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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Precolumbian Dolls - Gold

Figure of a Warrior
Central Mexico, Aztec, from Tetzcoco?, 14th century
after 1325 cast gold-silver-copper alloy Overall: 11.2cm x 6.1cm

Above is just one link on this topic. Dolls from the ancient Americas have been found made of cloth, precious metals, jade, precious and semi-precious stones, and clay and stone. They are written about in Anne Rice's Merrick, and the Emperor Montezuma himself is said to have had a collection of dolls.

Fragments and heads have been found with sacrifical victims, in sacred places, and in graves. In Peru, there are grave dolls of clay and woven cloth, and reproductions made of old materials abounded in the 80s. Some, like the clay doll that graced the old Kahlua adds, were jointed. One silver example, jointed, with woven clothes, was found buried with a mummy of a young girl, probably a sacrifical victim.

From the same site, on casting gold [some were done by lost wax method]:

Like wax-resist ceramics, gold working seems to have begun in Peru, perhaps as early as 1500 B.C. Knowledge of casting, hammering, repoussé, and inlay spread from Peru and possibly Colombia northward, passing through Panama and Costa Rica on its way to Mesoamerica, where it finally arrived in the 10th century A.D. These same methods are still in use today for the making of fine jewelry.

The lost wax method consisted of making a wax sculpture of the item, then covering it in a ceramic outer cover, then melting and pouring out the original wax. The gold is then poured into the ceramic and cooled. The ceramic is then removed leaving only the gold. Very complex figures can be created using this simple method.

The wax was typically bee's wax warmed to be pliable, then carved into the desired shape, then cooled in a river or water to harden and hold it's shape. The clay/ceramic used to form the mold is itself wet and soft, which helps keep the wax hard, and also allowing it to better mold to the shape of the wax. Since it is more difficult to maintain the integrity of larger pieces, often the appendages are made separately. This allows for the fine details to be created without worrying about the model being maimed or destroyed. with separate pieces, a drop or two of molten gold can be used to solder or join pieces together.

Once the wax is fully coated with clay/ceramic, it is then "fired" (hardened) in some form of a kiln or fire - this hardens the ceramic, and liquefies the wax. After the mold is hard, the wax has either burned away, or can be poured out of the mold, leaving it ready for the molten metal. This leaves a hollow where the wax was inside the ceramic. After the ceramic is cooled and ready for use. The metal is then poured into the mold, and either temper cool by immersing it in water, or allowed to air cool. After which, the ceramic is broken off the gold piece. Thus both the original design in wax, and the mold are both destroyed in the process. So each and every piece is an original and unique. Click here to visually see how this process is done.

A variation on the lost wax method is a half cast, where the cast is open and reusable (like an ice tray). This allows repeated use of the mold (under ideal conditions), but does not permit complex designs, since the design must be removable without breaking the mold. In fact, the author once used a variation on this process: caved a pattern from wood, then used plain mud (as well as raw clay) as a mold - since the pattern remained intact, this was an easily repeatable production process. While there is no factual proof that this latter process was ever used in Precolumbian times, it is nonetheless workable for simple designs. Enigmatic stone hollows found throughout the region may also have been used in this fashion.


  1. The gold figurine K2048, in your article depicts an Aztec warrior wearing a mushroom-inspired nose plug. I have noted that Hallucinogenic mushrooms appear to be linked with what scholars have called "Tlaloc warfare" or "Venus star-wars". The Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest referred to mushrooms as flowers (Wasson, 1980 p.79). Flowers (mushrooms) symbolize a state of the soul on its journey to full godhood and Teonanacatal, the mushroom of the Aztecs, was called "the flower that makes us drunk" (Nicholson 1967, p.90). Spanish chronicler Fray Diego Duran writes that war was called xochiyaoyotl which means "Flowery War". Death to those who died in battle was called xochimiquiztli, meaning "Flowery Death" or "Blissful Death" or "Fortunate Death". Note that the Aztec warrior holds a shield depicting the "quincunx", a Mesoamerican Venus symbol identifying the four cardinal directions of the universe and its cosmic center, the sacred portal into the spirit world.

  2. Thanks for your comment and great information.