Precolumbian Art and the Cultural Thread
by Shelly Couvrette

Putting together an exhibition of ethnographic art entails more than just creating an attractive arrangement of objects. Issues related to each culture and its individual characteristics must be addressed. At the same time, the contemporary viewer and his or her own cultural and aesthetic point of view must be kept in mind. The balance between meeting the needs of the institution displaying the actual works and acknowledging the objectives of the peoples who originally created them must somehow be maintained. .

The tradition of collecting curiosities and exotic works of art from other cultures took firm root in ancient Rome. Beginning with the Roman conquest of Greece, western civilization has taken freely from the peoples it has subdued. The Romans became the first great collectors of art, taking bronze and marble sculptures from Greece for the decoration of their own buildings. Completely ignoring the possible religious significance of the works they were defiling, the Romans used them to decorate not only their own temples, but often their homes as well. From the Augustan emperors to private collectors like Cicero and Virgil, the accumulation of artifacts from Rome's distant provinces became customary.(1)

After the fall of the western Roman Empire, art collecting on a large scale went dormant. While some works continued to be horded by the Catholic Church, they were usually religious in nature. It was not until the European Renaissance that the amassing of vast collections found new life.

At a time when the European mind was awakening and unfurling to the possibilities promised by humanism's new emphasis on the secular, human world, the European thirst for material wealth was driving its search for new physical horizons. It was in this climate of religious and political expansion that the Spanish conquistador was born. The religious and secular leaders of Renaissance Europe were looking for new ways to increase their holdings. Spurred by this desire for both economic and physical expansion, they sent these "explorers" out into the wilds of the New World.

When Hernan Cortes and his army of soldiers landed off the coast of present-day Veracruz, Mexico, they generated a cultural earthquake the after-shocks of which can still be felt today. These first conquistadores came to the New World in search of material riches. Spurred on by rumors of a mythical City of Gold, they surged across the New World spreading disease, death, and cultural destruction in trade for precious gold, silver, jade, and emeralds.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century the first ships, laden with gold and silver, began to arrive in Spain. Thereafter, the annual influx of gold from the Americas exceeded the amount mined in any one year in all of Europe combined. By some estimates, from 1503 to 1660 between one-half to one billion gold pesos were brought to Europe from the New World.(2)

Since the first wave of Europeans came to the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, native South, Central, and Mesoamerican artifacts have been wantonly plundered with virtually no regard given to their cultural importance. The first pieces were sought for their intrinsic value. Gold and silver objects were melted down. Along with beautiful and fantastic carvings of emerald, jade, and serpentine, they were taken back to Europe. Thousands of threads in the fragile cultural fabric were forever lost.

While the conquistadores ransacked the New World for its earthly treasures, the Church saw in it a sea of souls to be "saved." With the coming of Catholic missionaries many native peoples traded in their culture and religion for Christianity. In a few instances, however, missionaries like Diego de Landa and Bernardino de Sahagun helped to preserve native culture by meticulously documenting it. Sahagun, a Franciscan friar, spent twelve years (1558-1570) working in central Mexico on an illustrated encyclopedia of native knowledge. Written in the Nahuatl language, it encompassed nearly every aspect of native life: history, religion, art, war, zoology, and botany.(3)

From the very beginning, the native arts of the Americas inspired not only the royal and the wealthy families who first collected them, but also the artists who came to pay them homage. When Cortes returned from the New World, he brought with him a trove of Aztec treasure. Given to Emperor Charles V, these exotic artifacts were put on display in both Spain and Brussels.(4) In 1520 the German artist Albrecht Durer visited the court of the emperor in Brussels and wrote of the objects he saw there:

I saw the things which have been brought to the King from the new land of Gold [Mexico]--a sun all of gold a whole fathom broad and a moon all of silver of the same size. . . . All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art and I marveled at the subtle ingenuity of men in foreign lands. Indeed I cannot express all that I thought there.(5)

As more and more objects were taken to Europe from the New World, Europeans became familiar with the aesthetic concerns of Native American art. Eventually, collectors began to seek less "intrinsically precious" objects. The western lust for gold and silver kindled into a flame that spread to consume everything Precolumbian. Even the exotic and often whimsical beauty of Precolumbian ceramics, originally passed over as mere curiosities without monetary worth, eventually came to catch the attention of collectors.

