PreColumbian Portfolio: An Archive of Photographs
Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies
Christine A. Kray
Rochester Institute of Technology
This photographic database presents artifacts and buildings
of pre-Columbian cultures in Central and South America. Unless otherwise
indicated, all photographs were taken by the database’s architect, Justin Kerr,
a fine arts photographer. These photographs are of showcase quality. Each
database record includes a caption, a brief (about 20-word) description, and
information on the culture associated with the artifact, such as Maya, Olmec,
There are more than 2,000 photographs in the database.
Photographs of artifacts outnumber those of ancient buildings, and images from
Middle America greatly outnumber those from South America (and those are mostly
Peruvian). Ceremonial items and other objects demonstrating a high degree of
artistic fashioning are included, while objects for everyday, domestic use are
not. The database also includes a surprising sampling of images from the
contemporary period, including photographs of raised
fields (chinampas) in Xochimilco in
central Mexico, and religious offerings in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Some of
the most noteworthy photographs include the murals
of Bonampak (some of the only ancient murals that have not been destroyed
by humidity), the Yaxchilan
Lintels (which depict male and female rulers ritually spilling their own
blood in order to receive a vision from a divine ancestor), and the famous
stone image of Coyolxauhqui,
depicting her mythological decapitation at the hand of her brother, Huitzilopochtli,
the patron god of the Aztecs.
The database also notably includes a series of Zapotec
clay urns depicting human and supernatural figures, several jade
Olmec masks, two ancient Peruvian
textiles (significant because textiles are easily destroyed by humidity), a
bundle and three mummy
masks from Peru (which could stimulate an investigation into ancient
beliefs about death and the afterlife), several photographs of elaborate
Peruvian gold work (Chimu, Moche,
and several photographs each of the ceremonial centers of the cities of Chichen
Itza, Uxmal, Tikal, Copan,
and Monte Alban.
Although the photographs are spectacular, the site is not
very user friendly. Browsing through the entire database record-by-record or by
country is not an option. Searching is done by keyword, so those who are
unfamiliar with the names of the ancient cultures and the terms used for
different types of artifacts (such as “eccentric flint”) will miss entire
categories of images.
Users may also find that the database lacks important
information. Contextual information about pre-Columbian cultures is missing.
The date of the artifact and the place where it was discovered are not included
in most cases. Even if an artifact is identified as “Jaina,” that information
will not be helpful to non-experts. The name of the modern-day country in which
the artifact was found in most cases is not given, so searches cannot be
performed on that basis.
The site may be used in the classroom in a variety of ways.
The images may be used as illustrations of the artistic and architectural
achievements of the ancient peoples of the Americas. Students with an interest
in the material sciences could be asked to investigate some of the different
materials used—flint, obsidian, basalt, clay, gold, silver, bronze, and
bone—and the ancient techniques used to work them. Art students may fashion
objects imitating styles found in the database, such as a Zapotec urn made of clay. Students could investigate one of the ancient religions and
interpret a couple of the artifacts accordingly, or select one iconographic
element from a group of images (such as the moon, the rabbit, the dog, the
jaguar, the peccary), and investigate its meaning within the ancient culture.
In groups, students could investigate one site or cultural element (such as the
ballgame, sacrifice, childbirth, the calendar, hieroglyphic writing, the roles
of women) and deliver an illustrated lecture to their classmates using the
images from the database.