An eagle image covered with multiple fangs and claws — a creature with a swirl of serpents replacing the fur –– a scowling half human/half beast figure on a crown – all meticulously crafted from hammered sheets of gold. These objects are among the many exquisite pieces of art crafted by the Chavín; a culture that flourished high in the mountains of northern Peru from about 900 to 200 BCE.
Chavín metalsmiths specialized in gold sheet metal technology. After hammering gold into thin sheets – a skill that is not as easy as it sounds — they embossed the backs to create a raised relief design on the front of the sheets. The gold sheets were often converted into three-dimensional objects by soldering different parts together, also requiring a high degree of skill and an understanding of the melting points necessary to join the metal pieces.
Chavín metalsmiths intentionally added silver to their gold. They were likely the first Andeans to recognize the advantages of certain metal alloys over pure metallic minerals. The properties of pure metals are changed by the addition of impurities—typically other metals that occur naturally or that are added deliberately. By using alloys with varying concentrations of different metals, metalworkers could make large leaps in achieving strength, malleability, and other desirable properties for the objects they crafted.
Glittering gold — seemingly containing the light of the sun — was a preferred material for Chavín art objects. Almost all the gold artifacts that have been found were used for adornment, including crowns, face masks and other decorative headgear. Small pieces of gold were also sewn onto garments in appliqués. Many of the artifacts that have been discovered were grave goods included in the burials of elite individuals.
The distinctive art of the Chavín culture depicts stylized jaguars, crocodiles, snakes, eagles, condors, fish, and other animals from Andean mountains, jungles, and coastal waters. The transformation of humans into animals is a frequent theme (see my “Tales of Transformation at Chavín de Huántar” post). Exotic and somewhat sinister, these symbols and art pieces are recognized as marking the beginning of a creative revolution with a uniquely Andean style. Widely accepted as representing a set of religious beliefs, the symbols were an essential part of Chavín culture: specifically, a Chavín cult. No one knows for sure, but this cult may have worshipped weather gods associated with rain, hail, and frost, or possibly an earthquake god.
The mysterious temple complex at Chavín de Huántar was the seat of this religion and became an important gathering place for pilgrims. (My “Water and Power at Chavín de Huántar” post has a description of this unusual site.) Guided by what likely were charismatic and compelling leaders, the Chavín cult had phenomenal longevity. For the first time in Andean history, this cult appears to have unified many separate and distinctive societies that spanned a wide geographic region, extending from the highlands to along much of the northern and central coast of modern Peru. Portable art objects of exquisite gold, textiles, and ceramics that were decorated with distinctive Chavín symbols were transported for hundreds of miles on the backs of llamas or human porters. Archaeologists have discovered these artifacts at numerous ancient settlements that were contemporaneous with Chavín de Huántar, clearly establishing the wide reach of the Chavín cult.
Although the archaeological site of Chavín de Huántar isn’t as famous as Inca Empire sites such as Machu Picchu, it is a fascinating site with an impressive history. If you are traveling in Peru and can add the Chavín site to your itinerary, it will be a worthwhile visit.
Gold mythical condor or eagle – overall size 2.5″ x 2.8″ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goldapplike_Peru_Chavin_Slg_Ebn%C3%B6ther.jpg
Gold crown with deity figures, Staff God at front, Chavin style, c. 400-300 BC, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crown_with_deity_figures_(Staff_God_at_front),_Chavin_style,_Peru_north_coast_or_highlands,_Early_Horizon,_c._400-300_BC,_gold_-_Dallas_Museum_of_Art_-_DSC04692.jpg
Gold deity face – overall size about 5″ x 5.5″ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clevelandart_1938.431.jpg
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