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PreColumbian Portfolio: An Archive of Photographs

Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies
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Reviewed by:
Christine A. Kray
Rochester Institute of Technology
October 2004

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, or Zapotec.

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 mummy 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 Inca), 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.

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