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Home | Exhibitions | Past Exhibitions | 2008 | Before Columbus (February 9 - May 18, 2008)

Before Columbus: Iconography in the Ancient Americas

Polychrome Tripod Plate with Moan Bird
Polychrome Tripod Plate with Moan Bird
Mexico, Coastal Campeche
ca. 600-900 CE
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Cedric H. Marks,
in memory of Julius Carlebach

The ancient civilizations of the Americas represent distinct and unique artistic traditions, sharing an emphasis on art as a vehicle for communicating symbolic and cosmological meanings. Featuring ceramics, textiles, featherwork, and objects of stone, metal and shell, Before Columbus: Iconography in the Ancient Americas highlights both the range of iconographic forms found throughout the pre-Columbian New World, and the complexity of interpreting their meanings in a post-Columbian setting. The exhibition includes works ranging from the Peruvian highlands and Amazon Basin through Mesoamerica to ancient Missouri.

Jaguar Gorget
Fairfield Mound 2, Benton County, Missouri
Probably dating to the Middle Woodland period
Recovered by Dr. W. Raymond Wood in 1958
Incised conch shell
on loan from the MU Museum of Anthropology
(MAC 2002-03-001)

excerpts from Alex Barker's Museum Magazine article:

Drawn mainly from objects in the Museum’s permanent collections - some never before exhibited - the exhibition focuses on textiles, pottery and metalwork, the areas of greatest emphasis and achievement in the surviving art and artifacts of pre-Columbian societies. Ranging from Mayan polychrome glyphic vases to ancient featherwork of South America, from ancient Andean textiles to fragments of friezes from the great Mexican city of Teotihuacan, and featuring gold from the isthmus of Panama to the effigy vessels of Colima and Moche, Before Columbus: Iconography in the Ancient Americas showcases the breadth of artistic achievements of the ancient Americas, and provides insights into the iconographic meanings of the works’ rich symbolism.

Iconography - or the interpretation of the content of representational art, identifying the narratives depicted and giving meaning and movement to static images - represents a key aspect of understanding and appreciating artistic expression. For much of the art of the ancient Americas those narratives are lost or fragmentary, and scholars have focused not only on what representational art means but also how it means, on how the meanings of pre-Columbian art can be reconstructed by systematically studying how meaning is communicated, constructed and construed. . . .

Complex pre-Columbian societies were not limited to Central and South America. Complex societies arose right here in the midcontinent as well; Monk’s Mound, just outside modern-day St. Louis at the Cahokia site, is a Mississippian-period mound that’s a thousand feet long, a hundred feet high, and larger in basal area than the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Some scholars believe that at its maximum extent a millennium ago Cahokia was larger than London. One of the remarkable artworks included in Before Columbus: Iconography in the Ancient Americas is the so-called Fairfield Gorget, an engraved marine shell ornament carved on a whelk from the Gulf Coast, depicting a Central American ocelot and found in a Woodland period mound from ancient Missouri. . . .

Before Columbus: Iconography in the Ancient Americas will allow visitors to enjoy the remarkable artistic traditions of the pre-Columbian New World. It also allows visitors to project their imaginations into that pre-Columbian past, and perhaps will allow that past to capture the imagination of newcomers, confounding their expectations and expanding their views of our own adopted land.

download Museum magazine (pdf - 1.7MB)


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