Three female curators smile while holding up reproduction pre-Columbian face ornaments

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In the ancient Americas, skilled craftspeople made luxurious objects for ritual and regalia from their culture’s most prized materials. Jade, rather than gold, was the most precious substance to the Olmecs and the Maya in Mesoamerica; and the Incas and their predecessors in the Andes valued feathers and textiles above all. Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas is an exhibition that traces the development of the luxury arts from 1200 BC to the beginnings of European colonization in the sixteenth century.

We recently sat down with two of the exhibition curators, Kim Richter from the Getty Research Institute (at left in the photo above) and Joanne Pillsbury from the Met (center), along with project’s research assistant Emma Turner-Trujillo (right), to answer your questions that came to us on Instagram.

Questions ranging from how nose, ear, and lip ornaments were worn to the meaning of “divine excrement” are organized and answered below.

What Is “Luxury?”

How is luxury defined in this context? Did a concept of luxury as we understand it exist within these cultures? —@Missritalynn

Luxury arts are defined as works of high value in restricted circulation. I think contemporary understandings of luxury are as superfluous things. We are going back to an older understanding of luxury that has to do with right and title. We know for example that in the Aztec empire there were strict sumptuary laws. There were certain materials and certain objects that only few had the right to wear. —Joanne

Who wore more luxury items? Women or men? Why? —@Fleur_de_lyr

Two recently excavated tombs in the ancient Andes feature burials of royal women and include nose ornaments and regalia just as glorious as those of men. In the first millennium BC the big “bling” was largely for the men, but in the first centuries AD, women wear some pretty spectacular ornaments as well. The Señora de Cao, for example, went to the great beyond with no fewer than forty-four exquisite nose ornaments made of gold and silver. —Emma and Joanne

A rectangular piece of jade with rounded edges with a faint carving of a hand holding a feline creature.

Clamshell-Shaped Pendant, 300 B.C.–A.D. 700, Olmec. Jade, 3 7/8 × 12 7/16 × 11/16 in. Colección Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Materials and Their Value

What material DID they consider to be worth more than gold? —@Gotoric

In some ways, this question was the genesis of this project. We came across a document from the sixteenth century that describes the Inca conquest of the Chimú and records that the Inca extracted much treasure including gold and silver as well as these red shells which the indigenous population considered more valuable than gold or silver. The red shell is called Spondylus, which is a spiky red-orange shell that has all sorts of great associations. It was considered to be a great bringer of water and fertility. The shell was called “the daughter of the seas, the mother of all waters” and very closely associated with divine power. —Joanne

In Mesoamerica, jade, feathers, and turquoise were among the most highly valued materials. —Emma and Kim

An intricate woven tunic with a geometric checkerboard pattern

Royal Tunic (All T’oqapu Tunic), 1450–1540, made in Peru, South America. Wool and cotton, 38 1/2 × 32 1/2 in. Image © Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC

How Were Objects Used?

How do we know today how items were used in daily life, ritual, etc.? —@Sleepywaldo

Frequently we do not know how they were used in life and ritual. But some of the uses can be inferred from how they were found—in burials and other archaeological contexts—and how they were depicted in painted ceramic vessels, stone monuments, and manuscripts. In Maya ceramic vessels, for example, we see precious materials being offered as royal gifts or as tribute. We are fortunate with the Maya because they had a sophisticated system of writing, so we know more about these objects, such as who made them and for what purpose. —Joanne, Kim, and Emma

While these are clearly luxury objects, were there equivalents (in size/shape/etc.) worn by members of different classes but made of less durable materials? Thanks! —@A_newer_world

Yes, we know that nose and ear ornaments were made out of a variety of materials. Certain materials may have been restricted to certain social groups. We know in the ancient Andes that gold was particularly closely associated with royalty and men; silver with women, and the nobility.

Mexica emperors of the Aztec Empire and Mixtec lords wore turquoise nose ornaments to show off their lordly status. In both regions the same ornament type could be made of less precious, sometimes less durable materials such as wood, and worn by individuals of lesser status. —Joanne and Kim

Where nose pieces like the ones in this picture worn on a daily basis or just for special occasions/ceremonies? If the latter, what kind of events? —@Adrimfern

At the very least they would be worn for public occasions. Nose ornaments of certain materials and expert craftsmanship would be reserved for those of higher status and for special ceremonies. —Emma and Joanne

Animated gif of a small golden lip ornament in the shape of a snake moving its tongue up and down.

