Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 7, 2022
Colin McEwan and John W. Hoopes, eds. Pre-Columbian Art from Central America and Colombia at Dumbarton Oaks Washington, DC and Cambridge, MA: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection and Harvard University Press, 2022. 806 pp.; 1066 color ills.; 172 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (9780884024699)
Colin McEwan and John W. Hoopes, eds. Pre-Columbian Central America, Colombia, and Ecuador: Toward an Integrated Approach Washington, DC and Cambridge, MA: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection and Harvard University Press, 2022. 512 pp.; 25 color ills.; 107 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780884024705)

In pre-Columbian art history, the Andes and Mesoamerica command almost all the scholarly attention. These more heavily studied geographical zones are outnumbered by the neglected ones—the Antilles, Isthmo-Colombia, and Amazonia-Orinokia, or AIAO for short. Is it simply the absence of monumental ruins, as some have suggested, that causes art historians especially to relegate these regions to the margins or is it the relative lack of archaeology on which we can rely? In fact, archaeologists have been excavating and accumulating data in these areas for well over a century and, over that period, some parts of the AIAO were not as overlooked as they are today. In the late nineteenth century, there was greater world interest (including among looters) in Isthmian goldwork than in all the art of Mesoamerica. But as the looters emptied the graves and traffickers melted down the booty in foreign markets, interest shifted northward back to the monuments of the Maya and the Basin of Mexico. Thence, the international fascination with the exotic Isthmian east went the way of French Orientalism or the American calypso craze before rock and roll became king. Even at the height of its unfortunate gold rush, there were never as many archaeologists working in the Isthmian region as there would be in Central Mexico, the Yucatan, or Peru’s north coast. So, today the Isthmo-Colombian sections of our bookshelves, like the Amazonian and Antillean ones, are among the thinnest.

We have tried to fill those Isthmo-Colombian gaps with untidy stacks of conference proceedings, specialty newsletters, analog and digital journal articles, the occasional exhibition catalog, and the famous two-volume tome from the 1940s by Samuel Lothrop from the used bookstore, but still feel like we have not cobbled together an understanding of the Isthmian region. Well, our balsa raft has finally come in!

Containing over a thousand pages of research, the twin volumes Pre-Columbian Art from Central America and Colombia at Dumbarton Oaks and Pre-Columbian Central America, Colombia, and Ecuador: Toward an Integrated Approach edited by McEwan and Hoopes constitute the most substantial work of research on Isthmo-Colombia ever published in the English language. The Central America, Colombia, and Ecuador volume was intended as a companion to Pre-Columbian Art from Central America and Colombia but stands on its own as a major work of anthropology and its allied sciences. Separate or together, these publications will transform scholarly understanding and appreciation of Isthmo-Colombian antiquity. Most of the forty-plus authors have anticipated our naiveté in their focus area and make their chapters accessible to scholars of all stripes. Multiple glossaries also aid the reader. Although the twin volumes do have much to offer in their corrections of old field notes and publications and reevaluations of previous scientific findings, methodologies, and theories, they are more so a stupendous treasury of new data than a reflexive or bookish reformulation of previous research.

These books were not some career move for the editors. (Dedicated Isthmo-Colombianist Hoopes and ancient Americas generalist [and Ecuadorianist] McEwan were much sought-after scholars at the top of their fields when they undertook this epic endeavor.) Rather the twin volumes are ambitious and highly disciplined passion projects that dutifully address one of the three great lacunae in pre-Columbian scholarship. Pre-Columbian Art from Central America and Colombia also completes Dumbarton Oaks’s five-part series of catalogs on their pre-Columbian collection, the previous works being on Andean, Olmec, Mexican, and Maya art. Sadly, the twin volume will now be Colin McEwan’s magnum opus since he died of leukemia late in the process of completing the book, arguably his most groundbreaking publication. In their loving obituary, Dumbarton Oaks, where McEwan had served as director of pre-Columbian studies from 2012 to 2019, praised his “determination, optimism, and openness” and “unwavering passion for scholarship,” all of which propelled him through his cancer treatments while multitasking as writer and editor on these and other projects.

