All that glitters attracts both the museum visitor and the archaeologist. Whether one is looking at tastefully displayed objects in museum galleries of ancient American art or assisting on an archaeological dig in north coastal Peru, the sight of gold and other polished metal objects commands ones attention. First it is the visual beauty of a gold object, the warm reflective brilliance that astonishes the viewer; but with further looking and some inquiry it becomes the technical mastery involved in making the object.

Metalworking in the ancient Americas had a modest but early beginning. Small pieces of gold foil, dating from 1500 BC, were found at a grave site in the southern Peruvian Andes. At the same location some metalsmiths tools, a stone anvil and hammers, were also found. The modest remains of gold underscore two characteristics of ancient Peruvian metalworking evidently established in 1500 BC and which continued through the next three thousand years. First, the simple process of hammering the gold into thin sheets was from the beginning the most widely used technique of working gold and other metals in ancient Peruvian cultures, and it would remain so for the next three millennia. Second, the gold foil was found, along with beads made of lapis lazuli, in a young man’s grave; thus, indicating the early function of gold as a precious material to accompany the dead in the grave, and into the afterworld. The mortuary function of gold, as well as its symbolic associations, seems to be an integral characteristic of ancient South American cultures. Exquisitely crafted objects of gold, silver, and mixed metals have been excavated from royal tombs located throughout southern and Meso America, spanning in time the three millennia leading up to the European contact in the sixteenth century.


Evidence indicates that the technology for working metals began in the southern Andean region of Peru and spread north into Colombia. By 400 BC, elegant goldwork was being produced in the northern centers of culture in South America. Over the next 800 years the practice of metalworking continued to spread northward, reaching the Central American Isthmus by way of the Caribbean route from Colombia around 400 AD. Major centers of gold production were established in the Central American Isthmus where objects of a distinct style were crafted for the next four hundred years. Metallurgy did not reach ancient Mexican cultures until the end of the first millennium AD. However, finely crafted metal objects, dating from the late 15th century from Monte Alban in Oaxaca, indicate Mexican smiths had mastered the same techniques employed by their southern neighbors, yet with a marked regional style. Each region and culture emphasized and excelled in different techniques throughout the ancient Americas but there was a general similarity of workmanship.

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Gold and silver worked in Mexico is best documented in the verbal, eyewitness accounts of Cortez and his men. Along with these accounts there are numerous 16th century chronicles providing excited descriptions of the New World’s cache of shimmering gold and silver that was entering into Europe. There was enthusiasm for the New World bullion from melted objects as well as for the pieces preserved in gold as curiosities and art in royal collections. Inventories of objects obtained by the conquistadors for the King of Spain list the myriad gold and silver pieces brought across the ocean for the King’s inspection and possession.

FIGURE 2, South America, Peru, Moche Culture, Figure of a Pampas cat, 400 BC – 100 AD hammered and soldered gold ,10.8 cm l. Restricted gift of the Alsdorf Foundation and Primitive Art Purchase Fund, 1970.420 Photograph © 1993, The Art Institute of Chicago, All Rights Reserved

It is worth comparing our contemporary reaction to these masterful creations with those of the Europeans upon first viewing the New World treasures which were on display in Spain and Flanders from the 16th century on. Cortez sent Charles V a selection of objects along with a letter explaining that since the pieces were so beautifully crafted, he had forwarded them intact for the King’s consideration and appreciation instead of immediately smelting them. By the 1530s precious metal objects began arriving from “New Granada” (Peru) along with pieces already being held in the King’s collection from “New Spain” (Mexico). Another example of 16th century appreciation is Albrecht Durer’s written reaction to the gold he viewed in King Charles V’s collection on display in Flanders. Durer, the great German artist, was the son of a goldsmith and he wrote that he had never before seen such wonderful, heart-warming, artistic things. He found the objects astonishing for their cleverness of creation. Craftsmanship was one aspect of these pieces admired by 16th century Europeans, who realized the techniques employed to create them in the New World far surpassed those used in Europe at the time. Another aspect that impressed the Europeans was the marvelous attention to detail displayed in the accurate renderings of natural forms and demonstrated by many small metal sculptures of lizards, birds, insects, and animals.

FIGURE 3, South America, Peru, Loma Negra, Cerro Vicus area; Moche Culture Mask, 1st – 3rd Century gilt-copper, 8.5 x 10 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Jane Costello Goldberg, from the Collection of Arnold I. Goldberg, 1980

A small, 4¼ inch long, pampas cat elegantly crouches in the display case of Moche art in the Art Institute of Chicago. (FIGURE 2) The cat is posed in a natural manner, with legs tucked close to the streamlined body, and head and tail pointing upward. When you see this small sculpture, the vital, quick nature of the beast is immediately understood. Even though the sculpture is monochromatic gold, the maker has illustrated the coloration of the cat by indicating the spotted fur with grooved outlines marking the dark patches on the cat’s body. This amazingly lifelike creature is one of seven, nearly identical crouching pampas cats made around 400 AD in the Lambayeque Valley of north coastal Peru.