Animated GIF of Serpent Labret with Articulated Tongue, 1300–1521, Aztec culture. Gold. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, 2015 Benefit Fund and Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2016 (2016.64). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Could you show us how the Aztec serpent labret would have been worn? And how the tongue moves? —@jbgatchalian

A person would have a piercing or puncture below the lower lip and the labret would stick out. What makes this labret so incredible is its articulated tongue, which would have moved as the wearer was speaking. The tongue can move side to side, up and down, and in and out. —Emma

How much does the labret weigh? –@growinggirl

It weighs 51.35 grams, or 1.81 ounces!

Who wore these and for what? Was there a class separation indicated by these or were they common? Were the artists recognized like today or was it more of a general trade or craft? What inspired this style and the motifs shared by the different cultures? Was there a common origin? And if so what was it and how far back can it be traced? Were they buried with them like ancient Egyptians? Were they destroyed like ancient Chinese? Or were they passed on through generations?’ —@Soschian

It varies from place to place. In the ancient Andes ear ornaments were worn by men, and as we now know, women, but generally by those of high or special status. When the first Spaniards arrived they could recognize members of the nobility because they had long, loopy earlobes from wearing these huge things. They called them “orejones.”

Regarding the artists, we wish we knew more. What little we do know is fascinating, however. Among the Classic Maya, for example, it seems as if some of the artists were of fairly high status—they were born into the nobility. Brown University professor Stephen Houston has done some wonderful research on Maya artists, and indeed identified the only known signature of a lapidary artist (stone carver) on the back of one beautiful jadeite belt ornament.

Many of the works in the exhibition are from funerary contexts, others were passed down as heirlooms, and still others were votive offerings—burned, shattered, or torn, and then offered to the underworld powers at the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza (on the Yucatan Peninsula). —Joanne

An ornate neck piece is made of tiny orange-red shells that look like small beads.

Spondylus Pectoral, 200-1470, Moche or Chimú culture. Spondylus shell, 10 1/4 × 20 1/16 × 5/16 in. MUSEO LARCO, LIMA – PERU. Photo: Juan Pablo Murrugarra Villanueva

What types of gifts/precious items did sweethearts give each other to show deep affection? Thanks! @Champagnewashere

From the Pre-Columbian codex in the show—the Codex Zouche-Nuttall made by the Mixtecs during the fifteenth century in the region that is today Oaxaca—we know that an exquisitely painted tripod filled with foaming chocolate was exchanged as part of noble marriage ceremonies. Maybe that’s why chocolate is so popular during Valentine’s Day?! —Kim

Probably the most obvious—the objects look ceremonial but what was their role? —@Wheresweraiart

Moche nose ornaments were likely worn in life. Those of the Lady of Cao (@museocao) were so finely made—and she had 44 of them—that she must have worn them in life. Joanne always points out that the headdress in the same case looks hastily made and therefore may have only been used as a funerary offering. Sometimes metal objects also show signs of ancient repair, indicating that they would have been used with some frequency (such as the disk from Michoacan, a generous loan from the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City). Our colleague from the Museo del Oro in Bogota has written eloquently about the use of Muisca objects in our catalogue.

The gold ornaments in the exhibition that come from the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan are so thin and delicate that it is difficult to imagine that they were ever worn. They were made specifically as an offering intended to be deposited at this most sacred site of the Aztec Empire. They are miniature ornaments representing the insignia of different deities, such as the wind god (Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl) or moon goddess (Coyolxauhqui). —Kim

Stories About Objects and the Exhibition

Which object in the show is most mysterious to you? —@Rrrruuutth

I find the copal incense burner with greenstone pieces from the Sacred Cenote from Chichen Itza mysterious. A casual observer might not know all the media that are in dialogue with one another (copal, a type of resin that smells very good when you burn it, and jadeite), but it demonstrates how copal incense was used and also how jadeite was heated up and ritually broken. —Emma

What, oh what, is “divine excrement?” Also, how many people actually wore jewelry on a day to day basis? Or was it mostly worn for ceremonial occasions? —@Fossilizethis

Teocuitlatl was the Nahuatl word for gold—this is in the language that the Mexica of the Aztec Empire and other cultures in Central Mexico spoke, and many indigenous groups in Mexico still speak today. The term translates to “divine excrement”…or more humorously, “holy shit.”

