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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
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Expansive and Diverse: Unraveling the Cultures of the Americas

The continental masses of the Americas feature a great range of plentiful natural resources and diverse habitats. Throughout North America, hunting provided an important source of food, usually supplementing that obtained from wild plants or from agriculture. In addition, the hides of animals were used for clothing and, in some areas such as the Central Plains, animal hides were fashioned into tents, which could be easily transported as groups travelled in pursuit of migratory herds of buffalo. There were no people so completely dependent on hunting and fishing as those who lived in the far north, where the harsh habitat is poor in plant foods. The hunting life of the Arctic peoples is reflected in their art, and particularly in the decoration of practical objects, tools and weapons often carved from ivory.

The cultures of the northwest coast of North America are famous for their sculpture in wood. An enormous variety of useful objects, such as utensils, paddles, and storage chests, were made of wood, carved and painted in a formal yet flexible style. The theme of this art is broadly religious in that the animals, birds and other creatures represented were beings with supernatural powers. Often the motifs refer to characters in ancient tales, stories still told in the present day.

The ancient cultures of Mexico and South and Central America were as diverse as those further north. The production of fine pottery was widespread and metalworking extremely important, with the peoples of Mexico, Columbia, and Peru producing masterpieces of art and craftsmanship using a variety of sophisticated techniques. Silver, copper, tin, and platinum were all exploited, but gold was especially prized for its durability and association with the sun. Long before European contact, American goldsmiths had independently discovered all the principal techniques of gold working, including hammering, casting, and gilding.

Chest and throne used for storing ceremonial regalia

Tsimshian or Haida, British Columbia, Canada, mid-19th century
Wood
Presented by the Trustees of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum
1854 W Am 5 1178,1185 and 1186.
Enlargement
Chest and throne used for storing ceremonial regalia

Highly decorated boxes of this type were used by Canadian First Nations to store, masks, rattles and ceremonial robes worn at winter feasts. These occasions, called potlatches, were held by major chiefs to celebrate life cycle events, and particularly the naming of an heir to a particular title and honour. The abstract low relief design represents a crest, perhaps Bear. The horror vacui, and split representation has sometimes been compared to the decoration of taotie masks found on Archaic Chinese bronzes.

Hammered and embossed gold helmet

Quimbaya, AD 600-1100
Colombia, South America
H11.3, Diam20.4 cm
Ethno +342
Enlargement
Hammered and embossed gold helmet

The earliest evidence for metalworking in the Americas can be traced back to around 2000 BC in the Peruvian Andes. From there it gradually spread northward to Ecuador, Colombia, Central America and Mexico. Silver, copper, tin and even platinum were all exploited in the Andes, but gold was especially prized by Pre-Hispanic cultures for it durability and associations with the sun. Some of the most accomplished native American gold-working traditions are those of Colombia where the precious metal is readily found as granules and nuggets in river sands and gravels. Gold's natural malleability lent itself to being hammered into thin sheets and plaques using specially fashioned implements made of extremely hard polished stone such as basalt. It was skilfully worked into a great variety of body ornaments including helmets, nose-rings, ears-pools pendants and pectorals. This helmet is likely to have been used as part of a suite of gold ritual regalia worn by a priest or chief. The embossed design on one side shows a female figure standing naked with upraised arms. Similar imagery is found on gold lime-flasks and suggests that these objects may have been used together in the course of fertility rites to invoke ancestral sources of spiritual power and thereby ensure the regeneration of plants and fruits essential to sustain human life.

Hammered gold pectorals

Calima AD 600-1500
Colombia, South America
H27.0, W36.0, D5.0; H27.0, W19.5, D5.0 cm
Ethno 1900 5-17.1; 1978 Q.4
Enlargement 1
Enlargement 2
Hammered gold pectorals
 
Hammered gold pectorals

These two large pectorals were worn suspended from the neck to cover the chest. They exploited the reflective properties of hammered gold to create a dazzling impression as they captured and reflected the light of the sun. Such objects were held to mirror solar qualities in the earthly sphere and to embody the qualities and attributes of the wearer as a divine representative. Many items like these were used for body ornament and alloys of copper and gold produced variations in surface colour ranging from pure yellow to reddish gold. Some objects had their surfaces modified by a process known as depletion gilding in which copper was removed in order to enhance and enrich the golden lustre. The skilfully fashioned elegant spiral forms in the example shown here may hint at the creative, spiralling forces of growth particularly evident in burgeoning plant life at key times in the seasonal cycle. The embossed human head with and elaborate beaded necklace emphasises the divine power held to be invested in the priests and chiefs who would have worn this impressive regalia.

Hammered gold mask with nose ornament

Calima AD 600-1500
Colombia, South America
H17.0, W20.0, D6.0 cm
Ethno Am88 7-17.1
Enlargement
Hammered gold mask with nose ornament

Gold had a profound symbolic significance in Amerindian beliefs. As an enduring and incorruptible substance that resists decay, gold alluded to the enduring spiritual knowledge of wise leaders and priests. Sixteenth-century Spanish chroniclers record their fascination with the profusion of gold jewellery worn by indigenous chiefs and priests. Legends told of a man who was covered in gold dust - El Dorado or 'the gilded one'. He was then said to bath in a lake during an annual ceremony in the course of which offerings of other magnificent gold objects were made. Gold face masks that have survived suggest that these tales may derive their inspiration from rites that did actually take place in different contexts and settings. Whether worn in life or accompanying the deceased into the afterlife, such gold objects came to embody deeply held beliefs about an invisible spirit world that exists parallel to and beyond the visible world of physical appearances. The Spanish conquistadores also valued gold but in a very different way, since they sought personal wealth and enrichment. The sight of sacred indigenous objects spurred their ruthless pursuit of the precious metal and much of the gold was forcibly obtained from their owners or looted from tomb and graves to be melted down and taken back to Spain to be used as coinage.

Cast gold pectoral of a chief or priest

Popayan AD 1100-1500
Colombia, South America
Ethno 1938 7-6.1
Enlargement
祭司或酋長的黃金胸飾

Many centuries before any European contact, native American goldsmiths had independently discovered and developed all the principal techniques of gold-working, including hammering casting and gilding. Casting techniques were in widespread use by the first millennium AD and feature prominently in the varied regional traditions of Colombia. Continuous experimentation also led to the development of different alloys. The most common of these was a blend of gold and copper known as tumbaga that had a lower melting point than pure gold and was less brittle than pure copper. This meant that it could be more easily worked to fashion complex objects such as this pectoral that was made using the lost-wax method. Although the striking plumed headdress worn by the central figure might appear at first sight to have been made with wire filigree, the grooves were in fact carved on the surface of the original wax model. The spectacular feathered headdress is complemented by a distinctive crescent form beneath the feet that represents the fan of tail feathers typical of powerful raptorial birds. Together these allude to the notion of shamanic flight – the visionary soul quests undertaken by learned priests and leaders in search of hidden spirit knowledge. In this case the central figure has two hybrid creatures clinging to his upper arms, and is flanked by four small avian attendants who will accompany him on his journey.