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columbian gold

Metallurgy in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

The emergence of metallurgy in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica occurred relatively late in the region's history, with distinctive works of metal apparent in West Mexico by roughly CE 800, and perhaps as early as CE 600. Metallurgical techniques likely diffused northward from regions in Central or South America via maritime trade routes; recipients of these metallurgical technologies apparently exploited a wide range of material, including alloys of copper-silver, copper-arsenic, copper-tin and copper-arsenic-tin.

Metal items crafted throughout Mesoamerica may be broken into three classes: utilitarian objects, objects used for individual ornamentation, and ceremonial/ritual objects. The latter two categories comprise the bulk of distinctly Mesoamerican artifacts, with metals playing a particularly important role in the sacred and symbolic cultural realms.

Possible loci of Mesoamerican metallurgy

Southern Maya area

Owing largely to its proximity to southern centers of metallurgy (specifically southern Central America and South America), the Southern Maya area appears to have been an early locus of metal working in Mesoamerica.

West Mexico

As with the Southern Maya area, the number and diversity of metal artifacts recovered from West Mexico indicates that this region was a regional nucleus of metallurgy, from which elements of technique, form and style could have diffused throughout Mesoamerica.

Developments in West Mexican metallurgy

Phase 1: CE 600 - 1200/1300

West Mexican smiths worked primarily in copper during the initial period, with some low-arsenic alloys, as well as occasional employment of silver and gold. Lost-wax cast bells were introduced from lower Central America and Colombia during this phase, along with several classes of cold-worked ornaments and hand tools, such as needles and tweezers. The prototypes for these small, often utilitarian items appear rooted in southern Ecuador and northern Peru. Small copper rings, generally found in burial contexts, are also common to Ecuador and Western Mexico and are abundant during this phase.

Excavated assemblages from the initial phase indicate that lost-wax cast bells also occupied a substantial portion of West Mexican artisan's efforts. Unlike similar bells recovered from coastal Ecuador, West Mexican bells were cast, rather than worked, metal. Typically composed of a smooth, suspended metal shell encasing an interior clapper, the West Mexican bells were generally fashioned from copper alloys and bore particular resemblance to bells made in Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica.

Phase 2: CE 1200/1300 - 1521

Metal smiths demonstrated increasing technical sophistication, producing both utilitarian and status-linked items. During the latter phase, Michoacán emerged as a technological hub, with metal artifacts also appearing at the adjacent zones of Guerrero and Jalisco.

Alloys became more prevalent during the second phase, as metal workers experimented with color, strength and fluidity. Formerly utilitarian assemblages transformed, with new focus placed upon metallic status objects. Further, the appearance of a copper-tin bronze alloy suggests contact between West Mexico and Peru during this period. However, many of the alloys/alloy concentrations used in West Mexico appear to reflect local innovation.

Scholars such as Dorothy Holser suggest that ancient Mesoamericans were unique in their attention to metals peculiar aesthetic properties, namely, the brilliant sounds and colors evoked through movement of metallic objects. The rather late emergence of metallurgy in ancient Mesoamerican likely contributed to its novelty and subsequent role as a marker of elite status.

It has been suggested that Mesoamerican metal smiths produced particular alloys with the chief aim of exploiting the alloys’ emergent color properties, particularly the vivid gold tones produced through infusion of tin, and the silver shades that develop at high arsenic concentrations. Notably, certain artifacts from West Mexico contain tin or arsenic at concentrations as high as 23 weight percent, while concentrations of alloying elements at roughly 2 to 5 weight percent are typically adequate for augmented strength and mechanical utility.

Metal smiths in pre-Columbian West Mexico particularly exploited the brilliance inherent in metallic sound and sheen, suggesting that their creations tended to occupy a sacred and symbolic space. Metallic colors, gold and silver, may have been connected with solar and lunar deities. As well, bell sounds have been associated with fertility rituals and protection in warfare.