Both are true: rulers would have definitely adorned themselves with various precious and luxurious materials on a daily basis, such as with finely woven textiles, feathered headdresses, ear ornaments made of various materials, and necklaces and pendants. However, certain ritual occasions would have called for special adornments. I doubt that Maya rulers wore a distinctive netted dress made of jadeite beads daily—it must have weighed a lot—it surely would have been reserved for special ceremonial occasions. —Kim

Ornate silver and gold plaque in the form of sea creatures, with a gold crab at center and silver crayfish at the side, with inset jade eyes

Nose Ornament, about 400, Moche culture. Gold and silver, 1 3/4 × 2 5/8 × 1/8 in. Museo Cao, Ministerio de Cultura del Perú. Foto: Fundación Augusto N. Wiese

What’s the most interesting thing you learned while planning this exhibition? —@Tristyyybabyyy

The continuity of indigenous practices into the colonial era. In particular, the continuity of the Aztec feather-working tradition, as seen in the feather painting The Mass of St. Gregory. The painting, made entirely out of a variety of different colored feathers, depicts the Eucharist, but is created by indigenous artists using indigenous techniques. —Emma

Gold metalwork in the shape of a jaguar

Lime Container in the Shape of a Jaguar, 100 B.C.–A.D. 800, Calima-Yotoco culture. Gold and platinum, 2 5/8 × 5 5/16 in. Lent by the Museo del Oro, Banco de la República, Bogotá. Photo: Clark M. Rodríguez

Only pick one: What is your favorite piece in the entire show? —@Betsyleebee

Joanne and Kim can’t pick—it’s like picking their favorite child. But I’ll say, it’s hard to choose but one of my favorites is a lime powder container, called a poporo, in the shape of a jaguar from Colombia. What makes this vessel exceptional is that all of its limbs are articulated—they can move independently, including its claws. Its usage is extremely interesting as a container for lime, which is a catalyst needed to activate coca leaves, a stimulant, a person would chew them together to get energized. —Emma

P.S. While I can’t select a favorite among the works in the show, my favorite moment when I give tours is when we come to the The Mass of St. Gregory at the end of the show. I always explain why we have some colonial pieces such as this one in the show—to show how indigenous artistic practices persisted and were adapted in the period following the Spanish Conquest—and when I tell the visitors that the piece is not just a painting but entirely made of feathers, they always gasp and come closer to look because they can’t believe their eyes. I think this moment opens them up to absorb the important history of the work: it was commissioned in 1539 by an indigenous governor as a gift for the pope, who two years earlier had issued a papal bull declaring that the indigenous people of the Americas were rational human beings. Visitors are always in shock when they contemplate that this was ever in question! —Kim

Tiny colorful feathers attached to wood illustrate the mass of Saint Gregory.

Mass of Saint Gregory, 1539, made in Mexico. Feathers, wood, and paint, 35 3/16 × 30 1/2 × 3 3/8 in. Musée des Jacobins – Auch (France). Image © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Benoît Touchard

What’s the oldest object in the #GoldenKingdoms exhibition? —@metmuseum

Among the oldest objects are two stone sculptures, one from the Andes, the other from Mesoamerica. The Pacopampa stela, now in the Museo Larco in Lima, depicts a fearsome female goddess, and she was made perhaps as early as 1200 BC. Another wonderful work, now in the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, nicknamed the Prince, may have been made at the same time but by the Olmecs on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. —Joanne

What’s the average weight of the nose ornaments? —@Tamarasphere

How heavy are those? Do they stretch noses? Is it everyday wear? –@Blunarwhale

The weight of the nose ornaments of the Lady of Cao from the North Coast of Peru (the one that Emma wore for the picture…made of paper of course) is between 4.7 g and 7.9 g—so relatively lightweight.

