The base of this pendant is Spondylus shell; the thorny oyster found in South America only in the warm waters off the coast of Ecuador, from where it was traded hundreds of miles south into Peru.
The shell base of this pendant is inset with small turquoise beads that at first appear to be random in distribution. However, on closer inspection the two largest beads appear to form a pair of eyes separated by a deliberately fashioned “nose” of shell that has also been inset into the Spondylus base. A smaller turquoise beneath the nose may have been intended to be the mouth. If this interpretation is correct, then the gold band at the top of the pendant was meant to be a fez-like hat typical of Nasca dress, or forehead ornament of the creature portrayed in turquoise on the Spondylus shell. The hammered gold band wrapping the upper portion of the pendant displays in relief the masked face of an anthropomorphic being, a figure that combines human and feline attributes, or perhaps is actually a human dressed with the mask and other accoutrements of a feline.
A channel running horizontally through the width of the carved shell, located at about mid-height from the base of the gold band, accommodated the suspending cord for the pendant. No traces of the cord remain, but marks left on the interior surfaces of the channel indicate that a circular action was used in cutting through the shell.
Compared to other pre-Columbian cultures, like the contemporary Moche culture of the north coast, the Nasca people produce few items of jewelry, being PC.B.439 quite a unique piece.
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. 64, cat. 356.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art; Smithsonian institution, Washington, D.C., p. 37, 139, cat. 201.
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. 273, cat. 308, pl. CXXXIII.
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. 281, cat. 308, pl. CXXXIII.
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. 117-9, pl. 20.
Marzio, Frances 2007 Miniature Size, Magical Quality: Nasca Art from the Glassell Collection. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Yale University Press, Houston and New Haven. p. 33.
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to May 1948 and November 1952 to July 1962
Outside/In: Martha Jackson Jarvis at Dumbarton Oaks, Dumbarton Oaks, Washinton DC, February 20 to Agust 19, 2018
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.