Archaeological sites yielding metal artifacts

Central Mexico

(CE 900-1450) Utilitarian and ceremonial objects; Objects of personal adornment'

  1. Atotonilco, Hidalgo
  2. Calixtlahuaca, Mexico
  3. Tenayuca, Mexico
  4. Tenochitlan, Distrito Federal (D.F.)
  5. Teotihuacan, Mexico
  6. Texcoco, Mexico

West Mexico

(CE 800/900-1450) Utilitarian and ceremonial objects; objects of personal adornment

  1. Amapa, Nayarit
  2. Apatzingan, Michoacán
  3. Atoyac, Jalisco
  4. Cojumatlán, Michoacán
  5. Coyuca de Catalán, Guerrero
  6. Culicaán, Sinaloa
  7. Jiquilpan, Michoacán
  8. Peñitas, Nayarit
  9. Río Balsas, Guerrero
  10. Tancitaro, Michoacán
  11. Telpalcátepec, Michoacán
  12. Tepic, Nayarit
  13. Texmelincan, Guerrero
  14. Tuxcacuesco, Jalisco
  15. Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán
  16. Yestla, Guerrero
  17. Zacpu, Michoacán
  18. Zamora, Michoacán

Eastern Mexico

(CE 900-1500) Objects of personal adornment and ceremonial objects

  1. Cerro Montoso, Veracruz
  2. Chachalacas, Veracruz
  3. El Tajin, Veracruz
  4. Isla de Sacrificios, Veracruz
  5. Pánuco, Veracruz
  6. Tampico, Veracruz

Southern Mexico

(CE 900-1500) Utilitarian and ceremonial objects; objects of personal adornment

  1. Coatlán, Oaxaca
  2. Coixtlahuaca, Oaxaca
  3. Ejutla, Oaxaca
  4. Guiengola, Oaxaca
  5. Huajuapan, Oaxaca
  6. Huitzo, Oaxaca
  7. Juquila, Oaxaca
  8. Mitla, Oaxaca
  9. Monte Alban Oaxaca
  10. Sola de Vega, Oaxaca
  11. Tehuantepec, Oaxaca
  12. Teotitlán del Camino, Oaxaca
  13. Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca
  14. Tlacolula, Oaxaca
  15. Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca
  16. Tututepec, Oaxaca
  17. Xaaga, Oaxaca
  18. Yanhuitlán, Oaxaca
  19. Zachila, Oaxaca

Southern Maya Area

(CE 450(?)-1500) Utilitarian and ceremonial objects; objects of personal adornment

  1. Chipal, Guatemala
  2. Chutixtiox, Guatemala
  3. Kaminaljuyú, Guatemala
  4. Los Naranjos, Honduras
  5. Nebaj, Guatemala
  6. Quemistlá “Bell Caves”, Honduras
  7. Tajumulco, Guatemala
  8. Tazumal, El Salvador
  9. Zacualpa, Guatemala
  10. Zaculeu, Guatemala
  11. Copán, Honduras
  12. Motagua River valley, Guatemala
  13. San Augustín Acasaguastlán, Guatemala

Central Maya Area

(CE 900-1500) Utilitarian and ceremonial objects; objects of personal adornment

  1. Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas
  2. El Paredón, Chiapas
  3. Polol, Guatemala
  4. Santa Rita Corozal, Belize
  5. Tayasal, Guatemala
  6. Tikal, Guatemala
  7. Yaxhá, Guatemala
  8. Palenque, Chiapas
  9. Wild Cane Cay, Belize

Northern Maya Area

(CE 1000-1450) Utilitarian and ceremonial objects; objects of personal adornment

  1. Chichén Itzá, Yucatán
  2. Dzantún C’hen, Yucatán
  3. Mayapán, Yucatán

Northern Mexico

(CE 1000-1450) Utilitarian objects; objects of personal adornment

  1. Casas Grandes, Chihuahua
  2. Chalchihuites, Zacatecas
  3. Hervideros, Durango
  4. La Quemada, Zacatecas
  5. Navocoyán, Durango
  6. Chihuahua, Chihuahua
  7. Schroeder site, Durango
  8. Venis Meicis, San Luis Potosí
  9. Zape, Durango
  10. Babicora, Chihuahua
  11. Rancho San Miguiel, Chihuahua
  12. Santa Maria R., Chihuahua

Notes

References

  • Hosler, Dorothy (1988). Ancient West Mexican Metallurgy: South and Central American Origins and West Mexican Transformations. American Anthropologist 90: 832-855.
  • Hosler, Dorothy (1995). Sound, color and meaning in the metallurgy of Ancient West Mexico. World Archaeology 27: 100-115.
  • Pendergast, David M. (1962). Metal Artifacts in Prehispanic Mesoamerica. American Antiquity 27: 520-545.

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