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The cat in the Art Institute collection, small as it may be, is made of 12 individually cut pieces of hammered metal alloy. This alloy combined small percentages of copper and silver with a majority content of gold. (Ancient American metal objects are most often made of alloys.) Metalsmiths understood the advantages inherent in the use of alloys, for mixing metals stretched the use of the more precious gold and silver and also created an easier material to work. Ancient American metalworkers were quite aware of the fact that mixed metal content significantly lowers the melting point of the alloy. After the metal was hammered to an even, delicate thinness, the 12 individual pieces that make up the Art Institute’s car were cut, assembled, and then edge-welded into a crouching feline form. Each of the seven felines was made individually; no molds or matrices were used to duplicate the form. At the time of production the seven gold pampas cats were probably grouped together on a string to make a dazzling necklace!

FIGURE 4, South America, Peruvian, Moche Culture, Vessel with seated Moche ruler and an emblematic Pampas cat, c. 100 BC – 500 AD, ceramic. Buckingham Fund, 1955.2281 Photograph © 1993, The Art Institute of Chicago, All Rights Reserved

Gold, silver, and copper were reserved to make ritual and luxury goods for the wealthy and powerful in Moche society. While Moche metalsmiths continued the more than a thousand year old technique using hammered sheet metals, they also employed sophisticated metallurgy that was introduced into the smith’s repertoire during Moche times, 200-800 AD. Examples of some of these techniques arc: the use of alloys, electroplating by bathing the metal alloy in an acidic solution in order to cause gilding or silvering of the surface, and lost-wax casting. Technology was highly advanced, but surprisingly simple tools were used by Moche metalsmiths. Stone or metal hammers and anvils were used for hammering, lung power with the use of blow pipes (not bellows) provided air to stir the fires needed for smelting, annealing, and casting, and electroplating was achieved using a chemical solution.

The Moche metalsmith not only possessed technical knowledge, he also clearly understood the potential available to him to transform metals into a variety of objects through technical manipulation, These metalsmiths had an extraordinary ability to manipulate metals, taking two dimensional sheets and transforming them into intricate three dimensional sculptures. The stiff materials of copper, silver, and gold became flexible in the hands of these craftsmen; pieces were joined by crimping, tab and slot, and edge welding. And a base metal of copper could be turned into a shining surface of warm gold or cool silver by electroplating, to give the appearance of an object made of pure precious metal. Gold and silver were the preferred metals of the Moche elite who possessed many objects made of these metals.

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FIGURE 5, South America, North Coast, Peruvian, Moche Culture, Vessel representing a royal messenger, C. 100 BC – 500 AD, ceramic, 27 x 19.7 CM. Buckingham Fund, 1955.2291 Photograph © 1993, The Art Institute of Chicago, All Rights Reserved

The ruler seated on the square throne (FIGURE 4) is accompanied by a Pampas cat and he wears a short tunic made of metal platelets. His wristbands, earspools, large necklace, and double-disc headdress were most likely also made of shining metal. He is literally clothed in symbols that display his high office; the clothes and ornament make the man. The gilt copper head (FIGURE 3) served as a headdress insignia worn by a high ranking official. Gilded, silvered, gold, and silver objects were exclusively made for and worn by the elite and almost all precious metal was worked to create status emblems and ritual objects to indicate office, and luxury items for dress and ornament.

In FIGURE 4 the pampas cat reclining at the ruler’s side is an additional symbol of the man’s status, for the feline was a ubiquitous symbol of power in the ancient Americas. In the world of Moche, as seen in their art, the pampas cat is frequently depicted in association with rulers and other people of elevated position. The display of gold and silver ornaments, and the car, symbolically connected the ruler with natural forces essential for humankind’s daily existence. Often in Moche art, rulers, military officials, and priests were associated with animal alter-egos; in FIGURE 4 the protective powers of the lord are symbolized by the pampas cat. (Also look at FIGURE 5 in which each runner has an animal head insignia on their headdress affiliating the person with a cult or a ruler) As for the metal accessories and clothing, the gold and silver associated the individual with the sun, a life-giving force of nature deified by most ancient American people. A lord wearing gold and silver ornament would literally shine. The sun’s brilliance was imitated and reflected by the metal’s qualities to visually connect the wearer with the life force.

