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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

A Mini-Tour of Ancient South and Central American Art Explores Unique Objects

In 1943, Worcester Art Museum director Charles H. Sawyer opened the first gallery devoted to pre-contact art of the Americas (commonly referred to as pre-Colombian) at the Museum, making it a leader in the exhibition of these objects as works of art rather than as anthropological or archaeological specimens. A curator for this collection, Kester D. Jewell, was appointed several years later in 1946 and continued to grow the collection during his 26-year career at the Museum. Here are three highlights from this incredible collection, each of which reveals a unique aspect of the lives and cultures across ancient South and Central America. We hope you enjoy this mini-tour while our gallery remains closed to the public.

Nazca, Southern Peru, Bird Vessel, 100-500 CE, painted ceramic.
 Anonymous Gift in memory of John M. Slaughter, 1960.20

Our first stop is a pottery vessel in the shape of a bird, made by the Nazca, an agrarian civilization that flourished on the southern coast of Peru from 100 BCE to 800 CE. There was no written language, and designs on pottery vessels were an important means of communicating shared ideas and religious practices. The Nazca believed in powerful nature spirits who were thought to control most aspects of life. They visualized these spirits in the form of mythical beings, creatures having a combination of human and animal/bird/fish characteristics, and painted them onto their pottery.

How was this item made? The pottery wheel was unknown then. Vessels like these were thinned and smoothed by hand or using a flat stone. Because they were thin-walled, they could be made in a variety of shapes and then painted with mineral pigments. The Nazca would apply multicolored slips to achieve polychrome effects before the vessels were fired, whereas other cultures painted the vessels after firing. Painters probably used a turntable for manual slow turning during the decoration process.

Geometrics are a favored design element of the Nazca, who employed both abstract and representational images, strong colors, and bold decorative designs. The black and white checkerboard pattern draws the eye immediately to the bird’s breast, indicating it is an important part. In addition, its wing feathers are painted with black and white geometric markings. It is interesting to note that woodpeckers and flickers—birds with similar markings—are found in the Andes Mountains in Peru.

Nayarit, Mexico (West Mexico), Model of a Ballgame, 200 BCE-500 CE, ceramic.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Aldus Chapin Higgins, 1947.25

Next, let’s journey to ancient Central America. The ritual ball game depicted in this ceramic model was played throughout Mexico, Central American and northern South America from 1200 BCE until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. (In 1585, the Spanish outlawed games.) Two teams played in a stone court, which consisted of two parallel constructions with a narrow, relatively short playing alley in between. The game was played with a rubber ball (8 to 9 lbs., as compared to today’s regulation basketball, 22 oz.) by players wearing protective pads on their hips and knees. Players did not use their hands, and the object of the game was to score points by moving the ball past a marker.

In cultures such as the Classic Maya (250–900 CE), the game was a formal ritual with cosmological significance involving death and human sacrifice. Scholars are not sure of precise meanings of the game, but suggest that the ball represents the sun and the court the cosmos. After weakened prisoners were forced to play to the death, rulers reconfirmed their own prominent role among their people. The games also were played on key religious festivals, and sometimes just as a regular sporting event.

Note the variety of postures and the many different facial expressions formed by the clay. This dynamic scene, from Nayarit in western Mexico, is part of an artistic tradition of ceramic figures and clay scenes that were placed in deep shaft tombs as funerary offerings. The lively rendition here suggests simply a sporting event, rather than a formal ritual.

Zapotec, Urn with a Human Figure, 300 BCE-200 CE, ceramic
 with deposit of vermillion. Gift of Mrs. Aldus Chapin Higgins,
 Mr. & Mrs. Ernest Angell, and Mr. & Mrs. Milton P. Higgins
in memory of Aldus Chapin Higgins, 1961.37

The last stop on our tour is this colorful urn, a product of the Zapotec people, also known as the Cloud People, who lived in the Oaxaca area of Mexico (the southern highlands of Central Mesoamerica) from 500 BCE to 900 CE. The Zapotec developed the oldest writing system in Mesoamerica, and perfected the computation of time. The main goal of art, among the Mayas, Zapotecs, and Aztecs, was the representation of deities and the creation of symbolic signs that serve to interpret myth.

Funerary urns, of which this is an example, did not contain the ashes of the deceased; in fact, they usually contained nothing. They were, however, placed in graves and decorated with icons and images of “protector deities,” which were companions of the deceased on his dangerous journey toward the “lower world.” Only high-ranking individuals were worthy of this type of burial and the urns had a ceremonial and votive function. These urns, along with food and drink, accompanied the body when it was finally inhumed.

This urn is made of low-fired clay (fired at a low-temperature to avoid cracking) with vermillion color to accent the upper part of the sculpture. The figure depicted on the urn indicates the rank of the deceased. The crossed hands radiate a sense of peace and the elaborate headdress is a sign of high status. His large earspools are insignia of only the most respected and most powerful individuals. There also is a small jaguar head on the top of the headdress, which represented power, ferocity, and valor in most Mesoamerican cultures. One legend stated that humans were descended from trees and jaguars.

We hope you have enjoyed this WAM Update tour. Of course, these three objects are only a taste of the pre-contact collection at WAM; once we reopen to the public, we hope that you pay a special visit to see these incredible artworks in person, alongside other highlights of the collection.

—Edited by Olivia Kiers, Curatorial Assistant, and featuring the research of WAM docents Tammy Butler, Sandy Congdon, and Marcia Patten

May 5, 2020

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