The kings of Spain were not the only ones to succumb to the charms of New World artifacts. The Medici family of Florence, Italy, politically, religiously, and economically powerful during the European Renaissance, were also passionate collectors of Precolumbian art. Obtaining many of their objects from Spain and Portugal, the Medici also received Mexican artifacts from Bavaria and other northern European countries. Pope Clement VIII, who was given a parrot feather blanket and a Mixtec codex by the king of Portugal, was the first Medici to collect Precolumbian artifacts.(6)

These early collections were housed in a section of the palace called the guardaroba. The guardaroba provided not only a place to store precious objects but also gallery space in which to exhibit them. In the guardaroba there was usually no effort made to categorize objects. Pieces from vastly different parts of the world and from different periods of time were placed next to each other.(7) In Germany it was not in the guardaroba but in the kunstkammer that artifacts from the Americas were displayed. Crowded together with works of fine and decorative arts and "natural specimens such as shells, minerals and fruit," works of Precolumbian art took their place among the curiosities of the world.(8)

It cannot be denied that early collectors like the Medici have helped to preserve the ancient art of the New World. However, the obsessive consumption of these objects ultimately led to an almost hopeless dearth of knowledge about the peoples who made them. As always, it was the objects' aesthetic appeal, not their cultural significance, that made them desirable.

Like these early private collectors, art museums have historically been concerned with the aesthetic importance of ethnographic art. The cultural significance of these objects was not relevant. In the tradition of the Italian guardaroba and the German kunstkammer, ethnographic works were often jumbled together according to western visual tastes, by staff members who may or may not have had any idea what culture produced them or what they were used for. Efforts to research museum collections, a laborious and time-consuming process at best, were usually reserved for more familiar, conventional western objects. It wasn't until the middle of the last century that New World archaeology and the subsequent researching of museum and private collections was first even pursued.(9)

The great demand for Precolumbian art has lead to wholesale ransacking of both major and minor archaeological sites throughout Mexico and Central and South America. Because of the widespread, illegal looting of archaeological sites to obtain Precolumbian artifacts for sale on the black market to less than scrupulous collectors and dealers, many sites have been destroyed. Nothing that has intrinsic value is spared.(10)

Families that for generations had made their livings from farming could now, with the increased demand for not only gold, silver, and jade, but the traditionally lesser-valued ceramics, greatly supplement their meager incomes. In years that precious crops fail to provide even a subsistence-level living, farming families have few options but to exploit whatever economic opportunities they can find. The choice between providing food and shelter for one's family and preserving one's cultural heritage is an easy one to make. Looting is often much more profitable than farming--so profitable, in fact, that many "grave-robbers" work in organized, well-armed bands. In some of the poorest areas in the world, the relatively large sums of money exchanged for seemingly unimportant, useless "junk" is understandably tempting.(11)

In his doctoral thesis, Peter Furst describes how he worked with some of these grave robbers (or huaqueros) in western Mexico in an effort to identify the ceramic pieces that had been taken from the local shaft-and-chamber tombs. Such a vast number of these tombs have been pillaged that Furst, along with other anthropologists, have had no choice but to rely on the observances of the people who had originally done the pilfering.(12)

In February 1987, huaqueros broke into the burial pyramid of a Moche warrior-priest. The Moche, who settled a narrow strip of coastline in present-day northern Peru, flourished from approximately AD 100-700. The newly looted site, at Sipan, had lain undisturbed since the second century. Walter Alva, director of the Bruning Archaeological Museum, Peru, was called in to help salvage as much as possible from the disturbed tomb. In an area that relies heavily on sugarcane crops for its survival, the times between harvests can be lean. Villagers are often forced to fill these economic gaps by poaching artifacts from the ancient tombs.(13)

What is almost more disturbing than the theft of artifacts, however, is the loss of contextual information. When archaeologists excavate a site, they carefully preserve any clues they may find, not only the objects themselves. When a site is properly excavated, detailed, scientific records are kept and thoroughly analyzed. This is the only way we can reconstruct a culture that no longer exists.

In Europe, where written documents dating back 5400 years can be accessed by scholars, archaeology has traditionally been used as a secondary tool to fill the gaps in the written record. When scholars first began studying extinct New World cultures, however, they found it necessary to shift their focus from the written word to the tangible object. This lead to the development in the mid-nineteenth century of rigid archaeological principles governing excavation.(14)

Archaeology, the scientific study of ancient peoples, involves much more than the glamorous treasure hunting of Indiana Jones or the tedious digging up of ancient bones. Scientists from almost every discipline are involved in examining archaeological artifacts and interpreting them. Botanists, zoologists, chemists, geologists, linguists, ethnographers, and physicians all play a vital role in the retrieval and interpretation of archaeological remains.

