mor·tar
/ˈmôrdər/

noun    1. a cup-shaped receptacle made of hard material, in which ingredients are crushed or ground, used especially in cooking or pharmacy. See also; “mortar and pestle”

The Mortar was a widely used implement in many Pre-Columbian cultures. It played a key role in rituals and ceremonies but was also an important part of daily life.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of mortars is their tactility. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the extent of their formal nuance until they are handled. Only then does one understand how the shape or placement of appendages actually affect its use.

If good design is a marriage of form and function, then the ancient mortars made by the Inca, Chavin, Chorrera-Valdivia and Alamito Cultures certainly represent the height of early design in the Americas.

inca four feline mortar stone    chavin spiked mortar pre-columbian        chavin incised mortar pre-columbian    

Faces of the Past: Pre-Columbian Masks
 

The first masks likely evolved from face painting in the Neolithic period. Since then, various types of masks have been used in nearly every part of the world. Masks are worn for protection, disguise, performance, ritual and in burial practices. Others are not worn, but represent the faces of gods, saints or ancestors; sacred embodiments to be revered or worshiped.

In the Americas, Pre-Columbian cultures made masks using cloth, wood, stone, ceramic and soft metals. They are marvelously diverse, with unique expressions and personalities ranging from the anatomically accurate to the highly stylized. Across cultures ancient masks provide a glimpse into how early people saw themselves and how their perceptions and depictions of the human face changed dramatically over time and distance.

colima culture ceramic mask  

Ancient Avians: Birds in Pre-Columbian Art

The humans that inhabited Central and South America before the arrival of Europeans were keen observers. Like us, they  marveled at the detail and diversity of life in their surroundings. How do we know this? Because their weavings, stone work, metal work and ceramics all come to life with intricate representations of the natural (and supernatural) world. The resources of their environs formed the foundation of their artistic and spiritual traditions and the flora and fauna around them were common motifs in their cultural production. One of the most ubiquitous motifs seen across cultures is birds.

Depending on the geography of the culture, we find in Pre-Columbian art numerous depictions of owls, eagles, condor, parrots, macaw, hummingbirds and various seabirds to name a few. Many were admired for their vivid color, others for their soaring connection to the sky and still others for hunting prowess, agility, cleverness or sheer beauty. Representations of birds range from the highly detailed to the abstract. In the depiction of deities and supernatural spirits, anthropomorphized avian features such as wings, feathers, beaks, and talons abound.

In addition to birds as a design motif, actual feathers were highly prized as a luxurious and sacred material. Akin to precious metals, they traded widely across cultures as a significant commodity. They were carefully woven into textiles to create vibrant ceremonial garments, votive offerings and decorative panels, some of which have survived in surprisingly good condition into modernity.

  

 

Gold of the Ancient Americas
 

The earliest evidence of worked gold in the Americas appears around 2000 BC from the region near the Lake Titicaca at the modern border between Bolivia and Peru. From there, the use of gold spread slowly northward up the coast over many centuries. By 100 BC it was in regular use by the Calima culture of western Colombia and continued to move north though Central America and into Mexico.

Unlike in many ancient civilizations around the world, soft metals (gold, silver and copper) were not used in the early Americas as direct currency, rather, they were fashioned into ceremonial objects or wearable ornaments conveying social or religious status. Such regalia was often focused around the head, face, neck and chest, forming part of spectacular full-body costumes that included vivid textiles, feather work, shells and precious stones.

Although many Pre-Columbian gold works were plundered after the arrival of Europeans, an array of beautiful objects and ornaments survived. The pieces pictured below come from several cultures that inhabited the region that is modern day Colombia. Amazingly, these pieces can still be worn as striking jewelry today!

 

Figure w/Headress Colombia Sinu CultureZoomorphic Earrings - Colombia and Pre-Columbian - Calima CultureFeline Disc - Colombia and Pre-Columbian - Calima Culture - Colombia

Nariguera Colombia Calima Culture

The Baskets of Tiahuanaco

The Tiahuanaco Culture flourished in the Bolivian Altiplano south of Lake Titicaca for over a millennia. At the height of the empire, from 300 BC – 300 AD, the capital city of Tiahuanaco was the major cultural and spiritual center in the region. Tiahuanaco’s builders engineered massive stone structures and courtyards – the stages for political and religious rites.

The people of Tiahuanaco left behind artifacts of immense beauty; intricate weavings encoded with meaning, carved and inlaid implements with zoomorphic imagery and incredible finely woven baskets.

Made with dyed grass fibers, the conical baskets display colorful geometric patterns. They survived in truly amazing condition, preserved for centuries in secluded caves in the arid climate of Bolivia’s Southern Altiplano.  They  are  a  dramatic reminder of the advanced artistic traditions of the  Tiahuanaco civilization.

   
tiahuanaco tiwanaku woven reed basket      tiahuanaco tiwanaku woven reed basket      tiahuanaco tiwanaku woven reed basket      tiahuanaco tiwanaku woven reed basket
Primary Form: Mezcala Ancestral Figures
 

The Mezcala culture thrived in the modern state of Guerrero, on the west coast of southern Mexico for  six centuries (350 BC – 250 AD). Their civilization developed a simple yet sophisticated lithic tradition focused on representations of the human form.

Two millennia before Rodin, Giacometti, Brancusi and Moore, these remarkable carved stone figures are a striking embodiment of the power and presence of the essential abstract figure – the primary form.

Made of various types of stone; from highly polished Jade to monochromatic Sandstone, the Mezcala figures are an opportunity in comparative aesthetics. Through changes in scale, surface, symmetry and shape we find an array of personalities and relationships.

mezcala ancestral figures guerrero       mezcala culture guerrero