In the Moche landscape the mountains to the east were a sacred place. Constantly in view on the distant horizon the majestic mountains were the origins of the sun and of waterways which supplied waters to the coastal rivers where the Moche lived. Mountain rivers provided fresh water to irrigate the coastal farm lands, and the alluvial rich rivers of the highlands were the source of gold. Thus the Moche respected and depended on the mountains as providers of these precious highland resources. Moche lifestyle was dictated by the natural environment. These hearty and talented people, who lived in the Moche River valley from the beginning of the first millennium through the seventh century AD, developed into an influential and formidable cultural presence in north coastal Peru. They spread their culture through military conquest, extending north along the coast to the Lambayeque River valley and along the southern coast to the Nepena River valley (FIGURE 1). Life flourished in a geography composed of desert lands flanked by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andean mountains to the east. Desert terrain is indicated on the round body of the ceramic vase of FIGURE 5 where the runners are shown traversing a sandy, undulating ground. Life was only possible in the coastal deserts where rivers dissected and led the arid land.

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FIGURE 6, South America, Peru, Moche Culture, Copper mummy mask, hammered copper with incrusted shell eyes, 20 CM h. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Cummings, 1960.900, Photograph © 1993, The Art Institute of Chicago, All Rights Reserved

Moche life and philosophy are recorded in their art. Customs and ideas are represented in an engaging and realistic manner in modeled or painted clay vessels and sculpted metal objects. The objects illustrate a world, long vanished, in which we see the way people look, their manner of dress, day to day interactions, and sacred rituals. A startlingly lifelike mask of copper, (FIGURE 6) modeled into an accurate description of a man’s face not only exhibits proportional features, but the details of bushy eyebrows and intense, wide-staring eyes. The Moche, like most other ancient American cultures, did not develop a written language; instead they left us a vivid visual record of themselves. It is from this visual record along with information gained through recent scientific excavations, that we are offered a better understanding of their world.

Information regarding social structure and evolution of the Moche is coming to light with evidence recovered from recent tomb excavations in the Moche river valleys, Since the Spaniards arrived 500 years ago, “gold diggers” have been searching for precious metal objects and other valuable antiquities buried with the dead. In the past six years Moche tombs have provided the richest supply of superbly crafted metal objects ever found in ancient South American sites. Until 1987 most Moche ceramics and metal objects had been removed from grave sites without proper scientific documentation.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city has one of the largest collections of Loma Negra metal objects. In their display cases one can see the finely crafted nose ornaments, earspools, necklaces, headdress insignias, and banner emblems made of gilt and silvered copper from this site. Stylistic comparison and scientific analysis of objects like these are used to date them around 300 AD and identify the region of origin. Taken from Loma Negra graves in the late 1960s, the pieces must have come from a royal tomb due to the use of gold and silver, and the high quality of metalworking. The nose ornament (FIGURE 7) combines gold and silver, beautifully contrasting the reflective cool and warm surfaces of the two metals. In combination with the color variation the smith enlivened the nose piece by placing six spiders in relief to fill the rectangular format, and surrounding each creature with small circular dangles. Any slight movement would set the ornament and the face of the wearer aglitter.

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Nose ornaments were an essential element of ritual attire in ancient south America and a high percentage of Loma Negra objects are nose ornaments of all shapes, sizes, material compositions, and manufacture. They were worn hanging from the septum, thus covering the wearer’s mouth. In fact, the gilt-copper head of FIGURE 3 would have originally worn a miniature nose ornament; his open mouth bearing teeth would not have been seen. The six-spider nose piece would have been worn as part of an elaborate outfit to distinguish the wearer from commoners and to symbolize the person’s association with natural forces and possibly specific ceremonies. The spider motif was associated with sacrifice in Moche iconography.

Until 1987 many questions surrounded Moche metal objects, and other examples of Moche art and culture. In the case of the Loma Negra pieces, who owned and wore these exquisite ornaments and jewelry? What rank in society was the dignitary who was buried with such fine metal pieces? What combination of earspools, nose ornaments, necklaces, eceteras were placed in one grave? What other objects or persons accompanied high ranking officials in their final resting place?

FIGURE 7, South America, Peru, Loma Negra, Cerro Vicus area; Moche Culture, Nose Ornament: Spiders, 1st – 3rd Century gold, silver, shell, stone, 2⅝” h. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

A good number of these questions have been answered with information gained from carefully conducted scientific excavations at the Lambayeque and Jequetepeque river valleys, south of Loma Negra. Since the late 1980s and continuing today, there have been a number of tomb excavations conducted by archaeologists in the central Moche region. Peruvian archaeologist, Walter Alva, has been directing excavations at Sipan for the past six years. His focus has been a low-lying funerary complex made of abode bricks. It seems the complex was built in phases over several generations. Within the structure archaeologists have discovered three major tombs, and possibly more remain yet to be found. Each of the major burials excavated has contained the remains of a Moche dignitary, complete with fine dress, fancy jewelry, ritual emblems of office, luxurious offerings, and human attendants. Two lords and one warrior-priest were unearthed, each placed within a private chamber at a different level within the complex; possibly they represent three generations of Sipan’s Moche dynasty.