By examining decayed or fossilized vegetation and pollen, botanists can tell what plants were present in the area as well as what the inhabitants' diet was like. By analyzing ancient soil conditions we can determine the viability of the crops that were grown. Animal bones found in conjunction with human remains can be an indication not only of what a community's diet was like, but they can also tell us which animals they may have domesticated. Even an ancient garbage dump can provide a wealth of information about a community.(15) These common clues to a people's day-to-day existence are what give us the most intimate glimpse into what their life must have been like.

Forensic anthropologists can look at human skeletal remains and determine not only what a given individual may have died from, but also what diseases may have been prevalent in the general population. Bone structure can also indicate physical characteristics. From an individual's bones, forensic artists can often reconstruct what he or she may have looked like when alive.

Even an artifact's placement in the earth can yield valuable clues about the people who created it. The archaeological principle of stratigraphic succession states that objects found in the deepest layers are the oldest, while those found in the top layers were deposited more recently. By observing and keeping accurate records of an artifact's placement within soil strata, its age (in relation to the objects around it) may be determined. Therefore, all objects found within a specific archaeological level, or strata, can be assumed to be contemporary. Even if the object itself cannot be dated, it is possible that there could be organic material within the same strata that can be scientifically dated. Sometimes this is the only way to determine an object's age. For this reason, it can become impossible to discover the age of an artifact once it is removed from its specific archaeological context.(16)

When a people are gone, they cannot speak for themselves; the objects they created and left behind must become their voice. When sites are excavated irresponsibly or plundered illegally, beautiful works of art are not the only things in jeopardy. Any information that could be gleaned from artifacts in their original contexts is lost, making it impossible for anthropologists and archaeologists to piece together the complex cultural mosaic.

Frequently the only data available on ethnographic works comes from the donor. Some collectors keep scrupulous records on their objects and numerous catalogues of private collections have been compiled and published. When these well-documented collections are donated to museums, the collector's research efforts are a god-send. Sadly, while contentious donors can sometimes provide a wealth of information concerning their pieces, they just as often have not completed even the most rudimentary investigation. Collectors who had originally chosen pieces for their grace and charm often had no interest in researching or keeping detailed records on them.

I have always been interested in "cultural history," and have taken many classes in anthropology, sociology, and mythology. Examining and trying to understand "primitive" cultures and their material creations (in this instance, their art) has always fascinated me. Although I had this understanding, from an anthropological point of view, about what makes culture work, I still had much to learn about ethnographic art.

Because I work in an art museum, I was given the opportunity to help research the museum's ethnographic collection. This took place in two stages. The first stage involved gaining a general understanding of Oceanic, African, Precolumbian, and contemporary Native North and South American art and cultures. This was done in conjunction with a exhibition entitled Gods, Saints, Heroes, and Villains. I took an independent study in art history with the goal of doing research on the actual objects and writing expanded exhibition labels for the show.

When I first began trying to find information on the pieces, I didn't really know where to look. I had only a vague notion of what parts of the world the pieces came from, and an even sketchier idea of what actual cultures created them. When I initially began trying to identify ethnographic works for the museum I found that, with few exceptions, the only information in the object files was a card with the donor's name and the date the piece was given to the museum. In many cases, there was not even an indication of whether a particular piece was ancient or modern; whether it came from the Americas or from the Pacific Islands.

My first priority was to identify the objects and which peoples had created them. I went to the library and looked at every book I could find on ethnographic art. I started by just flipping through the volumes and trying to single out major visual trends within different cultures. I learned to identify the sensuous, down-turned mouth of the Olmec were-jaguar, the flaked flint eccentrics and drilled jade ear flares of the Maya, and the fantastic ceramics of western Mexico.

Surprisingly, I immediately began to find almost exact replicas of many of the pieces in the museum's collection. By the small horn sprouting from the middle of its forehead, I was able to identify a Colima figurine as a Shaman. A small red and black ceramic piece from Ecuador with lime pot on its knee and a slight bulge in its cheek, was certainly a coquero, or coca chewer. From the numerous volumes devoted solely to Precolumbian metal work, I was able to find near-identical twins to the museum's Chimu lime dipper and Veraguas shaman figure.

