Pair of Earflares, Winged Messengers

Made of gold and inlaid stone, these earflares were probably worn for ceremonies rather than daily.

Pair of Earflares, Winged Messengers, 3rd–7th century (Moche civilization, Peru), gold, turquoise, sodalite, shell, 8 cm diameter (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] I’m standing in the Pre-Columbian galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Sarahh Scher, an expert in the ancient Moche culture. This is a culture that existed in what is now Peru, that produced some of the most exceptional goldwork and ceramics that have been found in the Americas.

Dr. Sarahh Scher: [0:22] They were absolute masters at creating both ceramic and metal objects. Their metallurgy was incredibly sophisticated. We see the use of hammering, soldering. What we’re looking at here are earflares that use turquoise, sodalite, spondylus shell, gold, and mother-of-pearl to create this incredibly beautiful object.

Dr. Zucker: [0:44] In fact, we’re surrounded by cases with exceptional goldwork and other examples of ear spools. If this was 25 years ago, I would probably have to explain what an ear spool was, but I think most people now know that these are basically studs for a piercing in the ear that is much larger than a typical piercing.

Dr. Scher: [1:03] The idea was that the bigger the ear spool, the more important of a person you were, and vice versa. These particular ones have a diameter that’s about a centimeter and a half, which is pretty hefty.

Dr. Zucker: [1:15] To make it much more extreme, the display side is much larger and must be quite heavy, because not only do we have a significant amount of gold, but we also have inlaid stone.

Dr. Scher: [1:27] They are very heavy, and they would have been counterbalanced partially by the fact that the shaft in the back is so long. It is also possible that most of these were somehow fastened to headdresses or otherwise attached to clothing to help take some of the weight off of the ear itself, which would have been exceptionally stretched out by these objects.

Dr. Zucker: [1:47] It’s safe to say this was not for everyday wear. This was probably for ceremonial use, but we do find wear marks on these kinds of objects. We do have an indication that these were not only used for burial.

Dr. Scher: [1:59] These do seem to have been worn in life. The question is whether they were worn by one generation or possibly multiple generations. It is quite possible that if you are a very high-ranking person with lots of responsibilities, you may end up wearing these quite a bit more than you might think.

Dr. Zucker: [2:13] The image in the center is extraordinary. We see these two bird-men, and they seem to be running so fast. They seem to have almost picked themselves off the ground.

Dr. Scher: [2:21] This is something that we see very frequently in Moche iconography, this image of the running figure, whether human or supernatural. It’s done by having those two bent legs at the knee and the arms in runner positions for pumping back and forth. Then we of course have with these figures the wings on their backs that seem to add to that sense of swiftness.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] And faces that show beaks and eyes that are made in gold, that are clearly the faces of birds. Whether or not they’re masks, or these are representations of mythological figures is unclear. You can make out that the headpiece is tied on under the chin.

Dr. Scher: [2:59] Yes, that’s very common in Moche art is that the building blocks of these headdresses are actually shown, and that you can see how they’re fastened on to heads. Now, it’s quite true that we don’t really know whether these are meant to be representations of mythological creatures who wear the same kinds of hats that people wear, or that they are meant to be representations of humans who are wearing masks as ritual runners.

[3:20] Either way, the iconography of running while holding this bag in one hand — and that’s what that very simplified shape is, it’s a bag, it’s gathered up with the top pieces sticking out at the top of the hand — this is something that we see a lot in Moche iconography.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] One of the ideas that may explain those bags, here represented in mother-of-pearl, is that they may be representing leather bags that could hold something precious, like beans. Almost like this typical American egg-and-spoon race. The idea might be to travel over long distances without dropping any of those beans.

Dr. Scher: [3:56] That is one theory, that it was possible that it was a test, essentially, of masculinity and of physical ability, to be able to run a long footrace over difficult terrain like that found on the coast of Peru, and that one would be able to do this while still guarding something precious and delicate.

Dr. Zucker: [4:14] But these are also warrior figures, and it might not be immediately apparent, but the legs are representations not of socks and tight-fitting leggings, but rather body paint.

Dr. Scher: [4:25] We know that mostly because of ceramic representations that are a little bit more detailed. The bottom parts of the legs are represented in sodalite, which is a purplish-blue mineral, and then we can see at the knees there are these darker patches of turquoise.

[4:39] What we tend to see in ceramic pieces is that those areas of sodalite and then the patches at the knee are all rendered in one color of slip, and they are very much represented with warrior figures, that is, figures that are dressed not just with the kilt and the backflap that we can see being worn by this figure here, but that also have helmets, that are carrying shields and maces, and are sometimes fully engaged in combat with each other.

Dr. Zucker: [5:05] So, we shouldn’t be thinking about the idea of a race as pure sport, this has a clear military aspect to it.

Dr. Scher: [5:11] There’s something symbolic about it. Now, we can’t give you a blueprint and say this is exactly how this fits into their entire system of belief, but what we have are series of visual associations that we have found by very closely looking at the artwork, and that these elements, the leg paint, the kilt, the backflap, those are things that are associated with warriors.

[5:33] There are other things that are not immediately apparent as being war-related that seem to have something to do with what makes a good warrior, including images of men hunting deer.

Dr. Zucker: [5:44] This is so important to keep in mind because our understanding of Moche culture is evolving. This is not a culture where we have a written record. This is not a culture that we fully understand, so it is objects like this that are allowing us to gently begin to construct an understanding of what this culture was about.

Dr. Scher: [6:01] It’s a blending of an understanding of these pieces, but also everything that’s being done archaeologically. The Moche are a really great example of archaeology as science. We are seeing people revising old hypotheses, putting forth new ones, using new technology, and turning that into a much more sophisticated understanding of how people lived.

Dr. Zucker: [6:25] We can take that process, look at these earflares, and begin to understand a little bit more about these people. For example, the shell that makes up the kilt and makes up the cuffs comes from the west coast of Ecuador, at some distance from where the Moche lived. The turquoise and the sodalite is coming from a distant place.

[6:42] We see evidence of trade routes, and perhaps we see evidence of a dominance of the Moche, to be able to require the importation of this kind of material.

Dr. Scher: [6:52] It certainly is a representation of the ability of the elites of the Moche, at the very least, to command the results of these trade routes, to have things that they could trade in exchange for these things, but also to command the manpower to bring these materials together and to create these objects that represent the status of the people at the top of the social hierarchy.

Dr. Zucker: [7:13] Standing even here now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the status of the individual that wore these is very clear.

Dr. Scher: [7:20] Absolutely.

[7:20] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”MocheWingedMess,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Sarahh Scher and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Pair of Earflares, Winged Messengers," in Smarthistory, April 28, 2016, accessed June 12, 2024,