Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas is an exquisite and lavishly illustrated book, filled to the brim with compelling essays and extensive catalog entries. The span of the volume is no less impressive, surveying as it does the luxury arts of the ancient Americas from the northern and central Andes, Central America, and Mesoamerica. The book, a companion to the blockbuster Golden Kingdoms exhibition, beautifully assembles more than two hundred of the objects from the show and expertly contextualizes them with detailed maps, timelines, and a wealth of comparative material, archaeological data, art historical analysis, and entries devoted to consideration of materials, techniques of manufacture, economic systems, and paths of trade and communication.
While the luminous gold pectoral that undulates across the cover prepares the reader for the extraordinary metalwork achievements contained within, the rich array of other luxury materials addressed is impressive and may be, for some readers, surprising. Perhaps turquoise and jade are to be expected, but we are treated to breathtaking achievements in Spondylus shell, obsidian, camelid fiber, feathers, silver, and clay. Although gold drives the narrative trajectory, it is by no means the sole focus.
Joanne Pillsbury’s opening essay lays out the goals and breadth of the book, which explores the development of luxury arts, in all their diversity, from 1000 BCE through the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century. It also orients the reader for the discussions to come: considerations of value in the ancient Americas and the ways in which they differed from comparable ideals in Western Europe; the archaeological, textual, ethnohistoric, and linguistic evidence used to get at Indigenous notions of value; the vast trading networks that accommodated the exchanges of materials and ideas; and the utility and power of materials to convey deeply held aesthetic choices, symbolic significance, artistic mastery, and personal identity. Pillsbury notes that the goal of the volume is a consideration of regimes of value in specific places and at particular moments, with an eye toward the sort of cultural and historical specificity that we take for granted in the Western world but is not always afforded the ancient civilizations of the Americas. Readers are also made aware of the preciousness of the objects at another level: these luminous and often delicate things have, quite remarkably, survived the ravages of time and conquest.
Two essays address the topic of metallurgy in detail. Blanca Maldonado considers metalworking and metallurgy in the Americas, deftly melding discussion of the cosmological and technological significance of transforming raw materials into something sumptuous. She traces the early appearance of Andean copper and gold, only minimally transformed from their native state at first but eventually worked, by 2155–1936 BCE, into objects of adornment. Metallurgy was a latecomer in Mesoamerica, likely due to persistent cultural preferences for other materials, especially jade and greenstone, as Maldonado argues. María Alicia Uribe Villegas and Marcos Martinón-Torres zero in on the complex relationships between metallurgy and prestige in ancient Colombia. Yotoco tombs, in which high-ranking individuals were interred, have revealed extraordinary assemblages of gold objects, many of which bear self-referential designs that feature individuals wearing the same regalia and engaged in ritual acts. Other objects show use-related wear and even repairs, clues to their lives prior to burial. Uribe Villegas and Martinón-Torres lament, however, that many objects were looted anciently or more recently, and thus their contexts are forever lost. Who, they wonder, wore the unprovenanced but magnificent composite bird-man breastplate now in the Museo del Oro in Bogotá?
A number of essays emphasize the diversity of luxury arts in the Americas. Luis Jaime Castillo focuses on Moche artists and their patrons, sampling some of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries from El Brujo, Sipán, and other sites, but also contextualizing them within their socioeconomic matrix. Moche objects of adornment signified social and political status and were the product of state-controlled workshops. Castillo reminds us, however, that the identities of the artists who crafted these objects are less forthcoming, although new research is tackling questions of training and organization. Pillsbury’s second contribution focuses on the luxury arts of the Inca empire in all of their richness, from elaborately woven tunics to ear flares, scepters, and anthropomorphic beakers of gold. All, she explains, played key roles in conspicuous displays of political authority, individual rank, and group affiliation. Many were also closely regulated via sumptuary laws, which prohibited the use of some items beyond the emperor and members of the nobility.
John Hoopes’s contribution explores the “magical substances” of jade and gold that were sought out and transformed by the Indigenous peoples of northern South America and Central America. This region was not directly impacted by the expansive states of the Maya to the north or the Inca to the south. Yet peoples in numerous modest villages fashioned jade, gold, shell, whale ivory, and antler into remarkable objects laden with social and ritual significance. A number of objects, Hoopes notes, reveal their own travels: a slate disc recovered from a tomb in Costa Rica bears a design in the Teotihuacán style of Central Mexico and was interred with gold items from northern Colombia. Such data illustrate how networks of trade and exchange linked diverse ethnic and linguistic groups throughout the history of the Americas. Adrián Velázquez Castro describes the many marvels created from shell throughout the Americas. Although shells served utilitarian and alimentary purposes, full-time specialists also crafted them into personal adornments, utilized by both coastal peoples and those located far inland. Velázquez Castro first traces the lengths undertaken to obtain living mollusks, especially the vivid reddish-orange Spondylus, which often required dangerous deep-water diving, acts that were memorialized in murals and on precious objects from Mesoamerica to South America. Shell was also revered for its religious significance, resonant as it was with associations with the sea, fertility, and life-giving forces.
