Handle Portion of a Spatula Carved as a Human Fist
Moche, Early Intermediate Period
9.7 cm x 3.1 cm x 2.6 cm (3 13/16 in. x 1 1/4 in. x 1 in.)
Bone with inlays of turquoise, iron pyrite, and possibly chalcopyrite
Not on view
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This carved bone hand is held in the “half fist” position in which the thumb remains erect; the four fingers are partially clutched so the fingernails are visible; and the knuckle of the middle finger is held higher than the others. The “half fist” appears in various Moche ceramic depictions. This hand position is linked to mountain scenes that also appear in Moche art. In these scenes, the mountains are most often depicted with five peaks--the middle peak is the highest and the others recede evenly on either side. While the simplest depictions show just the mountains, the more complex scenes include figures, both human and supernatural, engaging in ritual activities on the mountainsides. Just as they do with present-day Andean folk healers, it is likely that mountains played a significant role in the ideology of Moche people. The relationship between mountain scenes and “half-fists” is demonstrated by certain Moche ceramic depictions in which the back of the fist looks like a mountain, whereas the front clearly shows the fingers and palm of the hand. It is therefore likely that the “half fist” is a signal of the Moche rituals associated with mountains.
The incised decorations on the arm and hand of the piece may serve as a further reference to Moche ritual life. The designs correspond to the Moche practice of tattooing the hands and forearms that has been seen in naturally mummified corpses found on the north coast of Peru. The designs on the object include many elements that are related to human sacrifice and warfare. They include a bird warrior, war clubs, and a supernatural creature known as a “Strombus monster”. Among the other images depicted are a centipede, a lizard, and a serpent.
While the piece seems to include many references to Moche rituals, the exact function of this object remains unclear. It is known, however, that the piece was originally the handle of a small spatula. While the spatula blade is broken off, similar pieces from museums and private collections suggest that the lower portion of this object would have been reduced in circumference and the end smoothed into a flat, rectangular form. The hand has been carved out of the condyle of the bone and the arm is formed by the bone shaft. Both the hand and arm are inlaid with pieces of turquoise and iron pyrite. The large turquoise pieces on the hand form the fingernails and the other inlays are part of the incised designs.
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. 65, cat. 359.
Boone, Elizabeth Hill (ED.) 1996 Andean Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 1. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C. vol. 1, p. 136-9, pl. 27.
Krutak, Lars 2007 The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women. Bennett & Bloom/Desert Hearts, London.
Quilter, Jeffrey 2005 Treasures of the Andes: The Glories of Inca and Pre-Columbian South America. Duncan Baird, London
"Ancient American Art", Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA, April - June 1942; M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, July - August 1942; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, OR, September - October 1942 (catalogue # 75).
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to May 1948, February 1950 to July 1962.
"Body Art: Marks of Identity", American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, 9/16/1999 - 5/29/2000.
"Flights of Fancy: Birds in Pre-Columbian Art" Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2009 - 2/28/2010.
"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.
Formerly in the collection of Dr. Edward Gaffron, Berlin (collector).
Purchased from Dr. Gaffron, Berlin (collector), by Joseph Brummer, Paris (dealer),1912.
Purchased from Joseph Brummer, Paris (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, December 26, 1913.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1913-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.