Anthropology of Jewelry: Luxurious Jewelry in the Ancient Americas
“Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas” currently exhibited at the Met museum showcases the finely made gemstone and gold laden piece of the “ancient” Americas. It is a tantalizing presentation into the complex culture and skill level of the ancient Americas to say the least. As a doctor of anthropology, my focus of study was indigenous North American and Brazilian cultures, so I could not wait to see these material cultural items in person. I interned at the university at the Snite museum at Notre Dame and I remember well the Olmec and Native North American pieces we had the privilege to work with. Although such an exhibit has many positives for the jewelry world, such as the study of culture and debunking the stereotypes of these peoples as “savage”; many aspects must be taken into consideration to properly understand these items. As some of them were for ritual and spiritual use it would be, per most Native North American cultures, disrespectful to photograph them. I tried to avoid this whenever possible. We as observers should count ourselves lucky to see these pieces as some of which were taken to the grave with the intent to function there. This is also one reason why current artist’s shouldn’t borrow shapes and inspire from such indigenous sacred objects technically speaking, if one hopes to respect the culture. In an ideal situation they would still be there, but as anthropologist I do understand this discipline’s early role in gathering “artifacts” to preserve for science and the pitfalls of that history today as we grapple with the study of the “other”. However; discussions about how they should have been documented and left in the context found or displayed in the original country of origin are becoming more prevalent. While some of them are on loan from those origin countries, which is great, one should not forget that the indigenous descendants of many of these cultures are indeed still living today and we should endeavor to continue to connect those worlds. The Maya come to mind of course… I am grateful to see such items in person, but I cannot truly speak of them without addressing some of these aspects.
The spiritual element is extremely important, as the function of most of this jewelry displayed ranged from that, to status, political power, gender, and beauty. Regalia worn by rulers, on special occasions, and outside of rituals represent some of this complex negotiation, and they can be viewed as such. However, as many pieces were with the ruler in death it branches from status into functioning as part of the spirituality of the culture, which is complex. Overall gold, jadeite, obsidian, crystal, amber, feathers, turquoise, and shell were reserved for non utilitarian items. Sacred gold helmets with bird feathers found in tombs are such an example. Of course, the importance of the material varying depending upon the culture making the pieces. The exhibit did a fine job, as well of discussing trade and how far some of these special materials were transported before becoming jewelry or adornment thus increasing it’s worth to those societies. The items being used over generations and the artistic complexities displayed helped to paint a clearer image for the viewer.
In the jewelry world here in the United States, in the idea of luxury is often associated with gold or diamonds, however in circles of costume jewelry collectors, it is not material but the designer or rarity that colors its overall worth. This one of the important details of understanding material culture and how value is decided by the cultures creating it, not necessarily by the rarity. In the ancient Americas this was also the case as a feather or jadeite could be the material of choice for spiritual or status laden works of body jewelry. As such we must remember we are gazing through a lens which values golden jewelry, so that is what is most heavily displayed at such exhibits, although again they did a good job of including and discussing jadeite, shell and such.
So we come to the crossroads of how understanding the ancient Americas is important and whether we can try to merge this desire with respect and awe. The works displayed here really do a fantastic job of illustrating the fine craftsmanship and what luxury meant to these cultures. It gives us the history of gold working and technology exchange in the Americas. Their research has helped to highlight how women of power also wore such jewelry and nose plugs. They present us with the works of great artists and put value on the endeavors of these societies in a magical way. There are lots of newly discovered items, even some rescued from the ocean such as the “Fisherman’s treasure” an item looted but was lost in the ocean, which saved it from being melted down! See the Met video below and our favorite pieces from our trip. With various exhibit tours and discussions happening this month be sure to check it out in person! It ends May 28th. Exhibit Text link here.
Our favorite jewelry and objects to see:
*All images taken by Sarara Couture at the exhibit.