Pre-Columbian Central America, Colombia, and Ecuador is a collection of intensive and engaging anthropology and archaeology essays ranging in topic from specific site studies to regional surveys. By contrast, Pre-Columbian Art from Central America and Colombia comprises mostly shorter materials-and-methods and contextual chapters interspersed with the massive catalog of art objects. While jade and gold objects abound here, the equally exquisite ceramics of Isthmo-Colombia do not—a direct result of the aforementioned gold rush that began in the Gilded Age to fill North American museum collections with shiny Isthmian things. The catalog’s section on manufacturing techniques furnished with dozens of drawings by Kim Cullen Cobb is welcome here, saving scholars a lot of ink trying to verbally describe lost-wax casting, repoussé, or pump drills. Perusing the catalog’s sumptuous images and reading the short accompanying entries, we are confronted with one of the greatest problems in Isthmian studies—its lack of dedicated art historians. Beyond some entries by Karen O’Day on Veraguas goldwork, a chapter in the companion volume by her on Sitio Conte, and another by Mayanist luminary Mary Ellen Miller on the ways that repoussé gold disks sacrificed to the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá factored into exchange networks between Central America and the Maya world, most of the visual analysis in these volumes is done by field archaeologists and anthropologists. 

Some of the anthropologists, such as María Alicia Uribe Villegas, director of Colombia’s Museo del Oro, and James Doyle, then of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (now of Pennsylvania State University’s Matson Museum of Anthropology), are de facto art historians (in the tradition of Mary Helms). Uribe Villegas and her fellow archaeologists Marcos Martinón-Torres and Juan Pablo Quintero Guzman, in fact, have authored one of the more memorable object analyses in the companion volume—an Indigenizing recontextualization of the famous Muisca raft in the Museo del Oro collection (forget Spanish fantasies of El Dorado). Yet, among all the technical analyses for which we are so grateful and well-informed attempts to situate artifacts in their original ritual contexts, we are left to wonder what more art historians might have brought to these site and object studies. In the straightforward reportage of the catalog descriptions, we discover exactly what art historians would have brought: a systematic search for the ethoi behind the artworks.

Of course, the fact that hundreds of pages of art analysis in the catalog had to be written by scientists is no fault of the editors. They could not be expected to conjure with smoke and maracas an army of visual specialists out of thin air. And the sometimes overextended archaeologists have done a fine job. Still, as one reads through those entries or, ironically, the macroregional chapter on ceremonial stools that Mayanist art historian Matthew Looper had to complete for the late McEwan, it occurs to us—if there were art historians who made it their life’s work to study Tairona visual conventions, we would be able by now to tell their zoomorphs apart, would have some idea how they operated visually, epistemologically, and ontologically, and would know whether or under which circumstances some motifs could be hybridized. The McEwan-Hoopes twin volumes should be a call to action for art historians and other visual culture specialists as the writings of Humboldt were to painters like Frederic Church. There is hard and fascinating work to be done here, starting with compiling massive databases of images and motifs, and collecting ethnographies, traditional narratives, folk practices, archaeology publications, and field reports to effectively probe pre-Columbian aesthetics, semiotics, contexts, and ideologies across this region.

It is impossible to synopsize in this short review the thirty-plus chapters and dozens of descriptive catalog entries in the twin volumes. In broad strokes, each book begins with an introduction by the editors and anthropologist Bryan Cockrell followed by a relevant historiography. In the companion volume, the Smithsonian’s Richard G. Cooke also provides a sweeping introductory survey of the Landbridge Zone’s deep past, ably connects it to the Indigenous present. After these preliminaries, each volume divides into multichapter sections on the major geographical zones that fully encompass the Isthmo-Colombian region, from Mesoamerica and Nicaragua to Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia. The integration of regional sections on the Caribbean and Ecuador in the companion volume is well justified by the maritime connections demonstrated in these sections.

