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Pair of Ear Flares

300-800 CE
2.54 cm x 8.26 cm (1 in. x 3 1/4 in.)

Not on view


Ear flares like these were common personal adornments of elite individuals, both male and female. To be worn, the flares were assembled with elements that included the flares, their backings, and the throat disks that sealed, on the front, the central opening in the flares. More complex assemblages included a stem—whose function was to enlarge the neck and receive the backing—and beads of different shapes and sizes, mounted in front or behind the flares. The most elaborate ear ornaments were heavy enough to require a counterweight affixed to the posterior end of the assemblage to secure the ornaments. Parts, such as the backing or the stem, are sometimes lacking in archaeological contexts, implying that they were perishable, probably wood. Flares PC.B.122 are approximately 5.3 mm thick, rectangular with a rounded lip, and protruding from the back is a neck 2 cm long, ending in a clean straight cut. They are identical in color and shading, having been derived from the same piece of raw material. The lack of polish on their posterior surfaces allows reconstruction of manufacturing technique. First, a natural piece of quartzite was worked into a pre-form in the shape of a parallelepiped, which was drilled in the center, then sawn to produce two halves. Each half was drilled again to define the neck of the piece, stopping a few millimeters before the back of the flare, leaving a hollow drill core to define the throat.

Then the pieces were sawed with a string from the exterior toward the neck in the center. Sawing was done in small bursts, probably to allow reapplication of water and additional abrasive medium between bursts, as indicated by multiple scars running parallel to the four sides on the posterior surface. The corners, with multiple linear scars at a 45° angle, served as guides to ensure cutting the flare to the same thickness and to eliminate unevenness. Preliminary finishing removed roughness around the neck, corners, and throat, and also thinned the lip of the flares. The pieces were then polished on their fronts only.
The finishing on flares PC.B.122 suggests minimal effort to produce a fine appearance, contrasting sharply with examples that are thoroughly polished and have inscriptions incised on the exterior surface of the neck, which, when worn, were covered by the earlobe. Yet there are reported cases of flares whose workmanship has been characterized as careless.

The thickness of the necks in flares like those in the Bliss Collection suggests that they were intended for adults, once a hole in the earlobe had been enlarged through the progressive use of increasingly thicker ear ornaments as a person grew from childhood to adulthood. Although there are no data on the weight of flares or of entire ear ornament assemblages, the impressionistic sense while handling the pieces in the Bliss Collection is that the items must have exerted a considerable tension and downward pull on the earlobes. Repeated use of these sumptuary goods through the life of a person must have led to a substantial enlargement of the lobes, an anatomical detail that is seldom evident in representations of individuals wearing them.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 30, cat. 149.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., p. 14, 79, cat. 48.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, New York. p. 246, cat. 82, pl. LVI.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1959 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. 2nd ed. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, London. p. 254, cat. 82, pl. LVI.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to May 1948, November 1952 to July 1954, January 1956 to July 1962.

"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1942.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1942-1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Ear ornament