Silvered and gilded copper metalwork from Loma Negra: manufacture and aesthetics

DEBORAH SCHORSCH

ELLENG. HOWE

MARIK T. WYPYSKI

SHERMAN FAIRCHILD CENTER FOR OBJECTS CONSERVATION

THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

1000 FIFTH AVENUE

NEW YORK, NY 10028 USA

 

Figure 1 Map of the north coast of Pero (courtesy of Aclam Hart).

Abstract: The Moche, who inhabited the north coast of Peru in the Early Intermediate Period, had a rich metallurgical production that employed, for the most part, hammered sheet of various metals joined by mechanical means, The artisans who produced the metal grave goods deposited in Moche burials at Loma Negra used an electrochemical replacement plating process to apply precious metallayers to copper substrates, a method that was unique to the Piura Valley, where the site is located, far from the Moche heartland on the other side of the formidable Sechura Desert. Considered here are two types of objects in the Loma Negra corpus - disk ornaments and fox head headdress ornaments- assembled from copper sheet plated using this remarkable method, which allowed the deposition of extremely thin layers of gold and silver of any composition. In addition to construction and surface treatment, this papel considers how these colorful, animated three-dimensional ornaments might have been perceived by the ancient observer.

Resumen: Los Moche, pobladores de la costa norte del Perú durante el período Intermedio Temprano, tuvieron una rica producción metalúrgica para la cual emplearon principalmente láminas martilladas de varios metales que unieron por medios mecánicos. Los artesanos que produjeron los bienes metálicos depositados en los entierros Moche de Loma Negra, usaron un procedimiento de plateado por reemplazo electro químico para aplicar capas de metal precioso a superficies de cobre. Este método es único para el Valle de Piura donde se localiza el sitio de Loma Negra, lejos del corazón de la tierra Moche, al otro lado del formidable desierto Sechura. Aquí se consideran dos tipos de objetos del corpus de Loma Negra - ornamentos en forma de discos y adornos para la cabeza con forma de cabezas zorros -, ensamblados a partir de láminas de cobre plateadas por medio de este notable método, que permitió la depositación de niveles muy delgados de oro y plata de cualquier composición. Además de considerar el método de manufactura y tratamiento superficial de los artefactos este trabajo tiene en cuenta cómo el colorido y animación de estos ornamentos tridimensionales, pudieron ser percibidos por el antiguo observador.

In the last thirty years, following discoveries of large amounts of metal objects in elite Moche burials in the Piura Valley (Disselhoff, 1972; Lapiner, 1976, pp. 112-115 & plates following; Jones, 1979), and in the Lambayeque (Alva, 1988; Alva 1990; Donnan, 1990) and Jequetepeque Valleys (Donnan, 1990, pp. 29-32; Donnan, 1993b) on the north coast of Peru, art historians and archaeologists have greatly expanded their knowl­edge of Moche culture. During the same three decades, technical studies of Moche metalwork have allowed us to recognize the high level of metallurgical expertise attained by the Moche of the Early Intermediate Period that facilitated the production of some of the most visually sophisticated works of art in metal known from the ancientAmericas (Lechtman, et. al., 1975 & 1982; Lechtman, 1984a, p. 15; Lechtman, 1988, p. 349; Schorsch, 1998).

The first documented extensive find of Moche metalwork occurred in 1969 when a site in the Vicús area of the Piura Valley known as Loma Negra was looted by local huaqueros. Until that time significant archaeological remains attributed to the Moche culture (ca. AD. 100 - 800) had been found only at sites further to the south, across the Sechura Desert, within a coastal area bordered by the Lambayeque and Nepeña rivers (fig. 1). When the artifacts from Loma Negra appeared archaeologists and art historians were puzzled. Not only could they find few parallels for individual objects or types of objects, the large number of metal finds from a single context was difficult to explain (Tones, 1979; Schaffer, 1985). Scholars speculated as to the function of the site because such large finds of precious metalwork in the Andean region as a whole were undocumented. More recent finds, in particular the on-going scientific excavations in the Lambayeque Valley at Sipán (Alva & Donnan, 1993; Alva, 1994), have provided materials analogous to the metalwork associated with Loma Negra wich now can be recognized as a place of burial for Moche individuals of the highest status (Tones, 1992).

Approximately eighty percent of the more than five hundred objects documented in the Loma Negra Archive are now in the collection of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.1 The collection includes objects of personal adornment, as well as several hundred "ornaments" of unknown function.

In the manufacture of the Loma Negra metalwork, the three metal s of early Peruvian metallurgy -gold, silver and copper- were alloyed, and the alloys combined as surface and substrate. These high status objects were made almost exclusively from hammered sheet, variously of gold, silver, silvered gold, gilded copper, silvered copper and copper, used alone or in combination, and with non-metallic inlays of various colors. The joining most frequently was mechanical, which is typical of Moche metalwork as a whole (Lechtman, et. al., 1982, p. 7; Lechtman, 1988, p. 334). All of the objects that combine these three metals can be placed on the basis of their manufacture into one of two groups; the first consists of objects made using temary gold alloys and binary or temary silver alloys (fig. 2), while the objects in the larger group were made from hammered sheets of unalloyed copper bearing surface layers of precious metal (fig. 3).2

 

Figure 2: Nose ornament, gold and silver, Moche, from Loma Negra. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, The Michael Rockefeller Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1236).

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