I was amazed that so much material was available in the library on these objects, but that no one had ever done even this small amount of research. I had had a strange notion that there was some magical source of information that only museum curators knew about. What I came to realize was that even sophisticated collections research begins in the library.

One of the most valuable sources for identifying artifacts was the museum's collection of Sotheby's auction house catalogues (every year Sotheby's publishes one or two catalogues of Precolumbian art). Instead of presenting one supreme example of a certain type of artifact, these catalogues are filled with multiple examples from each culture. (Within catalogues from the last five years there are literally seven or eight hundred examples of western Mexican ceramics alone.) In addition to helping me identify specific objects in the museum's collection, each Sotheby's catalogue also contains a bibliography that provided a sound jumping-off point when I began my library research. I also consulted Michael D. Coe's books on ancient Mesoamerica and numerous works published by Dumbarton Oaks. Several excellent volumes have also been written on the Maya by David Freidel, Mary Ellen Miller, Joy Parker, and Linda Schele: Maya Cosmos, A Forest of Kings, and The Blood of Kings.

I photocopied whole bibliographies from the sources I found most helpful. When I noticed that a particular source began to crop up over and over again, I cut it out and taped it to an Inter-Library Loan form and sent it off (some of these ILL requests are still coming back to me!).

After identifying what the objects were and who made them, I still had to try to figure out what they meant in a cultural sense. Peter Furst's writings were invaluable to me in this area. I learned from him that there are no rules governing how we look at ancient art today. History is not static. It is a shimmering kaleidoscope that shifts for every different person who perceives it. Furst's writings taught me that without imagination, all the scientific tools in the world will not help us to understand the past. I began to realize that these were people like us with everyday lives that are not so different from our own. Far from being relegated to the distant, incomprehensible past, they have an importance to our lives today.

While I enjoyed researching all the ethnographic objects, I found that working with the Preolumbian art was what most fascinated me. Watching programs on television and looking at reproductions in books had peaked my interest, but actually being able to examine these pieces "in the flesh" and to experience them with all the senses--not just sight--was what ultimately got my attention. The realization that I could touch an object that someone--not some faceless person, but a specific individual--had created hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years ago was sobering. I felt as if I were somehow accepting an offering from deep in the past. At the same time that I began to feel this personal relationship to the persons who had crafted the objects, I saw a National Geographic special on television that gave voice to many of the issues that were newly forming in my mind. The words of Linda Schele, a noted Maya expert, still come back to me:

What is happening now is the people who made these places . . . are getting back their voices; they are becoming real to us and speaking to the people of the twentieth century about who built this place and why and what they felt like and what they thought about the world. These are not anonymous people anymore.(17)

It is easy, when looking at art, to consider only what it means to us, in this particular place, at this specific point in time. Indeed, contemporary western art movements seem to insist that the artist does not need to explain his or her art to the viewer; that the observer need not understand (or even be concerned with) what the artist was attempting to relate, but only with what the artwork means to the viewer at the moment when he or she is looking at it. While this may ultimately be true, it is a very egocentric way in which to perceive the world.

When viewing non-western art, it is important to keep in mind that we are viewing objects that were created for extremely specific purposes. While art historians can discuss these pieces in terms of pure aesthetics, at some point it becomes important to understand what they meant to the peoples who made them. In the words of Peter Furst, "no primitive artist ever drew a meaningless symbol."(18) What moved the ancient Olmec to carve gargantuan heads? Why were jade and obsidian so important to the Maya? What did ceramic figures mean to the people of western Mexico?

The work of primitive art. . . [has] behind it a garden, a wonderfully and complexly designed garden. Only, we cannot see it. . . because it is a garden we have never visited, a work of reshaping the natural world into a system of ideas and feelings that is unknown to us. So slight are the indications given by the object as to this garden that we may not even suspect that it is there.(19)

Almost without exception, Precolumbian art is religious in nature. What has been preserved is temple architecture and objects, funerary art, and artifacts from the ball game (which are, ultimately, religious in nature). When ethnographic objects are placed it in a sterile museum setting, it is easy to forget their original functions. The Maya artist who carefully chipped away at a piece of flint to create an eccentric certainly never dreamed that it would some day be placed in an art museum. When we view these objects, removed in place and in many cases time, we cannot help that we speak an entirely different "cultural language." However, we need to be sensitive to the intentions of the peoples who made them. As Linda Schele stated, modern viewers need to allow these objects to speak for the people who created them. These are the only voices they have left.

