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Department of Archaeology


The metalwork of Pre-Columbian America has long fascinated scholars and the public alike. In addition to the sheer allure of gold, this attraction is exacerbated by the extraordinary technical skill that underpins many of these artefacts, as well as their mesmerising iconography, which evokes a rich symbolic world and an appreciation of metals that goes beyond their material worth. Most of these objects were made for ritual use. The lack of iron smelting before European contact, and the fact that bronze did not trigger the revolution in warfare and transportation witnessed in the Old World, add to the special character of American metalwork. As such, it is not surpising that some of the most inspiring pioneering work that combined technical studies of material culture with well-grounded anthropological thinking was based on Andean metalwork.

At the same time, and despite notable exceptions, traditional research on Pre-Columbian metalwork has been either too broad and generalising, or too narrowly focused on uncontextualised, special objects. New work is beginning to show the tantalising potential of high-resolution studies that integrate the technical with the archaeological, addressing issues of technology, symbolism and power associated to the manufacture and use of metals in specific contexts. These renewed efforts, together with our pilot studies, demonstrate that we now have the methods, materials and intellectual frameworks to take the study of Pre-Columbian metalwork beyond a narrow appreciation of their technical sophistication or a somewhat atemporal fascination with their symbolic appeal. Site-based and regional studies are the key to understand technologies and their interplays with environmental and political contexts.

In collaboration with the the Museo del Oro in Bogota, the British Museum in London and other institutions, we are making efforts to characterise different sociotechnical traditions as manifest in their metalwork. Our work involves science-based analyses or metal artefacts and production remains, together with a consideration of contextual data, associated materials and ethnographic and historical information.  A core focus of our current research is the evolution of different technological traditions in present-day Colombia, but we are also engaged in research ranging from Pre-Inca sites in the Andes to colonial-period Jamestown in Virginia.

Various strands of this project have received funding from the British Academy, European Union FP6 and FP7, Banco de la Republica de Colombia, and AHRC.

Key collaborators

Marcos Martinón-Torres and Jasmine Vieri (University of Cambridge)

María Alicia Uribe-Villegas, Juanita Saenz-Samper, Juan Pablo Quintero, Lina Campos Quintero, Hector Garcia Botero (Museo del Oro, Bogota)

Jago Cooper (British Museum)

Maria Teresa Plaza Calonge (University College London)

Key publications

Martinón-Torres, M., Lobo-Guerrero, J., Veronesi, U., & White, H. (2018). Goldsmithing traditions and innovations in colonial Colombia: an analytical study of crucibles from Santa Cruz de Mompox. Post-Medieval Archaeology 52, 147-169.

Sáenz-Samper, J., & Martinón-Torres, M. (2017). Depletion gilding, innovation and life-histories: the changing colours of Nahuange metalwork (Colombia). Antiquity 91/359: 1254-1267.

Uribe-Villegas, M.A., & Martinón-Torres, M. (2017). Yotoco and malagana gold ornaments, and Muisca offerings with cacique enclosures. An exploration of the links between metallurgy and prestige in Prehispanic Colombia. In: Pillsbury, J., Potts, T., and Richter, K. N (Eds.) Luxury Arts of the Americas. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute, 44-53.

Martinón-Torres, M., & Uribe-Villegas, M.A. (2015). The prehistoric individual, connoisseurship and archaeological science: The Muisca goldwork of Colombia. Journal of Archaeological Science, 63, 136-155.

Martinón-Torres, M., & Uribe-Villegas, M.A. (2015). Technology and culture in the invention of lost-wax casting in South America: An archaeometric and ethnoarchaeological perspective. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 25 (1), 377-390.

Plaza, M.T., & Martinón-Torres, M. (2015). Metallurgical traditions under Inka rule: A technological study of metals and technical ceramics from the Aconcagua Valley, Central Chile. Journal of Archaeological Science, 54 86-98.

Martinón-Torres, M., Valcarel Rojas, R., Guerra, M. F., & Saenz Samper, J. (2012). Metallic encounters in Cuba: the technology, exchange and meanings of metals before and after Columbus. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 31, 439-454.

Uribe Villegas, M. A., & Martinón-Torres, M. (2012). Composition, colour and context in Muisca votive metalwork (Colombia, AD 600–1800). Antiquity 86, 772-791.

Uribe, M.A., Londoño, E., Quintero, J.P., Martinón-Torres, M., Morales, J. (2013). Historias de ofrendas muiscas. Bogota: Museo del Oro, Banco de la Republica.


British Academy, European Union


Project Tags

Science, Technology and Innovation
Material Culture
Geographical areas: 
Research Expertise / Fields of study: 
Material Culture
Archaeological Science
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