Investigating Pre-Columbian Artifacts

By UM News

Investigating Pre-Columbian Artifacts

By UM News
UM Anthropology Students help Frost Museum of Science catalog and date items from South and Central America.

Anthropology students in the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences had a unique opportunity to put their sleuthing skills to the test this spring, when they were invited to help the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science evaluate some items in its collection.

The museum staff called on the College’s Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology Traci Ardren – whose research focuses on New World prehistoric cultures and the ways that modern societies interpret the past – to review some of its oldest pieces.

Ardren co-directs an ongoing research program at the ancient Maya archaeological site of Xuenkal, Yucatán, Mexico, where her team is examining the role of environmental resources and trade on societal development. She has conducted excavations at other Maya cities in Mexico and Belize, and throughout Florida. 

According to a museum blog, Ardren helped to identify artifacts described as “simple human figures, male and female, beautifully small and precise,” which date from between 3500 and 1800 B.C.E. This is considered the pre-Columbian era, referring to the native peoples who lived in North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, before European contact. The sculptures were made by the Valdivia, an ancient culture from coastal Ecuador, and are some of the world’s oldest pieces of art.

While examining the figures, and other works in the 400-item pre-Columbian collection, Ardren and her students made an incredible discovery. 

They found six Classic Maya ceramic vessels, all in excellent condition, made between 600 and 900 C.E. Of particular interest is a bowl decorated with Maya writing that Ardren and her students were able to link definitively to Wak Chan K’awiil of Tikal, one of the most famous ancient kings.

Ardren said that King Wak Chan K’awiil of Tikal led ambitious, though ultimately unsuccessful, battles against other leaders of his time. She believes that he used the “fairly plain but beautiful” bowl in the Frost Science Museum’s collection to drink a foamy chocolate beverage enjoyed by the Mayan elite.

The UM students determined that about 15% of the objects they surveyed are South American (including the Valdivian figures), and another 15% hail from Central America (mostly Costa Rica). Another 60 pieces were beads and jewels made of jade, obsidian and other minerals. 

Finally, about 30 objects were identified as replicas or other pieces dating after the pre-Columbian era. These items can be used for hands-on education experiences for children who visit the museum.

The museum is in the process of reviewing its holdings in preparation for its move to a new state-of-the-art facility in Museum Park, downtown Miami, by early 2015.

Melissa Peerless can be reached at 305-284-2485.