After Gods, Saints, Heroes, and Villains finally went up, I realized that there were still many issues left unresolved. I continued to pursue some of them on my own time during the summer of 1993. In the fall semester, I enrolled in an independent study through the history department. For this class I focused exclusively on the Precolumbian art in the museum's collection. Most of my research centered on Prehispanic Mexico. This was the second stage of my "project."

Part of the work I did involved helping to curate a small exhibition in the museum's Brown Study Room entitled Living and Lost Traditions. This show presented contemporary and Precolumbian Mesoamerican pieces from the museum's permanent collection. By juxtaposing ancient and modern works, we hoped to show that many of the concerns of the past are addressed in contemporary Mexican folk art.

The deeply spiritual concerns of present day Mesoamerican folk art are direct descendants of the Precolumbian preoccupation with death and the afterlife. Skulls, depicted in almost every pre-conquest culture, are (along with devils) some of the most popular figures in contemporary Mexican masks. This signifies an on-going cultural acceptance of death and the afterlife that began in ancient times and flourishes still today.(20) Even some of the ancient gods are still represented in modern folk art. Tlaloc ("he who makes things sprout"), the ancient Mesoamerican god of rain and the after world, can be seen in some of the brilliantly adorned papier mache masks made today throughout Mexico.(21)

In setting up the exhibition, I was involved in selecting and researching the Preolumbian pieces. I found that there is a wealth of information on Precolumbian art and iconography and even more on Precolumbian culture, but until recently little has been written on the relationship between the two. Because of the lack of integrated sources on the relationship between Precolumbian culture and the art it created, I had to keep cross referencing art sources with archaeological and anthropological sources.

Archaeologists view artifacts as cultural informants. Because of their scientific background, archaeologists have little sympathy for an artifact's aesthetic elements beyond what they can tell him or her about its maker. Patterns of migration, chronology, and the diffusion of regional styles, indicated by changes in form throughout time, are foremost in the archaeologist's mind. The somewhat subjective task of interpreting an object's iconography for religious and cultural clues is usually left to the anthropologist.(22)

The question of why votive figure axe figures with Olmecoid characteristics have been found at many Mesoamerican sites is an archaeological one. The museum has one such figure that has proven to be problematic. It has unquestionable Olmec traits: a toothless, down-turned mouth and squinting, almond-shaped eyes. The entire head has been naturalistically modelled while the torso and legs are shallowly and schematically incised with no attempt made to round out the form. What makes the piece defy easy classification, however, is its dangling, seemingly disjointed legs. Reminiscent of the Zapotec Danzantes (or Dancers) at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico, the legs hardly seem to fit with the careful sculpting of the head.(23)

There are several possible explanations for the disparate styles. This seems the most likely one to me. The head and lower axe form were certainly carved by an Olmec craftsman. How and when the Zapotec incising occurred is not so clear. If the axe was included in a burial offering, as many such Olmec figures were, it may have been unearthed at a later date and taken or traded to the Zapotecs at Monte Alban. It would have been at this point that the incised body and legs were added.(24) This recycling of objects from other cultures seems to have been fairly common in Mesoamerica.

While the archaeologist struggles with issues like how artifacts illustrate cultural contact and diffusion, anthropologists are more subjective in their interpretations. After the archaeologist has proven that there was contact established between two cultures, it is the anthropologist's turn to determine what impact that contact may have had on the religion, customs, and day-to-day lives of both peoples.

If the museum's votive axe did indeed travel to Monte Alban, what cultural forces travelled with it? Were any elements of Olmec religion brought to the Zapotecs? Did the Zapotecs incorporate any of the Olmec gods into their pantheon? Did they worship the Olmec were-jaguar? These are the questions asked and answered by the anthropologist.

In direct opposition to the archaeological and anthropological treatment of artifacts as cultural informants, there is a trend within art history to try to separate art from the culture that produces it. Some art historians want to see art as purely objective and divorced from the world around it. Art, be it western or non-western, ancient or contemporary, is not created in a vacuum. Contemporary artists who claim they are creating art solely for the sake of art--art of a purely sensual nature--are in essence lying. The most socially removed art is still made by people who are without exception members of a specific culture. It is impossible for them to remove either themselves or their art from this context. This is as true for ethnographic art as it is for contemporary western art.

