The Curious Vault 009: Pre-Columbian Collection Assessment

Curious Vault

introRecently in the Curious Vault a selection of ten stone figurines were given a careful second look. They are simple human figures, male and female, beautifully small and precise. To the untrained eye, they may not appear like much, but they represent some of the oldest pieces of human history in the collection of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, but more importantly all of the Americas. They are from ancient Valdivia and date from some time around 3500 BCE – 1800 BCE. Valdivia is a coastal Ecuadorian culture re-discovered in 1956. When figurines like these were first discovered they were thought to be the oldest pottery in the Western Hemisphere.

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But uncovering this was not easy. We needed the help of a specialist.

The Curious Vault has many tentacles, tributaries, and arms that go in different directions, representing different types of academic research. The scope of the collection includes a large part of the full span of zoology, geology, and human history. From time to time parsing the various elements is a necessary form of housekeeping. This is particularly true now, in gearing up for the big move to the new state of the art facility downtown. Also, updates in technology and fresh scholarship could lead to unknown discoveries.

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Occasionally there is no expert on staff so outside help is required. The first collection assessment on the list was a review of the near 400 pre-Columbian artifacts. Like the Valdivian figurines, “pre-Columbian” typically refers to the native cultures before European contact of the Caribbean as well as North, Central, and South America. For this project the Museum reached out to Dr. Traci Ardren, of the University of Miami Anthropology department and her team of experts.

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traci 4The largest part of the collection is Mayan, comprising nearly one third of the collection. This is where Ardren and her team made the most incredible discovery of the collection. There are six Classic Maya (600-900 CE) ceramic vessels in excellent condition.

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Of particular interest is a fairly plain but beautiful bowl, the mouth of which is lined with Primary Standard Sequence style of Maya writing and can be definitively linked to one of the most famous ancient kings, named Wak Chan K’awiil of Tikal. It was most likely used for the drinking of foamy chocolate drink, a standard practice of Mayan elite. According to Ardren, King Wak Chan K’awiil “led a series of ultimately unsuccessful but very ambitious military campaigns against his rivals during the sixth century. These battles are well documented in hieroglyphic inscriptions from across the southern Maya lowlands.” She goes on further to explain that due to this link to this very prominent and remembered sovereign that the pieces surely merit further study and possible publication, so experts beyond Miami will know about it.

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Perhaps these vessels are what links visitors to the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum to the kings of Mayan yore. Chocolate is still a great indulgence thousands of years later. But now it’s easily affordable and not only made for kings. It’s sometimes hard to imagine the lifestyles and culture of men and women who died long ago through the ancient objects they’ve left behind. But, from the treasures found in the Curious Vault, we know they liked and even revered a good cup of hot chocolate.

Ardren’s findings showed that approximately 15% of the artifacts are South American including the Valdivian figures as well as some ancient Peruvian objects. A similar number are Central American, mostly from Costa Rica, including a collection of tripod bowls and even a numerous ocarina whistles, which were commonly used for entertainment.

There are sixty-four pieces of stone and beads made of jade, obsidian and other minerals. Placing gemstones such as these is difficult because many of the New World civilizations coveted them and they could be from anywhere. About thirty objects were not pre-Columbian and of more recent manufacture, including tourist art and replicas – sometimes these types of things are good for hands-on education. The Curious Vault, after all, is primarily an educational tool. Allowing young children access to replica pre-Columbian artifacts gives them the feel of what these ancients themselves may have once held.

But it seems that some free hot chocolate would be even more fun! Maybe the next time these artifacts go on display, the Curious Vault team will spice up your trip with a classic Mayan brew. Nothing says fun like holding a mysterious statue and drinking chocolate.

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The Curious Vault is an online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of the Miami Science Museum, presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager. For more information, email karrow@miamisci.org.

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