The two volumes are not simply complements, they necessitate each other. For example, the companion volume’s introduction is on the natural environment and population developments and the catalog’s is on archaeological concepts and chronologies. Likewise, in the companion volume, the historiography by Hoopes and anthropologist Silvia Salgado González glosses 150 years of archaeology in this dynamic region whereas in the main catalog, Dumbarton Oaks’s Juan Antonio Murro surveys somewhat uncritically the history of Robert Woods Bliss’s Isthmian art collection at Dumbarton Oaks. Murro’s mentions of the infamous United Fruit Company (including as the owner of land on which artifacts were found) are so matter-of-fact that neophytes will not suspect their legacy of neocolonialist Anglo-American meddling in local governments, commerce, and artifact trafficking. Yet even this black-tie tribute to Woods Bliss’s storied passion for acquiring pre-Columbian art is piled high with granular research (even the patron’s correspondences and shipping records).

In the companion volume, however, Hoopes and Salgado González hand us our critical thinking caps and machetes and together we bushwhack through a century of imaginary cultural hierarchies, concocted diffusionist influences, and shifting nomenclatures for this erstwhile “intermediate area” between majestic Mesoamerican and the rarified Andes. Rosemary Joyce’s chapter on applying Etienne Wenger’s concept of communities and constellations of practice to Isthmian societies instead of the rigid concept of discrete “cultures” also helps us get our heads straight before we tackle the mountain of material to come on traders, pilgrims, precious metals, semi-precious stones, ideas, and artistic treasures circulating in the Darién Gap, Cordillera Central, what Hoopes likes to call the “American Mediterranean” (i.e., the Caribbean Sea) and what Antonio Jaramillo Arango calls the “Pacific Corridor” between Ecuador and West Mexico.

In select chapters across both volumes, several of Joyce’s fellow authors remind us not to fall back on “culture.” For we will only confuse ourselves when we see diverse communities adopting “a shared artistic practice while maintaining otherwise distinctive lifestyles” (159) as archaeologist Alexander Geurds demonstrates in his survey of monumental stone sculpture across central Nicaragua. Seeming to channel Joyce’s Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives (Thames & Hudson, 2009), anthropologist Monica Fenton’s chapter on gender in the graves at Sitio Conte also points out the ways that sex and gender have and can be conflated or misidentified by archaeologists (with more female skeletons being mistaken for male ones than vice versa) and proposes some sensible considerations in interpreting the grave goods found with human remains.

Perhaps the most notable case of reminding us to be careful while processing all the wonderful information in these volumes comes from the two chapters on the Antilles. In the first, Puerto Rican lithics specialist Reniel Rodríguez Ramos and Hoopes tantalize us with what is essentially an annotated mini catalog of artifact forms, reductive sculpture techniques, and visual motifs that the Antilles and the Isthmus uncannily have in common, not to mention the few Isthmian trade materials found in the islands. But on that chapter’s heels comes another by fellow Puerto Rican archaeologists Antonio Curet and José Oliver essentially telling us to calm down, not to mistake analogy for homology, and to start searching for the archaeological evidence that might explain these commonalities and connections. Their “cautionary note” heads off several kinds of intellectual jaywalking, including the backsliding into diffusionist speculation that often takes place in the absence of strong evidence.

When we devour these enormous books, we realize that there is no shortage of archaeology going on in Isthmo-Colombia. So, the much-needed art historians are not absent for lack of an evidentiary base. And after chapters like Francisco Corrales Ulloa’s in which the archaeologist connects the colossal stone spheres and fine goldwork of the Diquís as monumental versus portable parts of networks extending out from this society’s cobblestone ceremonial centers, we cannot say that it is an absence of ruins or sumptuary items that causes the visual specialists to be AWOL. I have noticed that other parts of the world displaying comparable densities of linguistic, social, and artistic diversity have been similarly marginalized. What was the last book you read on the pre-Magellan arts of the Philippines? Is diversity so daunting? Whatever our reasons for past neglect, these two books have provided us with more than an adequate basis for systematic studies of Isthmo-Colombian art. We could be mining these twin volumes for decades.

Lawrence Waldron
Assistant professor, Queens College, City University of New York