A Gold Menagerie

The last few posts have been a bit dense and rambly–maybe even a bit navel-gaze-y at times–so I thought it would be nice if, this time round, I limited myself to writing a short post whose main message is simply “LOOK AT ALL THIS STUFF! IT’S AMAZING!” Specifically, I want to tell you about the “little El Dorado” (in the words of former director Philippe de Montebello) that is tucked away in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Precolumbian section, and, in particular, the few glass cases containing artefacts from Panama and Costa Rica. I stumbled upon them completely by accident this summer, and could not tear myself away from them, taking pictures and notes and just marvelling at how splendid they were. They mostly date from between the 11th and 16th centuries, mostly depict animals or fantastic beings, and we know overall very little about the people who made them, as they left no written records. The region’s present-day “traditional” inhabitants are often used to cast some light on the beliefs and culture of these extraordinarily skilled goldsmiths, but several centuries have passed, and stuff like Catholicism, US cod-imperialism and extremely rapid technological advancement have happened, so I’m not sure how useful the comparison actually is.

But, without further ado–let’s start with the eagle pendants. Crazy cool. As you will be able to see though, these creatures bear only a vague resemblance to the birds they’re supposed to represent. It’s not just a question of stylisation–there are whole new body parts, and weird appendages, and jewellery. Could they not be mythical beasts whose names and stories have been forgotten? Then again, another possibility is that what is being depicted is not just eagles, but what is known about eagles. So for, example, you’ll notice that the first eagle has protruding eyes–eagles don’t have protruding eyes, but it might be a way of reminding viewers that these birds have very acute vision.  However, explanations such as this are more difficult to come up with for other stuff–for example, the weird floppy ears that the first eagle has, or the crocodiles coming out of the sides of the second eagle’s head.

This eagle, as you can probably see better in the close-up below, is clutching a squealing tapir or peccary, or perhaps a whining dog, in its sharp beak.

This eagle, as you can probably see better in the close-up below, is clutching a squealing tapir or peccary, or perhaps a whining dog, in its sharp beak. It’s also equipped with weird swirly jewellery on the sides of its face, and huge flapping ears. Panama, Veraguas culture, 11th-16th century. 14 cm tall. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 45.

Check out the protruding eyes.

Check out the protruding eyes.

Steampunk eagle!

Steampunk eagle! But seriously, this could easily have been a steampunk-inspired DIY project–the feet could be paintbrushes, the eyes megaphones, etc. Also check out the crocodiles sticking out of the eagle’s ears: if we’re calling this an eagle, why not call chimeras (lions with an extra goat’s head and a snake instead of a tail, from Greek mythology) lions? Costa Rica, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 14 cm tall. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 45.

This is what I picture the Watcher to look like.

Double-headed eagle, although it seems that the two heads have to share one pair of (hugely protruding) eyes. That’s probably why they both look like they’ve bit into the bitterest of lemons. Incidentally, this is what I kind of imagined the evil vulture-creatures that stand guard at one of the entrances to Mordor to look like (although it turns out they had three heads, not two). And though you might think that this comparison isn’t very useful, I don’t know, I think making outlandish analogies can help, sometimes, when we’re trying to puzzle our way through things that we don’t know much about. Panama, Veraguas culture, 11th-16th centuries. 10 cm tall. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 44.

Antonio Saldaña

Antonio Saldaña, chief of the Bribri people of Costa Rica (see below) and “last king of Talamanca”, between 1880 and 1910. If you squint, you can see that he’s wearing stuff round his neck and down his chest that looks a lot like eagle pendants. It’s not clear, however, if he did this because the tradition of wearing these objects was genuinely passed down from the 11th century all the way to the 19th, or whether it was a retrospective re-claiming of his people’s heritage. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Next, the frogs! These look much more like frogs than the eagles look like eagles, but there’s still some funky stuff going on.


A possible tree frog. Julie Jones interprets the stuff coming out of its mouth as a bifurcated snake’s tongue, but I am not at all convinced. Jones also points out that poisonous frogs are believed by many jungle-dwelling societies to store fire inside their bodies–perhaps what’s coming out of this frog’s mouth is smoke, or the actual fire. Costa Rica, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 10 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.


