Harvard archaeologists excavated the eight ornaments in this case from several burials at Sitio Conte, a cemetery famous for its lavish graves of powerful chieftains. The young man buried in Grave 26 was such a chief. His status was stunningly memorialized by 21 human companions and 475 objects, many of them personal ornaments made of gold, including the large chest plaque (no. 2) and the rod-shaped ear ornament (no. 3) shown here.
The creature on the chest plaque, found close to the chief’s body, has reptile claws and perhaps the head crest of an iguana. Its meaning is unknown but perhaps, as in later periods, reptilian imagery and the warm gleam of gold linked rulers with the sun’s creative force.