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Paracas Pendant

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The Paracas people, who lived in ancient Peru starting nearly 3,000 years ago, left no written record. Researchers can only infer details about them by analyzing the things they left behind. 

This golden figure, seemingly crowned with a head of spiky hair, was buried with a Paracas man in about 150 BCE, part of an elaborate mummy bundle that fixed his body in a seated position, wearing a feathered headdress and wrapped in more than 60 finely woven textiles. How the dead were treated—and objects which accompanied them to the grave—offer archaeologists important clues about long-gone cultures, as the special exhibition Mummies explores.


Thin, flat human-shaped figure shaped from gold alloy, attached to a necklace formed of beads.
A golden pendant discovered in in a mummy bundle from the Paracas culture in what it now Peru.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

This curious figure from the Museum’s collection, which is on permanent display in the Paracas case in the Hall of South American Peoples, is revealing. Shaped from a thin sheet of gold alloy, it shows the Paracas were skilled metalworkers. Its shape—human-like, with spikes, rays, or feathers appearing to burst out from its head—turns out to have been widely used by the Paracas, and to have persisted for hundreds of years beyond them. A very similar image appears on objects made by the Nasca, a later ancient Peruvian group who absorbed aspects of Paracas culture.

This particular figure appears to be holding two different objects: a staff and a weapon, the real versions of which have been found at several Paracas burial sites. “Slings, obsidian-tipped knives, and cane spears are found with male burials,” says Ann Peters, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has worked with the Museum’s South American collections for decades. “The hand-held weapons and feathered headdress seem to indicate a male identity for the gold figure.”

Perhaps it also marked its wearer as a mighty warrior, for his afterlife and for all who might meet him there.

You can learn more about ancient Peruvian burials and other mummification practices in the special exhibition Mummies, open now at the Museum.


Banner hangs to the left with the text "Peru", and additional descriptive text below. To the right are wood and glass cases that hold exhibit items.
At Mummies, visitors will encounter preserved remains from South American cultures whose burial tradition predates that of Egypt by 1,500 years.
©AMNH/C. Chesek


A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.