Funerary Mask (work of art)
Key Ideas about this Work of Art
- This Sicán funerary mask is from the North Coast of Peru. It is made up of three sheets of hammered gold metal that are held together by tiny metal pieces similar to staples. A thin layer of red mineral covers most of the cheeks and forehead. The pupils of the eyes are round, blue-green beads, each with one small hole in the center. The details of the face include wing-shaped eyes, a three-dimensional nose and mouth, and two circular earpieces.
- The Sicán people lived along the North Coast of Peru from about 700 to 1370. The Sicán are also sometimes referred to as the Lambayeque. The word “Lambayeque” (pronounced lam-ba-yeck-eh) comes from a myth about their founder, Naymlap, and his green-stone idol called LLampallec.
- The chronology of the ancient Sicán culture is divided into three periods: the Early Sicán period (750 to 900 C.E.), the Middle Sicán period (900 to 1100 C.E.), and the Late Sicán period (1100 to 1375 C.E.). The Sicán is best known for its extraordinary metalwork produced during the middle period.
- Like the ancient Egyptians, the Sicán used to mummify their deceased. The mummies in Peru were meant to keep a physical representation of an individual’s status and power after they died.
This Sicán funerary mask is made from a type of gold metal that was abundant to the Sicán. Its color indicates that it is an alloy, or mixture of metals. During the time in which it was made, the mixture of metals would have most likely been gold, silver, and copper. Artifacts of this kind are reported to have been used to adorn the bodies of deceased rulers inside their burial spots. The underside of the mask shows faint traces of the wrappings that once enveloped the mummy. The detailed facial painting indicates the high status of the individual. Since mummification was used to preserve the power of the deceased individuals, scholars believe funerary masks were created to help the deceased embody the power of the Sicán deities or divine rulers.
A thin layer of red mineral (possibly iron oxide) covers most of the cheeks and forehead of this funerary mask. The blue-green beads in the center of the eyes are most likely made of turquoise. Similar funerary masks, with the same type of eyes, have been found during archaeological excavations. The mask’s form is consistent with the Lambayeque (Sicán) style, which features upturned or “winged” eyes, a prominent nose, thin mouth, and round ornaments on the ears. There are two tiny holes in each side of the mask, which may have been punched into the metal to attach danglers to it.
Resources for Teachers
- Discover more about the Sicán people.
- Read an essay about the Sicán people.
- See how mummy bundles were created in Peru and how they are similar to the mummy bundles found at Sicán archaeological sites.
- Read an article about the production and craftsmanship of metal pieces from the Sicán.
Resources for Students
- Explore a Sicán funerary mask from the Dallas Museum of Art.
- View another Sicán funerary mask from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Watch a video about the systematic looting and robbing of Sicán artifacts.