A carved Bone

by Marina L. Sardi

In the collections of the BASA Museum (Bonner Amerikas-Sammlung) at the University of Bonn, many objects from pre-Columbian and contemporary indigenous societies in the Americas are made of bone. Among the most frequent are necklaces and musical instruments. There are also loose bones that show no clear evidence of having been intentionally modified and some of them are human bones of which we do not know how and why they have been incorporated into ethnographic collections. Another object, which caught my attention during my visit to BASA, is unique among these collections and consists of the first phalanx of a camelid carved with Tiwanaku iconographic designs (Fig. 1).

These bones are usually well known among those who study archaeological contexts in the Andean region because camelid remains are conspicuous elements; the first phalanx, besides being abundant and having good preservation, is a key element that enables the identification of species of this diverse taxonomic group (Gasco et al. 2014). The importance of their study is that these animals have played a fundamental role for millennia in the traditional ways of life of the societies of the Central-Southern Andes; not only as transport and a source of food and wool but also associated with the cosmovision, culture and spiritual and religious practices (Vilá 2015). This is suggested by the object we found in Bonn.

Figure 1. The carved bone in different views. Basa Museum, University of Bonn, Germany.

Its length varies between 70 and 73 mm. The orientation of the object along its longitudinal axis, based on the iconography, follows a distal-proximal direction, i.e. the distal end of the bone (which articulates with the second phalanx) is the top end and is pierced by a hole through which a thread would pass; so as, it would therefore be a pendant. The engravings depict a central, frontal, anthropomorphic figure, whose arms are attached to the body, the open left hand extended and resting the palm on the body, while the right hand is closed in an anatomically impossible position. Above the face there is a band of zigzags that could represent a headdress; below the face there is a radiating object that could be a pectoral and the iconographic group is completed by two bands that occupy the entire perimeter, one in the form of feathers and, below it, another of zigzags. This type of representation is reminiscent of the Ponce and Bennett monoliths and other lithic structures from the Tiwanaku state, in which the central figures might represent a member of the ruling elite, ancestor or deity (Agüero Piwonka et al 2003; Viau-Courville 2014).

The Tiwanaku state extended approximately between 600 and 1000 AD and its main centre of development was around Lake Titicaca, although it reached various regions of southern Peru, eastern Bolivia and parts of Chile and Argentina. However, we do not know exactly where and how this pendant was obtained. Its good state of preservation, for a small object made of bone, suggests that it may have been part of grave goods exhumed for sale. The archives do not provide much information in this regard. The BASA Museum inventory states that it was bought in 1981, for DM 5, along with eight other objects from Bolivia (Potosí) and Ecuador, from A. Seufert, with no further details as to its identity. It was catalogued under the number 3528, as “Bone with incised geometric decoration (Tiahuanaco motif)” (Fig. 2). Other objects in the collection are: silver spoon-shaped pin, clay animal head, clay figurine, small silver bull, silver ornament, jewellery plates and small silver cup.

Figure 2. Inventory containing objects sold by A. Seufert. Basa Museum, University of Bonn, Germany.

Objects such as this pendant are not as visible in the archaeological literature, which has concentrated on more monumental and durable elements of Tiwanaku, such as the Gate of the Sun and the aforementioned monoliths. But they are nonetheless visible on antiquities sales websites, offered as artwork or talisman (Galería Contici 2017, Etsy 2023, LiveAuctioneers 2023). Such sites often offer certificates of authenticity and even affirm that studies have been carried out to ensure geographical and chronological origin. Who did the studies and by what methods is not known. But many of these questions, as well as questions about how this pendant came to be in a university on the Rhine, can be answered by archival research and study of the object.

Acknowledgement: to María Cecilia Páez, of the División Arqueología of the Museo de La Plata, for providing relevant data.

Bibliographic citations

Agüero Piwonka C, Uribe Rodríguez M, Berenguer Rodríguez J. 2003. La iconografía Tiwanaku: el caso de la escultura lítica. Textos Antropológicos 14, 47-82

Etsy. 2023. Estela de hueso grande de Tiwanaku c. 650 – 1050 d.C. Descargado el 30 de marzo de 2023 de https://www.etsy.com/es/listing/950617133/estela-de-hueso-grande-de-tiwanaku-c-650

Galeria Contici. 2017. Tiwanaku bone talisman. Descargado el 31 de marzo de 2023 de: https://www.flickr.com/photos/galeriacontici/31939819710/in/photolist-QEpVCJ

Gasco A, Marsh E, Kent J. 2014. Clarificando variables osteométricas para la primera falange de camélidos sudamericanos. Intersecciones en Antropología 15, 131-138.

LiveAuctioneers. 2023. Pr. Tiwanaku carved llama bone carvings. Descargado el 30 de marzo de 2023 de: https://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/30850682_pr-tiwanaku-carved-llama-bone-carvings

Viau-Courville M. 2014. Spatial configuration in Tiwanaku art. A review of stone carved imagery and staff gods. Boletín del Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino 19, 9-28.

Vilá B. 2015. Los camélidos como parte del patrimonio biocultural de los Andes. Revista Rúbricas 9, 40-51.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
alexiacomte (May 17, 2023). A carved Bone. SciCoMove — Scientific Collections on the Move. Retrieved July 16, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/twu6

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