This is a VERY weird frog–again, pretty steampunk-y. The huge eyes are bells. Panama, Parita culture, 12th-16th centuries. 6 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

cat eyes

More smoke/fire scrolls? Fun fact: according to the Bribri of Costa Rica, who may or may not have inherited this belief from the same people who made all this cool stuff, frogs help maintain the boundary between the living and the dead, by sitting on graves at night and preventing the dearly departed to rise again. Panama, Chiriqui (?) culture, 11th-16th centuries. 7 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

And now, the turtles! You will notice that they all have two tails. Jones, who classifies them as turtles, says this is an “unexplained” characteristic, but it makes more sense, again, if you think of these creatures not as realistic turtles, but as mythical animals. Also these are attributed to Panama’s Veraguas culture.

two tailed

This thing is definitely turtle-like. But what turtles has a dragon-like ridge running down its head? And what about that curly double-tail? It could be a stylised representation of water currents being split in two as the turtle swims… but they seem to be attached to the turtle’s body via a series of rings, and the turtle doesn’t look like it’s swimming–more like dragging itself over dry sand (maybe to lay eggs, since that’s the only time turtles ever leave the sea, or so says wikipedia). 6 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 47.

Ram's horns

This turtle even has curly horns! Which may not, however be horns, since there are no curly-horned animals in that part of the world, as far as I am aware. So maybe those are feathers. 10 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 47.


There’s clearly a story here–a “turtle” biting into, or eating, perhaps defeating in some way, or building an alliance with, a monstrous snake with heads at both ends. Who knows! But it’s deliciously tantalising. 6 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 47.

And sharks! These guys actually do look a lot like sharks, although the first one does that have that weird curly moustache-thing.

Panama, Veraguas culture, 11th-16th centuries. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 48.

Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 9.5 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 48.

Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 8 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 8 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

Then there’s a whole series of items that depict creatures with a human-ish body and the head of an animal. It’s not clear whether these items represent mythical beasts, deities, flattering metaphorical portraits of leaders (e.g. as if Queen Elizabeth I had been represented with the head of a lion, for her bravery), or shamans who have transformed, for whatever purpose, into magical animal-human hybrids. Of course it’s possible that one of these possibilities was true for some of the items, another one for some other items, and so on. Personally, it seems to me that, a lot of the time, these animal-headed are shown as if guarding something–standing in pairs, and holding standards or staffs. This suggests that they were mythical beings or (minor?) deities whose task was to protect something or someone–most likely the person wearing them as pendants. Then again, many pendants also show only one animal-human hybrid, so I don’t know. In any case, check them out and see what you think–there are too many for me to include them all, so this is just a selection of favourites.

Bat dudes

Two bat-headed dudes–an example of the category of items which feature a pair of standing creatures, equipped with both standards and staffs. Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 8 cm. Photo mine.

The Greater Spear-nosed Bat (Philostomus hastatus), which the bat-headed guys in the above photo were probably based on. Image credit: Wikipedia.

The Greater Spear-nosed Bat (Phyllostomus hastatus), which the bat-headed guys in the above photo were probably based on. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Deer dude

Deer dude. Apparently it’s quite rare for deer to inspire goldwork in the region. Check out the extra face on the dude’s belly–whose eyes may double as nipples, and goatee as penis. Jones (2002) points out a number of very interesting things about this item: that the feet look neither human nor cervine, but, with their four long toes, might have been inspired by the hindfeet of a crocodile; and that the deer’s tongue is sticking out, which, in other depictions of the animal from the time, tends to mean that the animal is dead. Costa Rica, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. Photo mine.

Skip Rope Dude

I like this guy because it kind of looks like he’s using snakes as a skipping rope. Also because his pose is reminiscent of classic superhero hovering poses. Also crocodilian-snake creatures are bursting out of his head. Basically, this guy’s awesome. I’d be surprised if he weren’t some kind of god or hero, strangling snakes and torpedoing his foes with the monsters he can shoot out of his head. Photo mine.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that, dear readers. I certainly did, and will try to write more posts like this in the future. If there are any zoologists out there who know of Costa Rican/Panamanian fauna which actually does look like the above creatures (e.g. moustachio’d sharks, double-tailed turtles, fire-breathing tree frogs, it’d be great to hear from them. And as always, I’d be happy to read, and reply, to any comments or questions anyone might have.

Suggestions for further reading/Bibliography

The best thing to do would be to simply visit the Metropolitan Museum. However, if you can’t do that, the Met will graciously allow you to download a free PDF on this stuff, and more stuff besides, here. Incidentally, that’s where I got all the images that weren’t mine or from Wikipedia.

Jones, J. and A. King. 2002. The Art of Precolumbian Gold: The Jan Mitchell Collection. New York: MetPublications.

If you’re a super-museum-nerd and want to find out more about the guy who donated all these objects to the museum, Jan Mitchell, you can read his obituary here.

Grimes, W. 2009. Jan Mitchell, Who Put the ü Back in Lüchow’s, Dies at 96. The New York Times [online] Nov. 30. Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/01/nyregion/01mitchell.html?_r=0&gt; [Accessed on 18th of September 2013].


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