Project puts Central, South American archaeological finds in new context

Gold pendant from Finca 4 site in Costa Rica. Credit: John Tsantes, courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

LAWRENCE – “We are trying to put ancient America on the map.”

John Hoopes, KU professor of anthropologyThat is what John Hoopes, University of Kansas professor of anthropology, said about two deeply researched and richly illustrated volumes that he co-wrote and co-edited detailing archaeological finds from Nicaragua down to Ecuador held in the collection of Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

The first of the books is a 5-pound, 2-inch-thick catalog of the museum’s pre-Columbian art collection, titled “Pre-Columbian Art from Central America and Colombia at Dumbarton Oaks.” It is the fifth such catalog that the Washington, D.C., museum has published, following books about its collections of Maya, Olmec, Mexican and Andean art, and it completes that cycle.

The second new book is titled “Pre-Columbian Central America, Colombia and Ecuador: Toward an Integrated Approach.” It contains both original research on specific sites and scholarly essays that place the findings of the first book into the deeper context of a region for which Hoopes coined the term “Isthmo-Colombian Area” in 2003. The term refers to the region between eastern Honduras and northern Colombia in Central and South America.

Hoopes wrote in the introduction that the book further extricates the region from outmoded rubrics and lenses of analysis.

“The earliest object in the catalog is probably about 2,500 years old,” Hoopes said. “Think about what we know about the ancient cultures of Europe then. It would be contemporaneous with the Parthenon in Athens, with Plato, with the origins of Roman society. A lot of the objects would be contemporaneous with Cleopatra and Alexander the Great.

“There's a lot of ancient history of the Americas,” he said, “but it's something that, typically, people don't pay as much attention to. The main reason for that is that many people's orientation to the ancient past comes from one source, the Bible. They're familiar with ancient Egypt because of the Exodus story. They're familiar with ancient Jerusalem. They're familiar with ancient Mesopotamia, but not necessarily ancient Mexico or Central America or South America.”

This is true, on a different level, of the Isthmo-Colombian Area itself, Hoopes said. It tends to be overlooked by scholars in comparison to neighboring regions Mesoamerica, the Andes, Amazon and Antilles.

But as the new books show – and tell – the area was home to incredibly hardworking artists and artisans of exquisite objects that reflect highly developed Indigenous cultures, from their cosmologies to their most basic physical needs. (Some of those artifacts even resemble Jayhawks: See story here.)

Hoopes said the book project began with a 2014 workshop he attended at Dumbarton Oaks, which was originally the home of businessman and one-time U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Robert Woods Bliss and his wife, Mildred, and is now a museum housing their collections and funding research like the two new volumes. Hoopes called it “a special place ... able to sustain a very high level of scholarship.”

Hoopes finished editing the books with the aid of Dumbarton Oaks staff when his co-editor and co-author, the museum’s director of Pre-Columbian studies Colin McEwan, died of leukemia in March 2020.

The catalog book features more than 600 color photographs of over 200 objects from the museum’s collection, many of them made of gold and jadeite, and only one-third of them on permanent display. There are also X-rays and scanning electron microscopy images of some of the objects, revealing details invisible to the human eye, from their metallurgy to their hand-working. The book also features a number of tables showing where the objects were found and who is believed to have made them, as well as drawings of some of their locations, particularly burial sites, and of the painstaking traditional methods (e.g., carving, grinding, lost-wax casting) by which they were made.

And while he writes in his introduction to the second volume that the Indigenous peoples of the Isthmo-Colombian Area can be categorized into roughly eight different language families, Hoopes also writes, “‘Who were they?’ is not an easy question to answer, especially for peoples whose written history did not begin until the 16th century.”

Hoopes writes in both books that he hopes they will stimulate further scholarship on the peoples of the Isthmo-Colombian Area, as he believes there is yet more to uncover.

Image: Gold pendant from Finca 4 site in Costa Rica. Credit: John Tsantes, courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Tue, 01/25/2022


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service