Sacred Brilliance

Part of the Gold exhibition.

Gold of North and Central America

Gold was valued by the indigenous peoples of Central and South America, but not as money. These peoples, who began working gold sometime after AD 500, equated the metal with sacred brilliance and power. As in the south, gold objects were used in burial rituals and to adorn high chiefs and royalty. A Spanish chronicler of the 1500s described the burial costume of a powerful chief:

"He was all armored in gold, and on his head was a large gold basin, like a helmet, and around his neck four or five necklaces made like a gorget, and on his arms gold armor shaped like tubes and on his chest and back many pieces and plates and other pieces made like large coins, and a gold belt, surrounded by gold bells, and on his legs the same kind of gold armor, so that it looked like a coat of mail or braided coat of armor."

Sitio Conte, Panama

The objects from this burial site were made by the Cocl, a group of warring chiefdoms inhabiting central Panama. Cocl burial practices were very elaborate: Archaeologists excavated graves holding as many as 22 individuals, large ceramic vessels and many fine gold pieces. Chiefs were buried not only with their wealth, but also, it seems, with a retinue of sacrificed family members, servants and possibly prisoners of war.

Grave 5 contained an adult male whose body was probably laid out underneath a bark cloth canopy or similar shelter. This person was wrapped in layers of mantles and gold ornaments, cuffs and greaves, or shin plates. This is the only individual at Sitio Conte found to be wearing a gold helmet. The helmet is decorated with scenes showing a crocodile god, an important symbol in Cocl culture.

Costa Rica

From Panama and the northern coast of South America, the techniques of working gold reached Costa Rica. Gold was hammered into pectoral discs and bracelets and cast into pendants and bells. Some pendants take the form of human figures wearing elaborate costumes, and may represent warriors or shamans. Other pendants represent animals, including jaguars, monkeys, frogs, bats and birds, many with outstretched wings and fan-shaped tails typical of raptors. Jaguarlike birds of prey probably symbolized hunters and were probably emblems of power for chieftains or warriors. Frogs often have features of snakes or crocodiles: Other aquatic animals also appear as pendants. All were collected by Minor Keith in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Technique of Lost Wax

In many cultures in South America, as well as Africa and India, goldsmiths used the technique of lost-wax casting to create complex and delicate shapes. The item to be cast is first modeled in wax and a clay mold is built around it with a small hole piercing the mold. The mold is baked until the wax melts and is poured out through the hole. Molten gold is then poured through the same hole into the empty cavity. After it cools and hardens, the mold is broken open and the casting is removed and cleaned.

Twin figures are a common theme in Chiriquian iconography.


The pre-Columbian Huetar of Costa Rica panned for gold in rivers, using large leaves and calabash gourds. They also worked shallow mines and traded with neighbors for nuggets. Huetar craftsmen mastered gold-working techniques that included embossing-creating a raised design-or hammering, and alloying with copper. The elite wore gold to symbolize their status and power and were buried with many fine gold ornaments.

Frog Ornament Gold ornament in the form of a frog MixtecTututepec, Oaxaca, Mexico; c. 1200-1521 American Museum of Natural History, Anthropology 30/10745
© AMNH / Craig Chesek

Minor Keith and the Keith Collection

A New Yorker, Minor Cooper Keith, arrived in Costa Rica in 1873, joining his three brothers to build a 103-mile railroad through the swampy lowlands of the Caribbean coast and over the central plateau, joining Puerto Limon and San Jos.

Over the course of the 19 years it took to complete the project, Keith acquired an extensive collection of indigenous art. He bequeathed the collection to the American Museum of Natural History in his will. However, after his death in 1929, the estate sold it to John Wise. In 1934, the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Museum bought the collection from Wise and divided it between them. Keith items from both institutions appeared together for the first time in this exhibit.


An intricate gold carving of the head of a bird with a sharp curved beak.
Gold labret [lip plug] with eagle Mixtec/Aztec Tututepec, Oaxaca, Mexico; c. 1200-1521 American Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology 30.3/230
© AMNH / Craig Chesek

Metalworking techniques spread to Mesoamerica--the region that today includes central Mexico south through Costa Rica--around AD 800. The Mixtec people became the greatest gold workers in the region. Mixtec culture, centered in the state of Oaxaca, flourished from AD 1250-1521. The Mixtec lived in small city-states, each ruled by a royal family.

After 1458, when the Aztecs began conquering the Mixtec, some Mixtec goldsmiths were deported to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, to make jewelry for their Aztec overlords, while subjugated Mixtec nobles were forced to pay high tribute in the form of gold wares.

In the Aztec language, the name for gold is teocuitlatl, which means "excrement of the gods." Perhaps the name refers to the way in which veins and nuggets of gold might appear to be extruded from the bowels of the earth.


Vanished Aztec Gold

A gold figurine of an elaborately costumed human.
Mixtec BellThis elaborate gold bell was crafted with the lost-wax process more than 500 years ago and possibly depicts the patron of fire known as Xiutecuhtili to the Aztecs and Iha Ndikandii to the Mixtecs of Oaxaca. The Mixtecs probably manufactured this object, which was found in the state of Veracruz near the Oaxaca border. Bearded, with two fangs, the depicted deity wears an elaborate headdress and carries a shield and atlatl (spear thrower).
© Craig Chesek/AMNH

Spanish conquerors seized vast quantities of gold from Tenochtitlan and melted it into bars in order to transport it to Europe. Large-scale gold objects were not common in the Aztec world, as they were in the Incan world, but the last Aztec emperor, Montezuma, was reported to have had a complete table service of gold vessels. The contemporary chronicler Fray Diego Durán, who received his information from a companion of Cortés, recorded that in a hidden room of Montezuma's palace the Spaniards found, among other treasures,

"Many piles of vessels of gold, dishes and porringers made according to their style, from which the kings ate, especially four large dishes made like platters, all of gold, very elaborately worked, as big as a large shield. There were many gold chocolate cups."

None of this treasure survives today.

An small intricately carved gold pendant of a human head with drop earrings.
Gold mask bell pendant with pendant earrings depicting a monkey headAztec/Mixtec
© Craig Chesek/AMNH

A Mixtec noble wore a gold labret--a lip ornament that fit into a slit cut into the lower lip--and ear spools, worn in openings made in the ear lobes. Lip plugs were the prerogative of high-ranking dignitaries and warriors. Nobles also wore pendants, bells and beads.

This bell may depict the patron of fire known as Xiutecuhtili to the Aztecs and Iha Ndikandii to the Mixtecs of Oaxaca. Bearded, and displaying two fangs, the deity wears an elaborate headdress and carries a shield and atlatl. Bells like this were worn by individuals of high status in Aztec and Mixtec society.

Mixtec gold pieces typically have movable parts, such as suspended bells that strike each other and sound when the wearer moves.