Continuity of signs of status exhibited at national museum

Military uniforms and priestly robes clearly are signs of status in 19th century Costa Rica. Experts think that jewelry served the same purpose for residents in the pre-European era as well as the symbolic head of an enemy hanging from the shoulder. Of course, someone, the artisan, had to make these signs of power. A.M. Costa Rica/Zachery McDonald

The temporary exhibit ¨Investiduras, signos de poder¨ opened Friday at the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. The exhibit examines a common theme in the different historical moments of most societies: what members are or want to be, through dress or decoration of their bodies.

Deformed heads are linked to elite rulers, who had their heads wrapped as infants. A.M. Costa Rica/Zachery McDonald

More than 150 objects are housed in the exhibit, including dress, body decorations, goods, tools and the craniums of long dead chiefs, deformed and elongated to symbolize status.

The objects come both from pre-Columbian societies and the modern era, with emphasis on the 19th century, to highlight the inherent similarities.

The exhibit identifies three sectors that are generally the most powerful in any society: the elite, the warriors and the priests. For obvious reasons, these three were and are integral to societies worldwide.

The elites or chiefs were the most powerful socio-political characters. They were the heads of the hierarchies and could cause social movements. They legitimized their power with large houses, lavish jewelry, elegant costumes and the best food.

The shamans and priests were in charge of the spiritual world, acting as intermediaries between humans and spirits. These characters are easily identifiable by their dress and, due to their close relationship with nature, were often
symbolized by animal statues. The hierarchy and the liturgical calendar are represented in a variety of clothing and specific colors.

The warriors and military were ultimately responsible for protection of the people or conquest of new resources.

Armies being rigidly stratified out of necessity exhibited differences in the infantry and high command by military trappings, badges and decorations and sometimes weapons.

The final part of the exhibit highlights the backbone of all these sectors. Behind each elaborately carved piece of jade, hand-carved religious relic or chiseled-armor chest plate is a complex world of specialists, craftsmen of gold and jade, silversmiths, tailors, dressmakers, shoemakers and painters — the artisans.

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