In the traditional art historical world, the museum's Olmec axe would be discussed in terms of its formal aesthetic elements. Color, line, shape, and texture and how they are incorporated into the piece become the primary concerns. The visual contrast between the fully modelled head and the schematically incised body take precedence over their cultural significance.

One would think there would be a sharing of ideas between the three disciplines, but that is often not the case. George Kubler wrote of the need for this integration.

Archaeological studies and the history of science are concerned with things only as technical products, while art history has been reduced to a discussion of the meaning of things without much attention to their technical and formal organization. The task of the present generation is to construct a history of things that will do justice both to meaning and being . . . expression and form are equivalent challenges to the historian; and that to neglect either meaning or being, either essence or existence, deforms our comprehension of both.(25)

The main goal of my research became trying to extrapolate from myriad sources what these Precolumbian objects meant in a cultural sense.

What makes people unique among animals is culture. Culture is made possible by the sharing of ideas, feelings, and events through symbolic language. This sharing of experiences allows humans to pass on information from one geographical area to another and from one generation to the next. These shared ideas can become behavior patterns that, when repeated across a population and through time, become culture.(26) Unlike humans, when an animal dies, its experiences generally die with it.(27)

Art is simply a highly symbolic form of visual language. Traditionally, it is the representation of ideas and experiences so that others can experience the same feelings as the artist. When the work of an ancient artist reaches across vast tracts of time to touch the people of today, this message from the past becomes even more precious. In the words of George Kubler, "Here is without doubt one of the most significant of all the mechanisms of cultural continuity, when the visible work of an extinct generation still can issue such powerful stimuli."(28) This sharing of experiences is necessary for every human in every culture.

If we accept the definition of art as the rendering of truth in sensible form, and truth as the interpretation of human experience, it is obvious that a work of art is essentially communicative. It must mean something to someone other than the person who created it--in fact, and more important still, it can mean the same thing or several different things to a number of persons. But meaning it must have.(29)

However hard we may try, we cannot separate ourselves from the social structures that make us human. Art is the re-presentation of human experience. Art is dependant upon culture and culture is dependant upon art; man creates art and art creates man. Art is a dialogue between ourselves and our fellow humans concerning the world around us. Even if the "subject" of art is not linked to the human experience, the fact that it is created by persons with uniquely subjective outlooks on life makes it about the human experience. The writer Leo Tolstoy wrote on the communicative nature of art.

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then by means of movement, line, color, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others experience the same feeling--this is the activity of art.
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.(30)

Often it is this meaning that is lacking in the presentation of ethnographic art in the museum setting. Art museums traditionally treat ethnographic art as "pure" art. This relieves museums from having to explain to the viewer what he or she is looking at. As pure art, these objects should be able to be understood by western audiences in the same way that western art is understood. The technical elements (line, color, shape, and texture) of a work and how the artist has manipulated them are what become most important. The grey area of understanding what the artist was trying to convey is in this way bypassed.(31)

Until recently scholars were not particularly interested in integrating their knowledge of what an object meant culturally with how it functioned in a visual sense. This is, however, beginning to change. A trend toward the scholarly integration of anthropology, archaeology, and art history began in the early twentieth century. Among these authors there seems to be a new sensitivity to the interrelation between art and culture. Peter Furst, for example, has written extensively on the religious relevance of western Mexican ceramics.

The religious importance of western Mexican ceramics, now widely accepted, was not always understood. It is their secular, anecdotal quality versus their spiritual significance that has been the object of recent debate. For generations Mexican farmers had been unearthing ancient ceramic pots and sculptures while plowing their fields. Collectors disregarded them as clumsy and even comical. Because they had no monetary value on the black market, they were usually broken up and thrown away.

It was not until collectors, like Josef and Anni Albers, and artists, like Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and the English sculptor Henry Moore, started to take notice of western Mexican ceramics that some pieces began to be spared. The initial appeal of these objects was their seemingly completely secular nature. They were treated as purely anecdotal by collectors and scholars alike. Thought to depict whimsical and joyous everyday, or genre, scenes, the possibility of their having any religious or serious cultural significance was not considered. This belief was backed by such respected authorities as Miguel Covarrubias and Hasso von Winning.(32)

While researching objects for Living and Lost Traditions, I was wrestling with all of these issues. Probably the most problematic piece I worked with was a ceramic figurine from Colima, Mexico. Generally these objects, often grasping musical instruments (like flutes, rattles, and drums) in their hands, are classified according to what they are holding. Because the museum's figurine is broken is several places (it is missing its hands and legs) it was even more difficult to identify than the other western Mexican pieces. Its only distinguishing feature is a horn in the center of its forehead.

