Pre-Columbian Studies

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

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Workshop, part 2: Networks indexed by metal, ceramics and stone

Continuing our discussion of the presentations from our Panama workshop, let’s turn to some of the different assemblages that were explored:


Careful analysis of anthropomorphic figures has revealed distinctive ‘styles’ of Muisca metallurgists. (Museo del Oro, Banco de la República; Fotos: Clark M. Rodríguez)

On the afternoon of Monday, January 26, María Alicia Uribe and Juan Pablo Quintero (both from the Museo del Oro, Bogotá) described their analysis of an elaborate tumbaga model of a balsa raft from Cerro La Campana in Pasca, Colombia. The raft depicts a central figure (left photo)—potentially a cacique—surrounded by attendants (center and right photos), a scene that does have analogues in other Muisca metal objects, and reveals a variety of technological traces.


A range of Nahuange nose ornaments (Colección Museo del Oro, Fotografía: Clark Manuel Rodríguez)

Juanita Sáenz (Museo del Oro, Bogotá) discussed metalwork from the Nahuange period (200 BC – AD 900) from La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Metallurgy from this area seems to have drawn on local sources of copper and gold, producing forms that may be early instantiations of objects ascribed to the International Style associated with the region of Central America and Colombia.

Study of ceramics from sites in Pacific Nicaragua suggests interaction with Honduras rather than, as previously thought, with central Mexico, as Geoff McCafferty (University of Calgary) proposed. On the surface, one ware that was recovered—Vallejo Polychrome—does bear similarities to Mixteca-Puebla-style ceramics, and compositionally it remains a mystery, anomalous among ceramics made locally and in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica.


Bedrock structures and stone sculpture comprise some of the materials identified at Aguas Buenas. (Images courtesy of Alex Geurds; center and right image permission from Museo Arqueológico Gregorio Aguilar Barea)

Our focus shifted towards Central Nicaragua, thanks to Alex Geurds (University of Leiden), where a different set of ceramic phases is employed to date associated materials. Research has focused on Aguas Buenas where semi-circular arrangements of structures made from bedrock have been identified. By AD 1200, settlers in Central Nicaragua had developed more intensive relationships with Pacific communities, as indexed by the incorporation of Pacific ceramics.


The production of ‘Ulúa marble vases’ like the one above may have centered around Travesía, Honduras but the vases—distributed into Costa Rica and into the Maya lowlands—are indices of Honduran involvement in a wide geographic network (PC.B.651, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection)

The utility of ceramics to understanding social and political relationships was brought to the fore further through a presentation by Rosemary Joyce (UC Berkeley) on a specific type called Las Vegas Polychrome, named after the Honduran site of Las Vegas. While previously, these ceramics—with painted motifs and a white slip (a mixture of clay and water)—were poorly contextualized, it is now evident that there were antecedents to white-slipped polychrome ceramics in Honduras (before AD 900) and that Las Vegas potters began producing their own corpus as a way to contest the power of communities like Tenampua already making similar ceramics.


An in-situ stone sphere, associated with a stone ramp, from the 2007 excavations of the site of Finca 6 in Costa Rica (Image provided by the National Museum of Costa Rica).

Francisco Corrales (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica) discussed the acquisition of UNESCO World Heritage status for particular sites in Costa Rica where large stone spheres have been recovered, such as Finca 6, Batambal, and El Silencio. In some cases, these spheres have been found in alignments and they are often associated with plazas and circular mounds. While seasonal flooding and agriculture have disturbed archaeological depositions, UNESCO has recommended in its report that the managers of the international airport and the hydroelectric dam that encroach on these sites strongly monitor the adverse impacts of this infrastructure.

Research by Patricia Fernández (Universidad de Costa Rica), whose presentation was delivered by Silvia Salgado (Universidad de Costa Rica), has explored metal technology in Costa Rica. She compared the compositions of objects made of gold, silver, and copper to that of gold nuggets and found significantly higher copper content in the objects, suggesting that metalworkers were intentionally alloying (combining) copper and gold (with silver inherent) from different sources. The addition of copper can help to lower the melting point of the resulting metal, thereby facilitating casting operations.

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Workshop: Introducing the Bliss Collection

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll post occasionally on the different presentations and discussions that took place at the Panama workshop, providing one highlight from each presentation.