They typically didn’t seem to have stretched the noses much. However, after the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, the Aztecs depicted the Huastecs from the Gulf Coast of Mexico as having stretched septums. They also describe them has having worn feathers in their noses in addition to precious stones.—Kim

A gold flat metal object with an image of a vicious creator at the top floats on a gray background.

Gold Hip Protector with a Representation of the “Decapitator”, 625–645, Moche culture. Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, Ministerio de Cultura del Perú. Photo: Juan Pablo Murrugarra Villanueva

Can you share more information about the Spider Decapitator? That imagery is so interesting! — Amanda Sparrow

Great question! We see him a lot in Moche iconography (Peru, 200-800 AD), wielding a crescent-shaped knife and holding aloft a trophy head. UCLA professor emeritus Christopher Donnan has done some terrific work on this subject, as has Ignacio Alva. Chris has suggested that as a spider would capture its victims in its web and drain them of their vital fluids, so would Moche warrior-priests capture their enemies and sap their power. —Joanne

Did they use and make any types of mirrors to see this ornamental jewelry? And if so, what did these mirrors look like?” —@Boujani

Yes, they made mirrors, but not necessarily to just look at the jewelry. In Mesoamerica, they made mirrors out of polished obsidian (volcanic glass), hematite, or pyrite, which would have been attached to a slate or wood backing. We have two such mirror backs in the show (the Teotihuacan mirror back in the Costa Rica section and the turquoise mosaic disk from Chichen Itza), but both are missing the mirror part. It is likely that such mirrors were used for divination, meant for communicating with deities and the supernatural realm. —Kim

One page of the Codez Mendoza

Codex Mendoza, early 1540s, attributed to Francisco Gualpuyoguacal (illustrator) and Juan González (author). Paper and pigment, 12 5/8 in. high. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Arch. Selden. A. 1, fol. 46r

European Colonizers

What luxury items of the ancient Americas did the arriving Europeans not consider of value? —@Leconanne

At the beginning, the Spaniards were far less interested in the textiles and featherworks. They sent some as examples of artistry, but for the most part they were mainly interested in the noble metals. The same is true for jadeite, which held little interest for the Spaniards. There are accounts of the Mexica of the Aztec Empire exchanging gold for green glass beads with the Spaniards, preferring the green glass beads and remarking upon the Spanish obsession for gold. The important point here is that this exhibition questions the idea of any sense of universal value or inherent value—these are cultural constructions. —Kim, Joanne, Emma

Is there a clear difference between luxury items made pre-Columbus vs. post-Columbus? (Given that from what I know, the term Pre-Columbian is fairly contentious) –@Yardleysee

Things didn’t necessarily come to a complete halt after the arrival of the Spaniards. It took some time for viceregal (Spanish) power to be consolidated in the Americas. Some traditions were stamped out as markers of idolatry as time went by, but other traditions continued, but in new ways. Feather-working, for example, a sacred tradition for the Mexica, continued in the context of the Spanish church, for example. The great artistic traditions continue, but for a new god, and new kings. Read more about Latinx identity and Latinx terms on The Getty Iris! —Joanne

The Future of Discovery

Because I’m sure these types of items were a huge interest in the people who knew of their existence, do you in your professional opinions think that there may still be huge discoveries left to be made? Or can we pretty much bet that what is out there is all we can hope to see? —@Juancastillo_77

Absolutely. One of the most exciting things about this exhibition is that many of these works were excavated in recent years. We emphasize some of the most exciting discoveries in the last 30 years, and we’re seeing a very exciting time for archaeology in Latin America. Some pieces have been discovered so recently that they only got a registry number two months before they were shipped to the exhibition. One of the great pleasures of this show has been working with our archaeology colleagues in Latin America to present these materials to a broader public. —Joanne, Kim, and Emma

Thanks for your questions! Any other questions strike you? Ask below in the comments.


Golden Kingdoms is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, September 16, 2017–January 28, 2018, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, February 27–May 28, 2018.