Every source I consulted insisted that these objects had no religious purpose. Even the prominent horn on the forehead of many of these figurines (certainly not a characteristic found in the natural human world) caused little speculation among scholars. The closest identification I could find was as a funerary portrait or a spirit guide. I found this frustrating, because common sense told me that no culture would invest such vast amounts of time and energy on the creation of tombs and works of art that had no spiritual importance. It didn't make sense.

Finally, I gave up and wrote an expanded exhibition label based on this limited information. After the exhibition closed, however, I stumbled across a book written by Peter Furst, The Ninth Level. In it Furst questions the validity of these long-held beliefs about western Mexican ceramics and reveals their profoundly spiritual nature. Furst believes that if a western Mexican artist included an element in one of his figurines, it must have a meaning.(33) In an effort to uncover this long-buried meaning, Furst uses what he calls ethnographic analogy.

Furst, a cultural anthropologist, has spent considerable time among the Huichol people of Nayarit. The Huichol, along with the Cora, are almost certainly descendants of the ancient shaft-and-chamber tomb builders of western Mexico. Huichol and Cora religion and culture were affected relatively little (in comparison to those of other indigenous peoples) by European contact. Furst makes the reasonable assumption that a traditional people like the Huichol, while incorporating some superficial elements of western culture into their own, are likely to have changed little on a basic level since the time of their ancient ancestors. By examining contemporary Huichol religion and culture, Furst draws parallels, using anthropological analogy, between what he learns of these modern people and the ceramic legacy left by their ancestors.(34)

By looking at the significance of the horn in Huichol religion today, it is possible to extrapolate what it may have meant to their ancient ancestors. Furst ascertains that ceramic figures bearing horns on their foreheads depict shamans. Huichol shamans wear horns as a symbol of sacred shamanic power.(35) By looking at ancient horned ceramic figures in light of contemporary Huichol beliefs, Furst is able at last to begin the process of deciphering what they may mean.

While it is necessary to be cautious in relying too much on modern culture to give us clues to the past, the links between past and present must not be underestimated. In cases like the shaft-and-chamber tomb builders of western Mexico, where a people have left behind little physical evidence, the few tangible clues we are given must be examined in terms of what we can learn about them from their contemporary descendants. They are the living legacy of their ancient ancestry. We must take what we know about what different peoples have in common and fill in the pieces that have fallen from the mosaic.(36)

A new sensitivity on the part of scholars and the continued integration of disciplines are the first steps toward reclaiming the past. With the continuing obliteration of archaeological sites and the plundering of artifacts, we must look for new ways to fill the gaps in our knowledge and understanding of ancient peoples before their voices become lost forever.

This knowledge of our past, and it does belong to all of us, is important. More than any cliche about the past showing us where we are headed, the past helps us to understand why we are here, now, and how we got here. The world did not begin in 1969 when I was born. I want to learn what cultural forces brought my world into being. I am the product of the world around me, a world that was shaped by the thousands of generations that came before mine. Discovering what happened in the past is part of understanding what is happening in the present.

It is a rare thing when a people develop historical consciousness and make recorded history a part of what they do. What we are participating in now is the recovery of lost history because American history does not begin in 1492 with Columbus. It begins in 200 BC with the first Maya king who wrote his name on a stone.(37)

E-mail: shelly@cat-sidh.net
Copyright 2007 Shelly Couvrette


1. Francis Henry Taylor, The Taste of Angels (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1948), p. x, 18.

2. Francis Henry Taylor, The Taste of Angels, p. xii.

3. George Kubler, Art and Architecture of Ancient America (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 3rd edition, 1990), p. 33.

4. Detlef Heikamp, Mexico and the Medici (Florence: Edam, 1972), p. 7.

5. Quoted in Douglas Fraser, "The Discovery of Primitive Art," in Anthropology and Art, ed. Charlotte M. Otten (Garden City, New York: Natural History Press, 1971), p. 25.

6. Detlef Heikamp, Mexico and the Medici, p. 8-11. One of the codices in the Medici collection was written by Bernardino de Sahagun. The text, in both Nahuatl and Spanish, is complemented by illustrations of native arts, history, and religion.

