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Pre-Columbian Art

Spanning approximately 3000 years, VMFA’s Pre-Columbian collection includes over 200 ceramic vessels, textiles, sculptures and metalwork objects from Meso, Central and South America.

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The Pre-Columbian collection includes a broad range of Meso and South American ceramic vessels, precious metalwork and textiles representative of the religious customs, political structure and daily lives of ancient indigenous peoples. The collection is especially rich in Peruvian gold jewelry and Mayan ceramics.

Pre-Columbian Metalwork

Throughout Ancient America, gold and other precious metals were considered sacred substances, symbolic of the sun, light, heat, and celestial power. When adorned with gold jewelry, the wearer personified the powers associated with the material, in effect becoming a golden person. Earrings, nose clips, and pectorals in geometric forms and figurative pendants and broaches in the shape of sacred creatures like bats, frogs, and jaguars were worn as decoration or included as offerings in burials or at shrines. Gold was also used for weapons and other ritual objects such as mace heads and ceremonial knives (tumi).

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North Coast Ceramics

The north coast of present-day Peru was home to a variety of culturally complex and technologically advanced societies including the Moche and Chimu. As early as 1200 BC, the unique stirrup spout was produced on the north coast. Stirrup spouts were a way to enable continuous air and liquid flow through the handle of the spout of the vessel, but the exact intention of this form in unknown. Most ceramics were made by hand using a clay coiling technique, but the introduction of the mold eventually made mass production possible. These vessels were traded both within the culture’s communities and with neighboring cultures.

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Ceremonial Poncho

Ceremonial weavings of the colonial and 19th-century Aymara people of Bolivia are counted as some of the finest textiles ever produced. They were sought after items throughout the Andes by both indigenous and Spanish traders. Most were produced as utilitarian articles, but some played a significant role in social, political, and religious events. This delicately constructed poncho from the Oruro regious is woven from alpaca fiber, the traditional material used for these textiles. The refined weave with its complicated pattern and separate central panel was probably influenced somewhat by Hispanic examples that had migrated into the area. Given the size and complexity of the textile, this piece was almost certainly created for a gift of an important ceremonial function.