jeweled platypus


monday, june 04, 2007
Pre-Columbian earrings and the Jeweled Platypus

the jeweled platypus

When I was about 11 years old, I saw this image in an issue of National Geographic Magazine, cut it out, and saved it. I called it a jeweled platypus, since that’s what I thought it looked like. I later pasted it on the inside pocket of my binder, which I lost when I was 15. Luckily, I’d scanned the parts of my binder that I liked, and I uploaded the platypus image as an easter egg in an early version of this website. A year or two later, I converted the website into a blog, put the image on the template, and bought the domain name. This platypus has stuck with me from the moment I saw it.

Well, I knew the whole time that the little bird wasn’t a platypus, but I had no idea what it was. I’d lost any clue to its origins in the moment of possessing it, so I trusted my aesthetic sensibility and the silly name I’d thought up a long time ago (exhibit B: my username on most websites is “dreamyshade”), and I gave somebody else’s image my own meaning and story.

That’s how it was until today, when I consulted Ask Metafilter (the community oracle of earnest and educated web people), and fifteen minutes after I posted my question, a kind linguist answered, “It’s from Sipan, on the north coast of Peru. I think it’s an ear plug, and the image is a muscovy duck.” I laughed. Sipan? An ear plug? A muscovy duck? What are those things? More importantly, what am I going to rename my blog? I clicked his link to this picture:

the brother of the duck

Yes, that’s the duck, made of turquoise, gold, and wood, and apparently owned by a museum in Peru. It’s part of a set of earspools (that’s the term in scholarly documents; they’re orejeras in Spanish and earplugs or earrings in informal writing, but they all mean “large round ornaments that attach to ears with pegs”) found with an elaborate mummy — a warrior-priest called the Lord of Sipán — in 1987, the year I was born. He was part of the pre-Columbian Moche/Mochica civilization, which existed from about 100 A.D. to 800 A.D. There was an article about him in National Geographic in October 1988, with pictures by Bill Ballenberg, which might have been the one I read. My picture turns out to be by Martha Cooper, though:

the original!

It’s strange to see the platypus laid out like that, bright and high-resolution and watermarked. I think my copy of the image is prettier, with a low resolution that hides some of the flaws of the newly-unearthed artifact and a dark background that sets it off, like the black of the magazine page that I remember. This image also reminds me that my copy doesn’t look quite like the shiny one that Ask Metafilter linked to (above). Even considering extensive restoration work, the bird’s shape is different. A few hours later, I realized that there must be two of these ornaments, one for each ear, and I found an image with both of them:

the two, side by side

I’m not sure which one is represented in mine. It should be the one on the left, unless people are horizontally flipping pictures, which means that the eye is in the wrong place. The one on the right has a better-placed eye, but the feet look different.

There’s another odd aspect: the caption of the picture by Martha Cooper says the earspool represents a Muscovy duck, but it takes some imagination to connect it with how they look in real life (they’re ugly). But the Muscovy duck was domesticated in South America at the right time — and they were the only ducks around — so it makes sense.

The exhibit of artifacts including the duck (“Royal Tombs of Sipán”) was at UCLA in 1993, when I was six years old and living across the city. That exhibit was organized by Christopher B. Donnan, who researches “archaeology, culture change, invention and technology” and is the world’s Moche expert. Confusingly, there’s a current Canadian exhibit about the art of the Sicán people, who were different from the Sipán although near them in time and space — and had similar art. For example, Sicán art has prominent warrior imagery that looks like the Sipán earspool that I vaguely remember was on the magazine page next to my platypus:

a guy with a couple of his friends

There are even pictures of that earspool being dug up, and other earspools in the archaelogical site, which is pretty cool. Archaeologists have found many other Moche earspools, and they’re all beautiful: iguanas that Escher might have liked, a running deer, more deer, lapis lazuli warriors, and more warriors. There are a bunch of warrior earspools because along with making jewelry and ceramics and textiles, the Moche killed people a lot:

Moche worship featured a figure called the Decapitator…shown with one arm holding a knife and another holding a severed head by the hair…This human sacrifice also included the consumption of human blood by the Lord of Sipán, who was a Moche spiritual, military and civil leader…Burials in plazas near Moche pyramids have found groups of people sacrificed together and skeletons of young men deliberately excarnated, perhaps for temple displays. The sacrifices are believed to have been to ensure the coming of the yearly rains.

Then some catastrophic flooding and drought disrupted their civilization, and it disintegrated.

As you might be able to tell, I spent the rest of the day googling and ogling everything related to this duck. I think the Moche and other pre-Columbian Peruvians have the greatest sense of style, especially this falcon cup, this guy on a burial bottle, and this arms-outstretched guy. I love my little duck earspool. It’s the right combination of unusual and beautiful, its mysteriousness allowed me to make it my own, and now it has introduced me to a whole civilization of awesomeness (with Ask Metafilter’s help).

Edited on June 9 to correct and clarify some paragraphs and add more:

I found a couple of useful books in the UCSB library: Moche Art and Iconography (1976) and Moche Art of Peru: Pre-Columbian Symbolic Communication (1978), both by Christopher B. Donnan and which seem to contain the same material, with extra color photos in the second one. They include a compendium of beasts containing a Muscovy duck and explain, “Muscovy ducks have their bills turned 90° so that they are shown in top view while the rest of the figure, including the head, is shown in profile.” That perspective is part of why my platypus looks odd, but doesn’t explain why it has a squarish lump in place of a left leg and foot. The books were published ten years before the tomb of Sipán was excavated, though, so it’s good that they help explain the platypus at all.

I also liked this stirrup spout bottle:

brown and highly patterned

I’m using part of that neat fineline drawing, which represents the Moche burial theme (4 mb PDF), as the banner underneath the platypus in the blog header. It looks much better than the old doodle of mine that I had there.

One last thing for this epic post: in “A Man and a Feline in Mochica Art”, an article in “Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology”, number 14 (1974), Elizabeth P. Benson summarizes Moche art beautifully:

The problem, of course, lies not in the physical description of this piece, but in its meaning or meanings. The Mochica have left, on painted and modeled pots, more vivid pictures of their world than any other Pre-Columbian people, perhaps more various and telling pictures than any other ancient people. There are representations of their flora and fauna and portraits of their chieftains and warriors, their diseased and disfigured. These are often rendered with such extraordinary realism that one knows exactly what sort of bird or squash or deer or disease is represented. Equally often, however, the motifs are blended in what is to us fantasy: beans have human faces and legs, weapons are anthropomorphized, and warriors have wings and hawk beaks. In the attempt to sort out the realities and relationships of the Mochica world, one can neither take the literal for granted, nor dismiss as fantasy the extraordinary combinations of motifs, for the Mochica view of reality was not that of modern man, and, because they were preliterate people, a high degree of symbolism was involved in their representations.

It reminds me that I still don’t know what that little Muscovy duck symbolized to the Moche, and that nobody might know. I’m thinking about emailing Christopher Donnan to see if he has some ideas.

Edited on June 21 to link to the accompanying analysis; both parts made up my creative exercise for a class.

comments (2)

That was very informative, Britt. Don't edit it.
lizzy on 6/4/2007 18:23:40

I love how the internet answers questions sometimes! I got flickr to tell me what kind of a moth I'd taken a picture of once. This story is much better though, and your jeweled platypus is awesome (and it totally does look like a platypus with wings).
lauren on 6/5/2007 05:11:59

comments are off. for new comments, my email address is


I’m Britta Gustafson.

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