are of special interest.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Gold ear stud with figures of Demi-God and attendants. Detail of disk. Peruvian, late Chimu period.
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Source: "A Pair of Peruvian Gold Ear Studs," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 32, no. 33 (December, 1943): 114-116.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009