The Ancient Shards of Central American Art and History

CentroamericapoliticoLike the Central Valley of Mexico and the Andes of South America, Central America has been home to dynamic and sophisticated civilizations for thousands of years. A series of distinct cultures left behind remarkable ceramic objects, which attest to considerable wealth, intricate belief systems, and singular artistic achievements. Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed a bilingual (English/Español) exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington D.C. — explores seven ancient regions of Central America, encompassing modern Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Examining the vibrancy of Central America’s diverse ancestral heritage with a broad selection of objects, this exhibition also underscores the interconnectedness of Central America’s pre-Columbian peoples with their Mesoamerican, Caribbean, and South American neighbors.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Alexander V. Benitez, co-curator of the exhibition and director of the Smithsonian Latino Center sponsored Central American Ceramics Research Project (CACRP), about the exceptional artifacts featured in the exhibition.

186317Nicoyaalex1JW: Dr. Alexander V. Benitez, welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia! It is such an immense pleasure to discuss Cerámica de los Ancestros with one of its co-curators.

I was wondering if you could describe what the “ceramics of the ancestors” are in greater detail? Do we know how these ancient ceramics were made and how indigenous peoples would have used them?

AB: Hello James! The exhibition includes more than 160 archaeological objects made of clay, gold, jade, stone, and even shell produced by people from Belize to Panama. The time span covered in the exhibit is equally broad, with the earliest figurines from Honduras created c. 900 BCE and our latest vessels right around the time of European contact c. 1500 CE. That said, we also included a few relatively modern pieces in the exhibit. We want to remind visitors that elements of these ancient ceramic traditions endure in present-day indigenous communities, even if they are, at times, interpretations of reclaimed designs and forms.

“What I find fascinating about the ceramics from Central America is the exceptional artistry that appeared very early on and continued until the European arrival in the 16th century CE…I think that Central American potters also expressed a high degree of creativity and individuality.”

The pottery itself includes bowls and jars used to store, carry, or serve various provisions, but also objects that would have been used in ritual life or perhaps community events. Numerous human and animal figurines are included because they tell us something about how people in the past viewed themselves and their environment. Identity and social status are certainly visible in the human figurines –  in clothing, jewelry, face and body painting, posture, and what appears to be tattooing. Many other vessels were selected based on what is depicted on them in painted design or applied decoration rather than their specific function (which is often difficult to determine). So much of what was valued in ancient Central American life appears in the decorative elements.

The inclusion of non-ceramic objects allows us to provide a more complete picture of these ancient ways of life. Frankly, I think we would have left many visitors a bit disappointed with an exhibition on Central America if we did not include examples of the region’s well known jade, gold, and stone work. In fact, two highlights of the exhibition are large stone carvings on loan from the Brooklyn Museum and the Embassy of Costa Rica in the United States.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I should make one important note: the Maya region was included in our definition of Central America largely because, geographically, it was defined as such for the multi-year Central American Ceramics Research Project that I directed for the museum. As you know, archaeologically speaking, the Maya region is considered to be part of ancient Mesoamerica. Including the Maya region in this exhibit worked well, because it allowed us to highlight the fact that communities with very different political system, architecture, and belief systems were very connected in the ancient past. We tried very hard to make the point that Central America’s ancient civilizations were varied, dynamic, and complex, just like the better known civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andean region.

JW: In your opinion, what exceptional qualities distinguish these treasures from those made in the Central Valley of Mexico or in the Peruvian Andes? Can one observe a mélange of stylistic influences as a result of trade and cultural influence from across the Americas?

AB: What I find fascinating about the ceramics from Central America is the exceptional artistry that appeared very early on and continued until the European arrival in the 16th century CE.  In some regions, such as the Greater Coclé in central Panama, potters created remarkably complex and abstract human, animal, and transformational figures that are not only visually striking, but also filled with symbolism and meaning. In the Central Caribbean region of Costa Rica and the Greater Chiriquí region of southern Costa Rica and western Panama, small modeled figures (appliques) applied to the pottery provide us with a very different level of detail, but they still emphasize human and animal life. I would say this artistic focus appears in every region of Central America. Additionally, I think that Central American potters also expressed a high degree of creativity and individuality.

228390Cocle5We do see some similarities in iconography and vessel forms with neighboring regions. For example, polychrome ceramics from the Ulúa River Valley in western Honduras look similar to — and are sometimes misidentified as — Classic period Maya polychrome ceramics (c. 250-900 CE). For a long time they were considered Maya copies by some scholars because their “glyphs” were unreadable (labeled as “pseudo” or “fake glyphs”). Dr. Rosemary Joyce and other scholars have made the convincing counter-argument that Ulúa River Valley potters replaced Maya writing with a different, but just as effective, set of glyphs and imagery that used repetition and possibly motion to convey meaning. Such a system might have been more culturally relevant to people in the Ulúa River Valley. I would also note that these Ulúa Polychromes were heavily imported into the city of Copán, a major Maya center to the west of the Ulúa region.

