Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy Potts, and Kim N Richter (eds)
Getty Publications, £50
Reviewed by: Lucia Marchini
To this day, gold remains a symbol of luxury and quality. The precious metal was much coveted in early modern Europe too, particularly when Christopher Columbus reached Central America and the region he later called Costa Rica (‘rich coast’). Interestingly, among the people of the ancient Americas, who made the fabulous artefacts featured in this book and the exhibition it accompanies (Golden Kingdoms: luxury and legacy in the ancient Americas, at the J Paul Getty Museum until 28 January 2018), other materials were more highly prized than gold, and reserved for the most special objects.
Yet it is gold and visions of El Dorado that have lived on in the imagination and this stunning survey of more than two millennia of art across diverse cultures of the ancient Americas puts the precious metal in its proper context. Exploring notions of value through archaeological finds from approximately 1000 BC to the 16th century AD, the book’s focus is on certain places and points in time that bore witness to innovations in luxury arts. Artistic development centred around sites with large populations and around seats of power, and was spurred on by competition between highly skilled craftspeople and rivalry between courts and city-states.
Gold took an interesting route across the Americas. It was probably the first metal to be exploited in the Andes and this was happening by the end of the second millennium BC. Gold-working then travelled north, reaching Central America by the first centuries AD and then central Mexico by the end of the first millennium AD. Among the book’s clear maps is one that illustrates this northward spread of technologies and knowledge, with important sites and their dates for the earliest evidence of worked gold marked out, along with the sources of other high-end materials, Spondylus shells, turquoise, and jadeite.
Through a series of chapters on ancient metallurgy and specific cultures and materials, the book, like the gold, follows a route to the north. The same is true of the concluding catalogue of objects from the central Andes, the northern Andes and Central America, and Mesoamerica. Along the way, some general themes are explored, such as trade networks and global encounters. One of the most important strands running through the book is how people expressed their beliefs through choices of material and design, in particular how patrons and artisans could convey religious, social, and political meanings. This ties in with the interesting point that American metal-working was not developed for currency, weapons, or tools as it was in other parts of the world, but for the regalia of the elite or ritual purposes.
Precious metals had long been intimately linked with expressions of value, but working them was not without its challenges. One gold lime container in the shape of a jaguar has a rare feature – a platinum ring hanging from its snout. Platinum has a much higher melting point than gold and is more difficult to work with. Only metallurgists in the northern Andes were able to craft this rare metal.
Turquoise and jade were much more precious than gold in Mesoamerica. Decades of excavation at the Aztec Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan have uncovered some 10,000 greenstone artefacts, compared with fewer than 300 objects made with gold. The green of jade was associated with fresh growth and fertility, and the stone could be used in many ways – for impressive masks, pendants, and carved plaques.
Materials from the sky and the sea also ranked highly. As well as finely woven tapestries, less permanent than metal or stone, some remarkably vast and vibrant feather panels have survived. Shells carried great weight as there was considerable effort involved in collecting and crafting them. They were delicate and, in both the Andes and Mesoamerica, they signified fertility. Shells were so important that not only were they used as materials, but other items were designed to resemble them, as can be seen in some Chimú silver tweezers in the shape of a Spondylus shell and an Inca paccha (libation vessel) decorated with five ceramic Spondylus shells.
With beautiful images illustrating the rich diversity of objects and the materials used to make them, this thorough book offers an insight into the values of different cultures in the ancient Americas.