- central Panama
- Azuero Peninsula
About the Artist
Although we don’t know who created this piece, we do know about the artist’s process. This plaque was made out of a gold and copper alloy, or metallic mixture. Mixing gold with copper lends strength to the piece, but the artist would have been careful not to add too much copper because it can lead to corrosion. The artist first heated the gold alloy and then hammered it using a stone tool, repeating the process until the desired thickness was achieved. He then cut out a circular disc and embossed the design onto the surface, adding additional detailing with a chisel. To emboss the design, the artist laid the disc on a firm but somewhat yielding surface and pushed the metal out from the back.
This gold plaque was reportedly found at Parita, on the Azuero Peninsula of central Panama. It closely resembles breast ornaments found in graves at Sitio Conte, an archaeological site in central Panama. In addition to gold plaques such as this, the most powerful and important individuals buried at the site were surrounded with extraordinarily lavish offerings, including sacrificed attendants, polychrome pottery, whale and shark teeth, and other gold ornaments.
What Inspired It
Plaques like this, sometimes stacked on top of one another, have been found covering the chests of high status individuals in archaeological excavations of tombs. Hammered into this flat, gold plaque is a figure in an upright human-like pose. This creature has sometimes been called the “Crocodile God.” It has long, reptilian claws, a split tail, staring eyes, flaring nostrils, and a wide mouth with sharp, interlocking teeth. The ears are pointed and horn-like elements rise from the head. Above the head are two fish-like animals with spiky bodies. Powerful individuals in ancient society probably identified themselves with this fierce looking supernatural being. Recent research suggests that the figure may represent an iguana with supernatural attributes.
The large rectangular head has a mask-like face with circular eyes and a flattened nose. The grinning or grimacing mouth has prominent triangular interlocking teeth. On the side of the head are upward-flowing ear ornaments. Antler-like appendages protrude from the top of the head. Two sharks are entwined in the antler projections on either side of the head.
The body is androgynous and unclothed. Both the hands and feet have claws, five on the hands and four on the feet.
At the bottom of the figure is a split, curved tail that spirals outward in opposite directions. In the center of the figure is a triangular depression.
Four pairs of holes were pierced through the finished disk so that it could be held firmly in place on the clothing or costume.