Essays by Laura Filloy Nadal, Stephen Houston, Leonardo López Luján and José Luis Ruvalcaba Sil, and Kim Richter focus on Mesoamerica. Filloy Nadal explores the value, ritual significance, and technical mastery of jade, whose lustrous green symbolized agricultural abundance as well as wealth and authority. She notes that greenstones were not all valued equally, but rather subject to evaluative taxonomies that took luster, intensity, transparency, and purity into careful consideration. Excavations in the capital of the Aztec empire clearly demonstrate a cultural preference for greenstone over gold: fewer than three hundred gold objects, compared to close to ten thousand greenstone objects, have been documented.
The theme of Aztec gold is explored in further detail by López Luján and Ruvalcaba Sil, who describe excavations in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and, in particular, the Templo Mayor ritual precinct at its heart. But their essay opens with a harrowing description of Hernán Cortés and his men’s arrival in Tenochtitlán, shortly after which they began to plunder the ancestral riches of the Aztec kings. It is a sobering reminder of what has been lost, as well as what has been found through painstaking excavations in the Templo Mayor archaeological zone. Beyond presentation of the archaeological data and a variety of gold objects—bells and fantastic objects of personal adornment—López Luján and Ruvalcaba Sil also describe the tribute systems, artists’ workshops, and specialized methods that sustained their production and distribution. They also address the extensive chemical analyses of the objects that have enabled scholars to identify “geographic zones of gold use” that stretch from the valleys of Oaxaca to Costa Rica and Panama (117).
Pivoting from the Aztec world, Houston’s essay begins with a consideration of what Mayan languages reveal about luxury for the Maya peoples and their definitional emphasis on items worn or arrayed on “resplendent bodies” that transformed the wearer into a being akin to the gods. Maya luxury items, he explains, visualized the social exclusivity of rulers and elites, but were also imbued with material value, unparalleled artistry, and “vital energies” that invoked verdure, in the case of jade, or even the power of natural forces like lightning, in the case of obsidian. Polychrome Maya vessels portray vivid scenes of tribute to kings and the presentation of bundles that would have contained exotic items from distant places; such images tout the centralized acquisition of luxury goods by kingly courts.
Richter’s contribution begins with a page from the sixteenth-century Codex Mendoza that, in vivid colors, presents an array of precious items sent as tribute to the Aztec empire. Focusing on the Postclassic period (900–1521 CE), Richter concentrates on the competition between courts and nobles throughout Mesoamerica, who both generated demand for luxury goods but also played a key role in their long-distance acquisition and trade. Although gold is not absent from Richter’s discussion, other protagonists include quetzal feathers, copper bells, mother-of-pearl, and turquoise, whose primary source was far to the north in the southwestern United States. All were revered and coveted for their brilliance and dazzling brightness.
The closing essay by Julia McHugh explores the role of luxury goods in the age of global encounters. The era following the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century, McHugh emphasizes, was not one of “uni-directional imposition of colonial policies” but instead characterized by a complex matrix of encounters and exchanges that reverberated across the Atlantic, the Pacific, and throughout the Americas (123). Luxury was constituted not only through objects at this time, but also through ideas, pageantry, ceremonies, and practices that bridged the Pre-Columbian and postconquest worlds. The viceregal Americas were also witness to novel artistic experiments with pigment, metals, and techniques; they were the locus, as they had been for millennia, of technical and theoretical explorations of the material and conceptual significance of luxury.
This is a volume rich in concise but effective and immensely engaging essays, catalog entries, and, sprinkled throughout, focal points that target key sites and provide more detailed archaeological and contextual data for the objects, written by scholars from throughout the Americas and Europe who bring their unique areas of expertise to bear on the endlessly fascinating and varied story of luxury in the ancient Americas. The authors make their points through finely honed prose and the presentation of objects whose color illustrations will captivate audiences today as the objects themselves did in preceding centuries. The book is a feast for the eyes and the mind in equal measure. It also strikes a keen balance in terms of information and accessibility: for any reader, it is a place to see new things and new data, but also to encounter familiar objects reconsidered in fresh ways. It’s full of bling, but is in no way superficial. It gets to the heart of how wealth and value—in social, personal, community, political, and economic terms—were constructed, maintained, and reinvented in myriad ways in the ancient Americas.