7. Francis Henry Taylor, The Taste of Angels, p. 76-77.

8. Detlef Heikamp, Mexico and the Medici, p. 7.

9. George Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America, p. 32-33.

10. Gordon F. Ekholm, "Art in Archaeology," in Aspects of Primitive Art, Robert Redfield, Melville J. Herskovitas, and Gordon F. Ekholm (New York: The Museum of Primitive Art, 1959), p. 87.

11. Walter Alva, "Discovering the New World's Richest Unlooted Tomb, National Geographic (October 1988), p. 510-514.

12. Peter Furst, Shaft Tombs, Shell Trumpets and Shamanism, Ph.D. dissertation (Los Angeles: University of California, 1966).

13. Walter Alva, "Discovering the New World's Richest Unlooted Tomb," p. 510-514.

14. Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America, p. 32-33. This is not to say that there was any lack of written documents left by the ancient peoples of the Americas. In the case of the Maya (and the Olmec as well) there were thousands of hieroglyphic inscriptions carved into stelae, pyramid steps, and works of art, but it was not until very recently that epigraphers have been able to read the majority of them.

15. Jane McIntosh, The Practical Archaeologist (London: The Paul Press, Ltd., 1986), p. 8.

16. Brian M. Fagan, World Prehistory: a brief introduction (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979), p. 28-47.

17. Linda Schele, in Lost Kingdoms of the Maya, prod. and dir. Christine Weber (National Geographic Society, 1993), videocassette.

18. Peter Furst, "Ethnographic Analogy in the Interpretation of West Mexican Art," in The Archaeology of West Mexico, ed. Betty Bell (Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico: Sociedad de Estudios Avanzados del Occidente de Mexico, A.C., 1974), p. 133.

19. Robert Redfield, Melville J. Herskovitas, and Gordon F. Ekholm, Aspects of Primitive Art (New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1959), p. 20-21.

20. Donald Cordry, Mexican Masks (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1980), p. 33-41, 75.

21. Donald Cordry, Mexican Masks, p. 41.

22. Tatiana Proskouriakoff, "Studies on Middle American Art," in Anthropology and Art, ed. Charlotte M. Otten (New York: Natural History Press, 1971)p. 129-130.

23. Michael D. Coe, Mexico (London: Thames and Hudson, third edition, 1984), p. 74, 81-83.

24. We know that the Zapotecs also incorporated Olmec stylistic traits into their artworks. The Danzantes that the museum's Olmec votive axe so much resembles have themselves some decidedly Olmecoid traits. The slightly down-turned mouths of these incised figures further prove that there was most likely some amount of cultural diffusion.

25. George Kubler, The Shape of Time (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1962), p. 126.

26. Brian M. Fagan, People of the Earth (Boston: Scott, Foresman and Company, sixth edition, 1989), p. 10-11.

27. Recent research has established that some primates (especially chimpanzees and gorillas) can learn sign language and then pass this knowledge on to their offspring. Our recognition of this ability is causing us to re-evaluate our definition of what characteristics constitute culture and "intelligence."

28. George Kubler, The Shape of Time, p. 108-109.

29. Francis Henry Taylor, "The Archaic Smile," Daedalus, Autumn 1957, p. 313.

30. Leo Tolstoy, quoted in Reid Hastie and Christian Schmidt, Encounter with Art (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1969), p. 314.

31. David Crownover, "The Tribal Artist and the Museum," in The Artist in Tribal Society: proceedings of a symposium held at the Royal Anthropological Institute, ed. Marian W. Smith (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1961), p. 34.

32. Peter Furst, "Ethnographic Analogy in the Interpretation of West Mexican Art," p. 133.

33. Peter Furst, "Ethnographic Analogy in the Interpretation of West Mexican Art," p. 133.

34. Peter Furst, The Ninth Level (Iowa City: The University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1978).

35. Peter Furst, "West Mexican Tomb Sculpture as Evidence for Shamanism in Prehispanic Mesoamerica," in Antropologica (Caracas: Instituto Caribe de Antropologia y Sociologia, n.d.), p. 53. Furst traces the universal importance of the horn as a symbol of sacred power dating back to Paleolithic cave painting of a horned shaman figure in the Cave of Les Trois Freres, Montisquieu-Avantes, France (p. 47-53).

36. Peter Furst, The Ninth Level, p. 19.

37. Linda Schele, in Lost Kingdoms of the Maya, prod. and dir. Christine Weber.