In the Greater Nicoya region of southwest Nicaragua and northwest Costa Rica, local potters incorporated deity imagery with clear connections to Mesoamerica. The feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, the rain god Tlaloc, and the wind god Ehecatl were painted and modeled in polychrome ceramics. Many examples are found in museums and archaeological collections, so it is clear that ideas about religion moved southward at some point in time. Indigenous narratives recorded from the Colonial period (c. 1500-1820 CE) and recent archaeological research support the idea that one or more waves of northern migrants did, in fact, move into this region sometime before c. 1000 CE.

JW: Dr. Benitez, what was it that provided the catalyst to develop this landmark show, and how were you able to select only around 160 artifacts?163702Chiriqui6

I would surmise that it was arduous to choose from such a broad selection given Central America’s incredible ethnic and cultural diversity! The National Museum of the American Indian collection contains more than 12,000 artifacts originating from seven different Central American countries.

AB: This exhibition and the research project that preceded it were first proposed by Ranald Woodaman and Eduardo Diaz of the Smithsonian Latino Center. In 2009, the center sponsored the Smithsonian exhibition, Panamanian Passages, and in the course of selecting objects, they realized the National Museum of the American Indian housed a major collection of Central American ceramics. After I was brought on board, we recognized that this collection was not only comprehensive, but it was also historically important. Most of the museum’s current collections were part of the former Museum of the American Indian — Heye Foundation in New York City (1916-1989). That institution funded important archaeological research throughout the Western Hemisphere in the early part of the 20th century CE. Well-known scholars such as Samuel Lothrop and Alanson Skinner conducted research in Central America for the Heye Foundation. One of the Heye Foundation trustees, Minor Cooper Keith (1848-1929), also donated one third of his 16,000 piece private collection from Costa Rica to the museum. Minor Cooper Keith is better known as one of the founders of the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International).

061259Ulua8Narrowing down this amazing collection to 160 objects was extremely difficult, James. We wanted to provide museum visitors a glimpse of life in ancient Central America, but we had six defined cultural regions, the area bounded by El Salvador, and almost 3,000 years of history to consider! We decided to focus on broad themes shared by every region, but rather than repeat them for every region, we discussed them in the regions where they were best represented. So, for instance, ideas about authority and elite culture are discussed in the Greater Chiriquí section, while shamanism and transformation are discussed in the Greater Coclé region. Temporally, we tried to include objects from all time periods, but we let the themes and pottery forms and design elements guide us.

JW: I always like to ask curators about the objects that excite or inspire them: Are there any objects that you find particularly remarkable or ones that museum visitors should definitely look for?

AB: My favorite objects are those that also have interesting recent stories to tell. The life histories of these vessels include decades or even a century of time in private collections and museums. Indeed, some vessels are more well-traveled than many museum visitors! In the course of doing our collections research, we explored the museum’s archives and uncovered very interesting stories about several objects. Here are a few of my favorites:

a. In the spring of 2011, we decided to research the museum’s photo archives to see if any images could provide us with better geographic provenance for some of the objects. In one of the photo249405Nicoya9 negatives from Belize, I immediately recognized a rather simple Maya cylinder vessel held high by an unknown individual who appeared to be Belizean. He may have been hired to work on the excavation project (we still have yet to identify him) or he may have been a local landowner. Regardless, I knew exactly where that objects was stored in the collections, and we quickly confirmed that this was the same vessel. We were able reconnect this image and object for the museum, and both are on exhibition.

b. The second vessel has an interesting archaeological story to tell; today, it is regarded as one of the best examples of Maya carved pottery found in any museum collection. However, for a good part of the mid-20th century CE, it was invisible to the archaeological community simply because a noted Maya scholar had declared it a fake in the 1920s or 1930s. The flawed reasoning was that no other examples of such intricate “carved” pottery existed at that time, and the design elements and structure did not fit known and expected Maya conventions. So this amazing vessel was either fake or it was produced by an illiterate potter! The Maya scholar assumed it was the former.

161881Maya10JW: I feel it is pertinent to ask a more in-depth question about the research involved in curating an exhibition like Cerámica de los Ancestros: Did you and those charged with organizing this exhibition make frequent trips to Central America?

Moreover, what specific research was conducted, and is this research included within the exhibition itself? Please elaborate if you can.

AB: Cerámica de los Ancestros is the culmination of several years of research on the vast collection of Central American ceramics at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. In 2009 CE, the Smithsonian Latino Center established and funded the Central American Ceramics Research Project, and I was brought in as the project’s director. I was asked to organize a research program to update the collection based on current archaeological knowledge. This meant reclassifying the collection, but over time it also came to include archival research and important collaborations with many scholars working in Central America. The project also contributed to education programs, and we made several public presentations to promote our research, including a major presentation in 2011 for Central American ambassadors and embassy staff. As you might imagine, what was initially envisioned as a one year project soon turned into a multi-year project with several goals.

