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Societies on the north coast of Peru have a long tradition of fashioning or depicting disembodied human appendages in ceramic, stone, and bone. Their prevalence suggests that body parts have long held a special symbolic value in the region, but it is only with the development of the Lambayeque metallurgical tradition that they came to be fabricated in gold. Two examples have been excavated from a royal tomb on Peru’s north coast. Both arms were positioned to point to the west, with the left hand holding a gold cup and the right hand open, with the palm facing upward. Although we do not know the meaning of these gestures, they highlight the importance of bodily movements as communication in a society whose rulers performed important ceremonies at the tops of large monumental platforms.
Lambayeque metalwork emphasizes cut sheet metal and masterful repoussé, often produced by hammering the sheet over a hard form to create a series of similar pieces. It is unique among Andean traditions to insert precious cut stones, shells, and metal of different colors into cavities hammered out of the object’s surface. Both characteristics are exemplified in this composite piece, most of which consists of a single sheet of gold hammered into a roughly cylindrical shape to form the arm and back of the hand. The fingers are separate elements, as are the fingertips, palm, and the base of the arm. The fingernails are made of thick silver sheet. The relief decoration on the arm was embossed before the sheet-metal was bent into shape. It probably represents tattooing. The design consists of several bands decorated with naturalistic and anthropomorphic waves—recalling the sea, an all-powerful deity whose resources sustained life on the coast but whose seasonal El Niño events could spell disaster and death.
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Benson, Elizabeth P. 2001 Why Sacrifice? In Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru, Elizabeth P. Benson and Anita G. Cook, eds., pp. 1-20. 1st ed. University of Texas Press, Austin. p. 9, fig. 1.6.
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. 195-198, pl. 45.
Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 264-5.
Carcedo Muro, Paloma 1992 Metalurgia Precolombina: Manufactura Y Técnicas En La Orfebrería Sicán. In Oro Del Antiguo Perú, José Antonio de Lavalle, ed., pp. 17-118. 1. ed. Colección Arte Y Tesoros Del Perú. Banco de Credito del Perú, Lima. p. 271, pl. 246.
Easby, Dudley T. 1959 Golden Treasure from the New World: Pre-Columbus: South American Fortnight. Neiman Marcus, Dallas. cat. 46.
Krutak, Lars 2007 The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women. Bennett & Bloom/ Desert Hearts, London. p. 188.
Sawyer, Alan R. 1960 Ancient Treasures of Peru: Catalog of Exhibition, Jan. 22-Mar. 13, 1960, Worcester Art Museum. The Worcester Art Museum, Worcester. cat. 9.
Shady Solís, Ruth 1980 Peru During the Huari Empire. Américas 32 (2):26-31. p. 29.
"Golden Treasure from the New World", Nieman-Marcus, Dallas, TX, 10/18-10/31/1959 (catalogue # 46).
"Ancient Treasures of Peru", Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA, 1/22 - 3/13/ 1960 (catalogue # 9).
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, September 1960 to July 1962.
"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.
"75 Years/75 Objects", Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 9/8/2015 - 5/22/2016
Purchased from Robert Stolper, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1957.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1957-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.