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Permanent Collection: Art of the Ancient Americas:
Pair of Earspools

Pair of Earspools

South America, Central Andes, North Coast, Chímu-Lambayeque. Late Intermediate Period, A.D. 1000 - 1470. Gold-copper alloy and silver alloy, 3 x 4 7/16 in. diameter of disk (7.5 x 11.1 cm diameter of disk). Gift of Laurence C. and Cora W. Witten II. 1992.15.261a,b

Listen to Dr. Rebecca Stone Miller discuss this work from the Museum's audio guide to the permanent collections (produced by AntennaAudio):   Link to RealOne Player-format audio file Link to Windows Media-format audio file

The indigenous Central Andean aristocracy became known to the Spanish invaders as orejones or "big ears" because they wore such enormous, impressive earrings. Dating to perhaps 300 years before contact with the Europeans, this spectacular pair of gold repoussé earspools with silver posts comes from the North Coast. The Chimú state dominated this area before being conquered by the Inca empire. In turn, the Chimú had incorporated the far northern reaches of the Central Andes, especially the rich Lambayeque Valley, into their large coastal domain. Here the metalsmiths seem to have created in Chimú style a scene popular in Lambayeque art; the almond eye shape is characteristically the former, the iconography the latter. The Lambayeque Valley people were long engaged in trade with Ecuador to the north for the prized spiny oyster or spondylus shell. This bright orange shell was valued so highly that one nobleman's sole occupation entailed spreading crushed spondylus as a path for the ruler - the proverbial red carpet.

The arduous task of diving for the spondylus shell is depicted here. The rectangle in the lower center represents the boat, whose large sails or sunshades are seen above and to the sides. Birds are typically represented on the top, while divers - four in this case - are arrayed in the water. The tulip-shaped elements are the shells, their characteristic spines abbreviated. Divers had to plunge as deep as 25 meters (almost 80 feet) into the Pacific to recover these shells. It is no wonder that such exquisite earspools would commemorate this feat, given the difficult procurement, the importation, and the exclusive nature of both spiny oyster and precious metal.

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