Intact Ancient Precolumbian Jewelry Volume 38.1

Intact Ancient Jewelry. Precolumbian Ingenuity

INTACT PRECOLUMBIAN NORTH COAST PERUVIAN NECKLACE AND BRACELETS of mother-of-pearl (MOP) components, mostly likely strung on cotton cord; probably of middle horizon Wari influence, circa A.D. 700 - 1000. Intact bracelets are 1.7 centimeters wide, while the necklace, in four fragments, is 28.4 centimeters wide as laid out for photography. The MOP elements are probably from Pacific black-lipped oysters that occur off Ecuador and thus are an imported luxury material. Ex-Jean Lions collection, obtained before 1980; Robert Duff collection since 2007. Photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

Strung ancient jewelry is rarely found intact, unless climatic conditions or well-protected burials prevent the rotting of the organic fibers used in assembling the jewelry. Two geographic regions, parts of the Middle East, especially Egypt, and the arid north coast of Peru are known to yield finds of intact jewelry, as well as the prehistoric American Southwest and northern Mexico (Liu 2008). The most spectacular of such finds is the faience broadcollar of Wah (Liu 2005: 57) but much intact precolumbian jewelry, especially necklaces or their fragments (Gessler 1988; Liu 2008) come from the north coast of Peru. In this article, I show some amazing Wari jewelry, that may date to circa A.D. 700 - 1000, which is strung in ways not usually employed in assembling beads/components into necklaces and are among the most intact precolumbian jewelry I have seen. In fact, the ingenious ways employed by ancient Peruvians to string jewelry may very well make us re-think how necklace components can be used, not-considered by either modern necklace designers nor archaeologists.

Peruvian precolumbian jewelry can be massive, as in the beaded pectorals of Moche royalty at Sipan, measuring sixty centimeters wide (Donnan 1993), or can have large individual elements, as in the inlaid shell components of Tiahuanaco-Wari necklaces (Gessler 1988: 50-51). However, most intact jewelry fragments I have seen are modest in scale and not complex, except possibly in their construction, sometimes involving braiding (Gessler 1988). The fragments of the Wari influenced necklace differ in both the delicacy of their components and in the intricacy of how these elements were assembled with cord. Just like how ancient Peruvian beaders at Chancay employed simple disk beads as spacers, as well as real spacers with multiple perforations (Liu 2008: 52), I do not think contemporary necklace designers, with our linear thinking, would have been able to put together this necklace like their original stringers did some one thousand to thirteen hundred years ago, using the ingenuity of stringing via grooves or knotting together thin elements into broader masses.

WARI MOTHER-OF-PEARL CARVED/INLAID BIRD COMPONENTS AND STAIRCASE SPONDYLUS AND MOP NECKLACE ELEMENTS, OBVERSE AND REVERSE; all these beads have two perforations and are drilled on the reverse side with edge perforations, except at one narrow end of the staircase beads. This type of drilling is easier than trying to drill through such thin pieces of material. Staircase elements are approximately 1.6 centimeters wide while the bird beads are 1.3 to 1.6 centimeters wide, with the latter having inlaid spondylus or turquoise eyes. The staircase strand stringing is contemporary but the method is ancient, as the same use of edge perforations is seen in an intact strand fragment (Liu 2008: 51). Most modern necklace makers would not want to have exposed thread showing on the reverse side, subject possibly to the most wear.

DETAILS OF WARI INFLUENCE NECKLACE, showing unique ways of stringing; note spun cotton cord has multiple threads. If all these elements were loose, most likely no modern restorer would have deduced how they were used, especially the way the x-shaped components are tied to either the drilled bars or to the drilled or zig-zag vertical elements. The vertically-oriented elements are strung like the two intact bracelets, by the cord being wound around the end grooves. They differ in that there is no knot in-between the bracelet elements, as there is in the necklace. The closeup at the bottom of the page is approximately 60.1 centimeters wide. The practice of knotting in-between elements can be seen in many portions of the necklace fragments, like contemporary pearls are treated. Note on facing page how this very delicate necklace has very different designs on the front and back portions. This delicacy of structure and stringing contrasts greatly with intact prehistoric Southwest jewelry (Liu 2009, 2011).