Pre-Hispanic Jewelry from Oaxaca Mexico

April 3, 2015 , In: Beadwork, Culture, Folklore, Inspiration, Jewelry

The earliest jewelry from what is today, Oaxaca, Mexico, was discovered in the tombs of Monte Alban. The Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban lie on a mountaintop, not far from Oaxaca city and date back to about 500 BC.   Not only was elaborate jewelry buried with the priests and noblemen there, but there are many carvings and sculptures that depict the various gods wearing earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and elaborate head gear.

All pictures by Linda Landig at the Santo Domingo Museum, in Oaxaca city.

Priests and royalty were buried with all their earthly possessions, so they could
carry the items with them into the next life. Body adornment that was
taken to the grave helped preserve some of these treasures. But the Spaniards later took huge amounts of the gold jewelry and art and melted it down into gold bullion.  

The simplest jewelry consisted of drilled stones strung into necklaces and carved into ear plugs.

The area was rich with the gifts of the earth and sea, such as turquoise, pearls, coral, quartz crystal, obsidian, shells, iridescent feathers and jade, all of which were incorporated into art and jewelry.

I love the way the double strands (below) are spaced with two-hole dividers in this necklace. Pretty impressive.

Some of the stones were embellished with carved designs, as is the case with this jade bead set.

The necklaces pictured below are evidence of a society with a well
developed sense of design and sophisticated metalsmithing
skills. Craftsmen specialized in different materials and were divided into different groups, such as stone sculptors, lapidaries, mosaic workers and goldsmiths.  The various disciplines even developed guilds.

Oaxaca was one of the prime gold centers in what today is Mexico and south to Costa Rica.  The gold used in pre-hispanic jewelry was not usually mined, but was found as pure nuggets in the river beds.     

Goldsmiths were held in high regard, both for the beauty they created as well as the skill required.   The two most common methods of working the gold were casting and beating. Gold was cast using the lost-wax method.  It was also beaten into thin sheets which could be decorated by punching and repoussé  Sometimes thin layers of gold were layered over clay or charcoal beads for a more economical use of the gold.

This bracelet is a lovely example of pre-hispanic chasing and repoussé.

Amazingly the pre-hispanic goldsmiths worked without iron tools or
knowledge of the wheel.  All the work shown here was created with stone
hammers and chisels, obsidian knives and bone drills!
 A notable characteristic of pre-hispanic Mexican jewelry is the quality
of movement. This is most evident the the multiple pendants or fringes
that are suspended at the centers of the necklaces, many of which end in
“cascabeles” or little bells, which accentuated the movements of the
priests during ceremonies.

Isn’t this just gorgeous?!

 This one reminds me of some ancient Egyptian jewelry for some reason.

Like the stone sculptures mentioned earlier, deities were also depicted adorned with jewelry in gold.  The filigree-type work, at the top of the mask ,represents the feathers of the god of the sky.  I wish I knew the meaning of the scary looking mouthpiece.

I’ll end this post with a grand finale piece:  A turquoise, coral and gold, multi-strand necklace with gold spacer bars.  Wow!

My next AJE post will be an introduction to some of the jewelry made after the arrival of the Spaniards.  I hope you’ll join me then.


Linda Landig

Linda Landig has been designing jewelry for over 30 years. Color play is the driving force in her work, closely followed by an obsession with texture. Linda soon discovered that art beads could provide much of the color and texture she sought. Linda has an affinity for floral themes, dating back to childhood efforts to raise irises. She has taken courses in metalsmithing and lampwork, but it is ceramics that has captured her heart. Linda has two adult children and lives in Olympia, WA with her husband of 42 years.
  1. Reply

    I cant believe the resemblance it has to Indian jewelry and priests. There are village priests (even today) who dress up exactly like the first sculpture shown. The bell necklaces, hip chain and nose ring (called Bullaakku) can be seen in many temple sculptures and form the basis of Indian traditional clothing. I have often heard (ancient) Mexico to be traditionally similar to India but the similarity is indeed striking

  2. Reply

    Oh, your whole team is turning into a group of WONDERFUL, INTERESTING, DEEP NERDS.

    I LOVE nerds!!!!

    I will mention that in pre-Hispanic times, as well as early Hispanic times, chocolate was only for MEN.

    So sad.

    I served turkey mole, which has chocolate in it, to my family and friends on the day I graduated from medical school!

    Keep up the wonderful, deep nerd posts!

  3. Reply

    I love reading your blog it has some great posts, I think the mouth piece you said about is a nose piece put through the septum if you look closely,Parin.

    • Reply

      I'm glad you enjoy our blog Parin. You made me look at the "mouth piece" more carefully and now I see that you are right about it being a nose piercing. Thanks for pointing that out!

  4. Reply

    Yum yum yum!! Look at all that beautiful old jewelry. Hard to choose a favorite but that last piece….BOOM Statement Piece. Gorgeous! I really love the one that has about 6 layers one attached to the next. So pretty! I scrolled up and down several times to really take each piece in. I hope to make it to Oaxaca one day!

    • Reply

      I hope you can come here one day too. The long vertical, layered piece is my favorite too.

  5. Reply

    Fantastic blog, one of my favourite topics. I can't wait for the next one, Thank you

  6. Reply

    Very interesting post, Linda. Amazing what these people created without all of our modern tools.

    • Reply

      I'm glad you found the post interesting Lee. I agree that it is amazing to think of all that intricate work being created without modern tools.

  7. Reply

    Oh man you know how much I love ancient mess-american culture! Thank you for the tour of some of the beautiful work of an era gone by.

  8. Reply

    Thank you so much for this post. Interesting and so beautiful! I love seeing those jewelry pieces. I have some old dangly bits I've been wanting to use, and these pictures are very inspiring.

  9. Reply

    Fascinating post, and interesting to see the resemblance to Egyptian and Native American and Indian jewelry. I can't wait to read your upcoming posts!

  10. Reply

    Love your post Linda, and how lucky you were to be able to see all that on your trip!

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