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At Sipan, each official was prepared for the grave and afterlife just as he had appeared in official ceremonies in life. The quantity of exquisite metal objects in each burial is astounding; these were indeed the graves of the highest ranking officials of Sipan. Abundant assortments of jewelry of all combinations of alloys and gold and silver were placed in layers on and around the body. Within one burial were found several headdresses (some embellished with exotic bird feathers), numerous necklaces of three-dimensional miniature sculptures of peanuts, and human, animal, and fantastic heads, and numerous earspools, bracelets, and nose ornaments. Finely woven textiles, worn as shirts and placed over the body as banner, were embellished with metal platelets and disks. The textiles created layers that dressed and wrapped around the body. Emblematic objects such as sacrificial knives, rattles, conch shells, and jewelry were placed within the layers both below and above the body in an apparently precise manner. Special attention was given to the head, crowned with a headdress, encircled by several large necklaces, flanked by several pairs of bright, shining earspools, and encased in a mask of hammered gold pieces in the shape of forehead, chin, eyes, cheeks, nose, and mouth. The nose piece from Loma Negra (FIGURE 8) in the shape of bedecked human head will give you an understated idea of how the human countenance was concealed by gold ornament, presenting a superhuman golden visage. The dignitaries were smothered in fine metal adornments. With this lavish preparation the deceased could enter into an existence where their identity and status would not be mistaken.

Contents of the Sipan mausoleum reveal many cultural characteristics of the Moche, social structure, political/religious hierarchy, trading practices, and simply the function of many fine metal pieces. The function of many Loma Negra pieces is now more specifically understood as part of an elaborate burial cache. The discoveries have allowed Moche scholars to look at similar objects, initially viewed out of context, and now through comparison place them in a historic timeline and within the Moche’s cultural evolution.

FIGURE 8, South America, Peru, Loma Negra, Cerro Vicus area; Moche Culture, Nose Ornament, 1st – 3rd Century, gold, 5” h. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

It has been apparent in viewing and discussing individual metal sculptures, that Moche metalsmiths reached, both technically and aesthetically, an extremely high and innovative level of achievement. The Moche people were an accomplished civilization, in all aspects of cultural development. Bearing witness to Moche achievements is the Huaca del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun), the largest remaining structure from ancient cultures in South America. It is a solid adobe pyramid which rises 40 meters high and is at least 350 meters long located in the Moche valley. The colossal structure looms large on the horizon, a human made mountain in honor of the sacred peaks to the east. The Moche were also highly advanced in hydraulic engineering and irrigation which allowed them to cultivate extensive stretches of desert. As sculptors, no other ancient South American artists matched the creative energy and technical innovation of the Moche working in clay and metals. For hundreds of years the artisans, the merchants, the warriors, and the laborers worked in the service of the rulers, priests, and officers in exchange for food and the assurance of political and spiritual protection. The Moche elite were masters of their realm and they nurtured, as well as demanded, high levels of achievement from their subjects.

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Now with large quantities of metalwork coming to light from elite Moche tombs, it is evident that there was a great demand for the production of status emblems, jewelry, and ritual adornments. Moche smiths working for the elite were encouraged to excel in their craft because their products served to perpetuate the social hierarchy and ensure the visual association of the priests, lords, and military officers with the sacred powers of nature. It is certain the metalsmiths never sat idle. In Moche society there was no tradition of passing on the luxury items of the royal household to the next generation. Thus, their products were necessary in large quantities as objects for office both in this world and the afterworld.

Alva, Walter
1988, “Discovering the New World’s Richest Unlooted Tomb”, National Geographic, October 1988.
1990, “New Tomb of Royal Splendor”, National Geographic, June 1990.
Benson, Elizabeth P.
1979, Pre-Columbian Metallurgy of South America, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, Washington, D.C.
1986, Atlas of the Ancient Americas, New York, New York.
Donnan, Christopher
1978, Moche Art of Peru: Pre-Colombian Symbolic Communication, Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California.
1990, “Masterworks Reveal a Pre-Inca World”, National Geographic, June 1990.
Jones, Julie
1985, The Art of Pre-Columbian Gold: The Jan Mitchell Collection, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Townsens, Richard
1992, The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago.
Clare Kunny is a senior lecturer in the department of museum education at the art institute of Chicago.