A Simple Stone

All over the world early humans fashioned stone tools. These implements of agriculture, architecture, status and warfare drove the advancement of civilization and gave rise to the culture of innovation humans exist in today.

The stone pieces below are ceremonial versions of utilitarian objects. To the people that used them, they served to connect vital aspects of daily life with the spiritual powers they believed governed them. Today they connect our modern notions of beauty (through essential sculptural form) with the history of human ingenuity.

hongshan axe heads olmec jade celt taino stone celt Ceremonial Axe Argentina Mapuche Culture Ceremonial Axe Argentina Mapuche Culture

                                                                                               Faces of the Past: pre-Columbian Masks 2


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 effigies 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 face changed dramatically over time and distance.
Olmec Deep Carved Jade alamito lapis lazuli mask argentina chontal zoomorphic stone animal mask alamito condorhuasi mask argentina  nasca sihuas mummy mask human hair

                                                                                                             The Power of Large Stone


It is difficult to define the term ‘presence’ in the context of a sculptural object. Some pieces seem to inhabit an area larger then their physical dimensions would suggest. They command their surroundings and draw attention as if magnetic.

The carved stone pieces below are all examples of such presence. Each is large and heavy as pre-Columbian objects go, but they also possess a gravity that cannot be measured; the power to hold a space. Unfortunately photography is inadequate to capture the dynamism of such works, but imagine any of these in the center of a broad empty table or atop a tall plinth in a light filled entry and you can begin to grasp their ability to expand and enliven the spaces they inhabit.

stone eagle warrior palma Aztec Lord of Fire Xuihtecuhtli

                                                                                                                  The Alamito of Argentina

Among the many masks produced by pre-Columbian cultures, those made by the Condorhuasi-Alamito people are some of the most distinct in style and character. Their unmistakable features include a pronounced brow ridge, angular nose, and three drilled holes forming the eyes and mouth. Although similar in their simplicity and form, they take on striking individuality. Variations of stone type and subtle changes in proportion give each a unique disposition.

The Alamito inhabited the region in Northern Argentina around what is now the Catamarca province. Archaeologists believe the Alamito were part of an expansive trade network that also included the important site of Tiwanaku, near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Their use of rich blue Lapis Lazuli, a material probably sourced from the central coast of Chile (approximately 300 miles West), also speaks to the Alamito’s far reaching commerce.

alamito condorhuasi mask argentina alamito lapis maskette argentina alamito painted mask alamito condorhuasi argentina mask

The Little Things

Throughout the centuries pre-Columbian master stone carvers created monumental architecture, civic ornaments and powerful masks, but they also invested significant time and labor to fashion miniature versions of important ceremonial objects. These tiny pre-Columbian stone works often required greater artistry than their larger counterparts, and now provide an opportunity to hold a piece of a long past culture, like a jewel, in the palm of your hand.

alamito suplicante argentina miniature tiny feline mortar inca mini stone figure moche mini onyx figures jade mini mask

                                                                                                                                The Immortal Feline

The lords of the ancient world sought to connect themselves with symbols of physical, supernatural and visual power. So, it’s no surprise that predatory cats were a key motif in many artistic traditions of Pre-Columbian people across Central and South America.

As hunters, big cats embody strength and agility inspiring awe and fear. Their elusive nature and nocturnal stealth give them a ghost like mystique, while in daylight they sport some of the most vivid coats in the animal kingdom. To reinforce the connection between powerful felines and the shamanic ruling classes the ancients adorned ceremonial weavings, stone work, metal work and ceramics with depictions of Jaguar, Panther and Puma.

Perhaps Pre-Columbian lords desired to become cats. Attempting, as with the Olmec Were-jaguar transformational masks, to commune with feline spirits and morph into their bodies. Indeed, illustrations made by the Mayans show deities and rulers wearing Jaguar furs. In Peru, the Nasca and Huari used Tie-Dye techniques to adorn textiles with spotted patterns, allowing the wearer to visually and symbolically enter the skin of the Jaguar.

wooden huari feline snuff tray chimu silver feline beaker feline mortar inca culture peru

Ceremonial Ceramics of the Calima

The Calima Culture was a succession of overlapping societies that settled along the Calima River in Western Colombia around 1500 BC. Over time, agricultural chiefdoms gave rise to more centralized governance and the role of shamanism and ritual grew with the expansion of a ruling class.

The height of Calima culture (200 BC – 700 AD) saw the production of much of the amazing gold and terra-cotta objects that survive today. Often taking the form of ‘spouted’ or ‘stirrup’ vessels, their anthropomorphic and zoomorphic subjects likely emerged from the use of hallucinogenic substances during ceremony.

Among Pre-Columbian ceramics, Calima terra-cotta works are quite distinct. They take whimsical form as living creatures morph into bottles, bowls and urns. Their rich burnished surfaces are often incised with lively geometric designs and the use of red and white finishes creates contrast and focal points. As a whole they are iconic, even as each piece finds a unique character.

Whistling Vessel - Colombia Calima Culture Western Colombia            

The Painted Stones of Chucu

In the mountainous Chucu region of southern Peru, miles of huge boulder fields form innumerable caves and passages. Starting early in the 19th Century, people exploring the area began finding painted ceramic plaques and stone slabs cached there between 700 – 1200 AD.

These amazing millennia old paintings were made with vivid mineral pigments in yellow, red, white, pale green and glittering grey tones. Many display well known Nasca and Huari geometric motifs in various combinations, while some depict stylized humans and animals. Further, the artists that made them seem to consider and incorporate their irregular shapes, using the contours and proportions as key elements in their individual compositions.

Although the ancient paintings from Chucu clearly relate to Pre-Columbian textiles in design and color, their weight and materiality differentiate them, giving each a unique and dramatic sculptural quality.

Pre Inca Painted Votive Stone Pre Inca Painted Votive Stone Pre Inca Painted Votive Stone

                                                                                                                             Great Small Textiles

Amidst the full Pre-Columbian Tunics and Mantles that we often feature in the gallery, it’s easy to forget that some of the oldest, finest and most colorful Peruvian weavings are quite small. Despite their size however, these amazing pieces retain the presence and potency of the great cultures that wove them.

nasca sihuas mummy mask human hair    sihuas occular being panel     nasca fringed mantle    

Olmec Culture: Cradle of Civilization
Sometime after 3000 BC the people settling along the fertile southern coasts of the Gulf of Mexico began forming a society. The “Olmec” (as they would later be called by the Aztecs) are one of the earliest cultures in Mesoamerica. They evolved without outside influence, making them what archaeologists refer to as a “pristine” or “cradle” civilization, one of only six in the world.

The early Olmec were likely a network of farming and fishing communities, but by 1200 BC they began to build incredible stone cities. They created monumental pyramids, boulevards and temple complexes. These sites, such as the magnificent Tres Zapotes, were focal points for extensive trade networks and became primary models for the Teotihuacan, Aztec and Mayan cities that would come centuries later.

Today, we marvel at the Olmecs skill with stone. In addition to the elaborate architecture in their ruin cities they left behind enormous carved stone heads and innumerable artifacts. They made polished obsidian mirrors, delicate jade spoons, jewelry and burial masks – proving mastery in selecting, carving and polishing even the hardest stone.

Olmec Maskette   Olmec Jade Maskette      Sitting Figure Mexico Olmec Culture   Standing FIgure Mexico Olmec Culture