As a Mesoamerican archaeologist with experience working in Central Mexico, I could not have successfully carried out this project without the assistance of several collaborating scholars who provided ceramics training workshops for my staff of student researchers. We were very fortunate to be able to bring five excellent scholars to the Smithsonian for several days of lectures and hands on training. Several other excellent scholars also offered advice and assistance via email communications and phone conversations.N20516

I also have to acknowledge the many students — recent BA graduates and MA candidates — who learned a great deal about the pottery and participated in nearly every aspect of the project. In many ways, the Central American Ceramics Research Project was as busy and as dynamic as any field project. I am quite proud of what we accomplished. A history of our project is archived at this website. In the near future, much our research data will be made available on the museum’s online collections database. It will be a great resource for archaeology students and scholars in Central America who cannot easily visit the collections in person.

JW: Dr. Benitez, I thank you for speaking with us about this impressive show! We wish your exhibition much success and congratulate you on bringing increased attention to a much-neglected part of the world. ¡Muchas gracias por hablar con nosotros y mis mejores deseos en el future!

AB: Thank you for the opportunity, James! I invite everyone visiting the Washington, D.C. area to the National Museum of the American Indian to experience the rich history of Central America.

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed runs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. until February 1, 2015. Thereafter, it will travel the to National Museum of the American Indian wing in New York City and be on show from April 18, 2015 – January 2017.  The exhibition, public program series, publications, website, and other education materials are a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

The Ancient History Encylopedia highly recommends that readers to take a look at the impressive exhibition catalogue (in PDF format, 94 pages). It features 120 illustrations, mostly representing objects from the archeological collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian – one of the most complete collections of pre-Hispanic Central American ceramics in the world.

Photo Credits:

  1. Map of political divisions of Central America with capitals (El mapa división política de Centroamérica con capitales). This is a file from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain because it has been released there by its author. Image created by AlexCovarrubias, 2007.
  2. Ocelot Effigy Vessel. Birmania Polychrome, c. 1000-1350 CE. Greater Nicoya Region, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Image: Central American Ceramics Research Project, used as a courtesy of the NMAI. (Catalogue #: 186317).
  3. Human Effigy Vessel. Galo Polychrome, c. 500-800 CE. Greater Nicoya Region, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Image: Central American Ceramics Research Project, used as a courtesy of the NMAI. (Catalogue #: 241146).
  4. Jar with Abstract Crocodiles. Macaracas Style Polychrome, c. 950-1100 CE. Greater Coclé Region, Panama. Image: Central American Ceramics Research Project, used as a courtesy of the NMAI. (Catalogue #: 228390).
  5. Jar with Monkey Appliques. San Miguel/Tarrago Biscuit Ware, c. 800-1500 CE. Greater Chiriquí, Costa Rica and Panama. Image: Central American Ceramics Research Project, used as a courtesy of the NMAI. (Catalogue #: 163702).
  6. Tripod Cylinder Vessel. Ulúa Polychrome, Nebla class, c. 750-850 CE. Ulúa River Valley, Honduras. Image: Central American Ceramics Research Project, used as a courtesy of the NMAI. (Catalogue #: 061259.000).
  7. Tripod Dish with Ehecatl (wind god) supports or “legs.” Papagayo Polychrome, c. 800-1350 CE. Greater Nicoya Region, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Image: Central American Ceramics Research Project, used as a courtesy of the NMAI. (Catalogue #249405).
  8. Ancient Cylinder Vessel. Sache Orange Polychrome, 550-750 CE. Maya Region of Cayo District, Belize. Image: Central American Ceramics Research Project, used as a courtesy of the NMAI. (Catalogue #: 161881).
  9. Unknown individual holding Maya Cylinder Vessel. Photograph (negative) taken in or around 1928. Maya Region of Cayo District, Belize. Image: courtesy of the NMAI’s archives. (Catalogue: N20516).

alexDr. Alexander V. Benitez is an archaeologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at George Mason University. He was awarded a BA degree in Anthropology from the University of Arizona, and an MA and a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin. He has conducted extensive archaeological research in the U.S. Southwest and the Central Highlands region of Mesoamerica. Since 2009, he has directed the Smithsonian Latino Center sponsored Central American Ceramics Research Project at the National Museum of the American Indian.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Dr. Alexander V. Benitez, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted. A heartfelt thank you is extended to Ms. Leonda Levchuk, Public Affairs Officer at the National Museum of the American Indian, and Mr. Danny López, Program and Marketing Manager at Smithsonian Latino Center. Without their kind assistance, this interview would not have been made possible. Special thanks is also extended to Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt. Translation of certain materials from Spanish to English was provided by Mr. James Blake Wiener. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.