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Bahia (Ecuador)

Seated female “gigante” figure with child

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Object Details

Culture

Bahia (Ecuador)

Date

300 BC-500 AD

Medium

Earthenware

Dimensions

18 1/2 × 9 1/4 × 5 1/8 inches (47 × 23.5 × 13 cm)

Credit Line

Gift of Thomas Carroll, PhD 1951

Object
Number

2006.070.062

Large, hollow ceramic human figurines, the so-called “gigantes” (giants), are a distinctive comp(…)

Large, hollow ceramic human figurines, the so-called “gigantes” (giants), are a distinctive component of Bahia ceramic assemblage produced in the coastal regions of Manabí province in central Ecuador from about 300 BC to 500 AD. Here the elaborate body ornamentation and jewelry of the woman and child signal their wealth and high status. A large portion of the Johnson’s collection of ancient ceramics are permanently on view in the visible storage gallery on Floor 2L, where they are used extensively for teaching. Cornell faculty, including Professor of Anthropology John Henderson, use these objects to better understand the development of ancient communities and their identities. (“Highlights from the Collection: 45 Years at the Johnson,” curated by Stephanie Wiles and presented at the Johnson Museum January 27–July 22, 2018)BRIEF DESCRIPTIONThis ceramic Bahia “gigante” (Spanish for giant, or unusually large) female figure cradles an infant in her arms. Gigante figures are often found in family groups, with pairs and couples being common.WHERE WAS IT MADE?This figure was made in the coastal region of what is now Ecuador.HOW WAS IT MADE?A variety of clay working techniques were used to make this figure. Some sections could have been built with coils (ropes of rolled clay layered one on top of the other), others sections were likely made with flat slabs of clay. Facial features and other details were modeled by hand, perhaps with the assistance of some basic tools. The child figure may have been made from a mold. The piece was decorated with slip prior to being fired in a pit. Slip is made by mixing different-colored clays or ground mineral pigments with water.HOW WAS IT USED?The original function of archaeological figurines found in museum collections is uncertain. Today archeologists carefully record information about the associations between artifacts and the circumstances of their burial as they are unearthed, and we can draw many conclusions about object function. However, very few of the archaeological objects found in museums today were excavated in a careful, scientific manner, so we have fewer clues about their past associations and function.A wide range of people and objects are shown in pre-Columbian pottery. From burials, we know that the variety of head shapes, jewelry, and clothing styles reflect the actual appearance of these prehistoric people. Because figurines represent many life stages and ordinary human activities, they probably served to exemplify the usual norms of behavior, to serve as guidelines or rules to help socialize people and integrate them into society. Although obviously decorative, figurines could also have been used to make offerings to supernatural powers, to serve as good luck charms, or to accompany the dead as grave goods.WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE THIS?The main figure is seated with her legs extended perpendicular to the body, with a skirt stretched between the knees. Notice that she wears a flanged helmet, nose ring, collar, earrings, bracelets, and a skirt with beaded fringe. The infant wears a nose ring, helmet and bracelets. Jewelry is worn by many pre-Columbian figures and even by ceramic urns with modeled human faces. As in modern societies, jewelry and clothing were used in the past to convey information about a person’s social standing. The elaborate nature of much of the jewelry depicted in pre-Columbian artifacts may reflect the high rank of the people portrayed in these works of art.Earrings are common and range in shape from long dangles to round studs and hoops of varying size, and are sometimes made of gold, tumbaga (gold-copper alloys), and other precious metals. Earrings were frequently worn in multiples on each ear; it is likely that their number, size, and material were worn to indicate wealth, rank, or social identity. Other types of body piercing were also common from at least the Regional Development Period (500 BC-AD 500) onwards: nose rings were nearly universally worn, and lip plugs or labrets, which consist of a dumbbell-shaped ornament buttoned through the lower lip with the ornamental side facing out, were also common. Broad, collar-like necklaces are clearly depicted on many figures, as are a variety of arm and leg bands, including bracelets and anklets. Notice how the figures’ heads look flattened in the front and back. Manipulation of head shapes was common throughout Mesoamerica and South America in pre-Columbian times. Human head shapes can be deformed or changed in infancy, since the skull is relatively soft. Common pre-Columbian head shapes were produced by tightly circling the baby’s head with cloths (to produce an annular or tall rounded shape), or by tying boards or other hard objects to the back of the head and/or the forehead (to produce a broad, flat shape). Differences in head shape served to mark geographic origins or group affiliation. In the Andes today, hats are used in a similar way, with each community having characteristic headgear distinct from those worn in neighboring areas.To see other “gigante” figures in the Johnson Museum’s collection, search for object numbers 74.053.054, 74.053.081, 75.051.013 in the keyword search box.ABOUT THE BAHIA CULTURE:The Bahía culture developed on the coast of Ecuador near the Bahía de Caráquez. The Bahía people were farmers who also harvested wild foods, especially marine resources such as fish and shellfish. That the Bahía people were skilled mariners is evidenced not only by their use of seafood but by the presence of their remains on the Isla de la Plata, located some 50 km away by sea. The Bahía people lived in chiefdoms, in communities of perhaps 5,000 people, with residential areas set apart from special-use areas such as stepped platform-mound temples and plazas. The dead were cremated and then buried with ceramic figures. Some of the more unusual Bahía artifacts include anthropomorphic tusk effigy amulets (said to be modeled after sperm whale teeth), rectilinear “gaming stones” incised with circles, and “dragon” or “monster” fantasy figures incorporating elements of several natural creatures. The Bahía culture shares many characteristics, such as the presence of polypod bowls and other ceramic vessel shapes, with the neighboring Regional Development Period (500 BC-AD 500) cultures of Guangala, Jama-Coaque, and La Tolita, all of which are local successors to the earlier, more widespread Chorrera cultural horizon.

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