On the morning of January 26, James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art) reviewed the results of the 2014 Dumbarton Oaks workshop, in which scholars met in Washington to study the objects from Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia that will comprise the catalog, along with the findings of the object-based studies undertaken at the Museum by Dumbarton Oaks staff and Smithsonian conservators. These object-based studies included examinations of greenstone artifacts to consider their degree of translucence and to explore any traces of fabrication present on their surfaces as well as compositional analyses of tumbaga objects with portable X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometry.

Greenstone objects in the Bliss Collection were evaluated for their degree of translucence.

Greenstone objects in the Bliss Collection were evaluated for their degree of translucence.

A septum (a thin central ridge) may be preserved on greenstone objects as an artifact of their separation from a larger greenstone celt; the septum may be polished in some cases.

A septum (a central ridge) may be preserved on greenstone objects as an artifact of their separation from a larger celt form; the septum may be polished in some cases.

The elemental compositions of tumbaga (gold-silver-copper) objects in the Collection were determined through portable X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometry.

The elemental compositions of tumbaga (gold-silver-copper) objects in the Collection were determined through portable X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometry.

Juan Antonio Murro (Dumbarton Oaks) presented the history of the Dumbarton Oaks collection, and specifically the 218 metal, greenstone, and shell objects from Central America and Colombia that will feature in the catalog.

The geographic attributions of the Bliss Pre-Columbian collection

The geographic attributions of the Bliss Pre-Columbian collection

Bridget Gazzo (Dumbarton Oaks) introduced the workshop participants to the history of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, described the Library’s holdings related to the Isthmus and Colombia, and pointed out the various opportunities for financial support available to scholars wishing to consult the Library’s collections. She described the book exhibition she curated in the Library in January 2014 called ‘All That Glitters’ to coincide with last year’s workshop.

Bliss' obituary from the Archaeological Society of Panama

Bliss’ obituary from the Archaeological Society of Panama

A Costa Rican tourist brochure by Jorge Lines

A Costa Rican tourist brochure by Jorge Lines

–One especially rare book from 1699, a description of Lionel Wafer’s voyage to Central America, contains a map that prominently (far more than modern maps) labels the “Isthmus of Darien”, the geographic region that connects Panama to Colombia, and refers to the Caribbean as “The North Sea” and the Pacific as “The South Sea”

A map from Wafer's 'A new voyage and description of the Isthmus of America' (1699)

A map from Wafer’s ‘A new voyage and description of the Isthmus of America’ (1699)

Richard Cooke (STRI) encouraged participants to think carefully about archaeological evidence from Panama of a more organic sort, focusing on genetic and linguistic threads as well as foodways. He noted that:

–While there is evidence for genetic differentiation of populations in the region of Panama ca. 15,000 years ago, there is scarce archaeological evidence that corresponds to these early dates save an array of Clovis and fishtail points that indeed establish the presence of hunting communities on the Isthmus.

Warwick Bray (UCL) explored interactions among northwestern Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica, especially vis-à-vis metal artifacts. In revisiting his formulation, with Richard Cooke, of the Initial Group and subsequent International Group of metalwork, he proposed that:

–the Groups should not be viewed as distinct entities, but part of a continuum with shared iconographic content. He also emphasized that there were some metal forms that were not transmitted across the Darien, including certain Nahuange and Sinú forms; thus, intentional selection of materials should not be underestimated.

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Workshop in Panama

From January 26 to 29, the Pre-Columbian Studies Program organized a workshop on the ‘The Art and Archaeology of Central America and Colombia’ hosted by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama City. The workshop was attended by an invited group of international scholars and represents the latest stage in the development of the definitive catalog of the Dumbarton Oaks collections from Central America and Colombia. The goal was to present and discuss recent archaeological fieldwork and collections research drawing on current investigations in Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, as well as addressing the history of Pre-Hispanic contact and exchange between Central America and Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, and points south. The workshop therefore explored the far-reaching material connections within the ‘Greater Central American’ region. The contextualization of objects, their technologies, and the wider cultural practices in which they are embedded will play an integral role in the catalog, and the organizers will ensure that the conversations that began in Panama City continue throughout the year ahead.

The workshop, funded by Dumbarton Oaks, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, was held at STRI’s headquarters. On Thursday, participants visited El Caño (in the Coclé province), the site of a large funerary complex that developed between AD 700 and 1000, where they were led on a tour by the site’s investigators, building on their visit to the laboratory of the Fundación El Caño two days earlier.

Please feel free to view the workshop program here: Dumbarton Oaks Panama Workshop Agenda_Final

Additional comments and media related to the workshop will be posted in the coming days, so please keep on the lookout!

Some of the participants in conversation at the workshop reception

Some of the participants in conversation at the workshop reception hosted by STRI