Demonstrating Power

Birds abound in the arts of the ancient Americas. Soaring falcons, fish-eating sea birds, hovering hummingbirds, and brilliantly colored parrots captured the imagination of peoples from Mesoamerica to the Andes.

Pre-Columbian dignitaries wore intricate ornaments in the shape of birds and feathers. They dressed in brilliantly patterned tunics with avian designs and carried similarly adorned shields and staffs. On important occasions, they donned shimmering headdresses and iridescent cloaks made with the colorful plumes of parrots, hummingbirds, and other tropical species. The natural beauty and great artistry of these garments dazzled onlookers and demonstrated the wearer's unique status and position.

By wearing avian trappings, dignitaries communicated particular affinities with feathered beings. Characteristics of certain species could signal the wearer's exceptional abilities, personality traits, achievements, or occupation. Alternatively, bird attributes could indicate a relationship with specific celestial powers, avian tutelaries, and spiritual helpers. Religious practitioners donned avian costumes to impersonate legendary or supernatural beings in ceremonies, rituals, or reenactments of myths.

Dumbarton Oaks Special Exhibition 2009 Flights of Fancy 5

These plumes may have been held as fans, worn as tassels, or placed in a headdress. Each feather's quill is folded around plant fibers that are braided and lashed together with a cord. The bright green feathers are from Mealy Parrots, the reddish ones from Greenwing Macaws, and the yellow ones remain unidentified.

Birds were favored as pendants by elites from Costa Rica to Colombia. Their stylized rendering suggests a concern with artistic form at the expense of naturalistic detail. Yet occasional horns, claws, or crests provide diversity and may allude to birds of a specific type or species. Suspended on leaders' chests, these birds were a sign of social distinction, control over precious resources, and possible affinities with certain avian species.

Birds far outnumber other figurative designs in the arts of the cultures of the Intermediate Area of the Americas. The extraordinary diversity of species present in this region of the world, as well as the social disposition of birds, their ability to sing or speak, and above all their unique capacity to fly have stimulated human interest and imagination. Many pendants bear the sharp beak and claws of birds of prey—fitting symbols of strength, power, and majesty.

The Maya lord on this monument carries a feathered shield. He wears an oversize feather headdress in the shape of a hummingbird with a flower on its long thin beak. In Mesoamerica, hummingbirds were associated with the sun, war, sacrifice, and rebirth—fitting symbols for a warrior's headdress.

In the text, a macaw head is part of the second glyph in the third column. Known as mo' in Maya languages, the macaw here represents the syllable mo in the name of the warrior's father, Moch Ahkchamay, who ruled along the Usumacinta River in the 7th century CE. The fact that macaws could talk was surely significant. Several other Maya rulers chose to take the name Macaw because of the bird's powerful associations with the sun, fire, and even sprouting corn.

The figures on this tunic have been described as bird-men. Twelve eagle heads adorn each man's face, headdress, torso, and belt. Another five eagle heads hang off the men's staffs or by their feet. The bird attributes define the men's costumes and personae, possibly animating them with avian powers. The figures' two staffs, embellished with sets of feathers and a dangling human trophy head, further underscore the bird-men's fearsome powers.

The birds represented are harpy eagles with a hooked beak, high nostril, and a raised crown of feathers at the back of the head. The feathers on the staffs have different colored endings, like the striped wing and tail feathers of harpy eagles. Central and South America's largest bird of prey is an apt symbol of power that inspired many ancient images.

The colorful feathers on this figurine once created a bright blue crown, a headband and collar in vibrant red-orange-yellow, a blue-green shirt, and a skirt with five stripes in different iridescent hues. Only the figurine's face, legs, arms, and the human head it holds in each hand were left uncovered. This feather-clad warrior adorned a wall or a high-ranking person's staff at a site on Peru's north coast.

A feather cape and a bird-like tail are part of this lord's costume. The garments are striking, as few full-round Olmec figures are so richly dressed. In addition, the sides of his helmet, the front of his cape above his shoulders, and the three elements at the top of his headdress are incised with profile bird heads—including a round eye, sharp beak, and crest.

Etchings representing tattoos cover the diminutive fist and forearm. Designs include a row of birds drinking from bowls, a row of creatures with shells known as Strombus Monsters, and a row of bird warriors. In Moche art, these creatures are all associated with warfare and human sacrifice, as are the war clubs that decorate the arm and fingers.

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