Peabody Museum Connections – Costa Rica and Panama

This past week, some members of the Dumbarton Oaks catalog team (Colin, Juan Antonio, and myself) joined leading scholars in the field of Costa Rican archaeology for an objects-based workshop at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Special thanks go to everyone at Harvard for the gracious invitation, especially Jeffrey Quilter, Director, Steven LeBlanc, Director of Collections, David Schafer and all the collections staff, and Susan Haskell, curatorial associate.

In addition to seeing excellent presentations by John Hoopes, Jeff Frost, and Francisco Corrales about Costa Rican Archaeology, we viewed many of the highlights from the Peabody’s superior collections of Central American materials. Our visit accomplished two main goals related to the catalog project: first explore comparative materials and iconography across multiple media; and second, find clues about the original contexts of many of the Dumbarton Oaks pieces.

A couple of nice preliminary connections made:

PC.B.319 – Double-Figure Pendant. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
  • Several Peabody “Axe Gods” (e.g., 47-2-20/17481) have common iconographic elements and forms to the DO examples.
  • A Costa Rican musician figure at the Peabody (31-42-20/C13726) is of similar scale and posture as some DO figures, such as PC.B.336 and PC.B.345 in the Veraguas style. It also shares characteristics with the “Quimbaya style” figure, PC.B.374, which comes originally from the former Felix Wiss collection of San Jose, Costa Rica.
PC.B.336, PC.B.345, and PC.B.374. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
  • Many items from the Sitio Conte excavations at the Peabody have comparative pieces in the Dumbarton Oaks collection. Notably, a Spondylus shell turtle from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection acquired by Robert Bliss in 1951 (PC.B.391) that comes originally from the Peabody Museum, has a counterpart in gold from Sitio Conte, Peabody 30-49-20/C11082.
PC.B.391 - Turtle Pendant. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
PC.B.391 – Turtle Pendant. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

The visit was a very productive beginning to the cross-institution cooperation and conversation that will continue as the momentum builds for investigations into Central American and Colombian materials.

Why Research on Mayan Architecture Saves Lives

“With limited funding, we must prioritize. Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.”

-Rep. Eric Cantor and Rep. Lamar Smith, USA Today, 9/30/13

In response to their editorial “Rethinking science funding,” I won’t even begin to address the problems when lawmakers begin labeling certain fields of research “questionable” or deciding that certain research should be axed to make room for “higher priorities.” Nor will I address the problematic assertions that social science research grants are “chosen over thousands of others” that these two representatives find more appropriate. These are not new or interesting arguments against research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. In other words: we’ve heard this all before. Rosemary Joyce has posted an eloquent piece addressing some of these points. (Update: Adam Smith has also posted his reaction to the op-ed, here).

Nor do I think that these two are wrong for asking the NSF to justify its research agenda or to provide the public with details about every single project funded. Although I don’t think that our two representatives are “anti-science” (it seems they are reacting to those who do), I do not think they should be involved in the proposal stage of U.S. science research. Trying to build an argument that their position is short-sighted and detracts from the role of scholars from the United States as the thought leaders in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences is fruitless. Because it is clear that, from their perspective, only science, technology, engineering, and medical research is not “questionable.” Although the first pillar of National Science Foundation funding is Intellectual Merit, it is clear that the representatives do not accept the widely held argument that peer-reviewed research funds projects of high intellectual merit, that is, having withstood much questioning.

I only mean to address the quotation above that sets up a false negative comparison, implying that research on Mayan architecture does not help our wounded warriors or save lives. Such research does save lives, and it is in the American people’s interest to continue to devote support to such “questionable” projects, because they do, in fact, improve Americans’ quality of life. Although they were not specifically criticizing any projects that I have been involved with in the past, they might as well have. (Presented without comment, I will note that anthropology and archaeology played a large role in defense recently, helping our armed forces through the HTS project.)

When I first began to contemplate archaeology as a career, it was probably because of that National Geographic factor – the dense, misty jungles covering giant pyramids filled with ancient wonders. Anthropologists and archaeologists study the human condition, learning how peoples in the past conceived of their environment, expressed their own values, and navigated social turmoil in order to build our own knowledge base to use in the present.

My own work examines the basic question of why people in the past cooperated to build big things, and whether the act of building played a role in the social trajectory of the community. In other words, did monumental building outstrip resources and eventually lead to migration and abandonment, a.k.a. “collapse”? I’m happy to sit and discuss with U.S. taxpayers about the intellectual merit of this project in relation to contemporary social problems in our country.

But way back when, as an undergraduate, I quickly realized that the impact of archaeology was much broader. I deliberately use the phrase “broader impact,” because Broader Impacts are the driving measures of the National Science Foundation (the web site of which has been, ironically, shut down because of the choices made by the very same representatives). I received a National Science Foundation grant in 2011-2012 for $20,000 to conduct fieldwork at the site of El Palmar, Guatemala. I should add that my first round proposal was rejected, and one reviewer called into question my broader impacts, which is exactly what the representatives should know. Even a small (by NSF standards) dissertation grant for a graduate student in anthropology is heavily peer-reviewed, and only a broad consensus leads to a successful proposal. There are many gatekeepers to avoid funding “questionable” research.

My final report to the NSF includes the answer to the following question:

What research and teaching skills and experience has the project helped provide to those who worked on the project?

The co-principal investigator received doctoral field training on survey and excavation techniques, as well as training on laboratory analysis of archaeological materials. The project data will serve as the major empirical basis for the doctoral dissertation of the co-principal investigator, expected to be completed in May, 2012 [Editor’s note: it took me an extra year!].

Additionally, Guatemalan archaeological students received field and laboratory field training as part of the project. These students will eventually contribute to strengthening the national archaeology program for future projects.

The broader impacts of the project are found in the promotion of community development in the area near El Palmar, most notably in Cruce Dos Aguadas, Petén. Because of the harsh reality of the economy in this rural part of Central America, archaeological fieldwork is often the only source of income for many of the excavation and camp assistants. The El Palmar dissertation work collaborated with local project assistants, contributing not only to short-term economic development, but also long-term career prospects as qualified excavators. This, in turn, will strengthen connections with the local community and promote the responsible stewardship of archaeological and cultural heritage.

I will not dwell on the effects of the National Science Foundation funding on my own life. I received my Ph.D. in May of this year and am employed teaching and doing research. Suffice it to say my quality of life as an American has improved.

Where the representatives are, respectfully, wrong, is in their judgment of the ability of research on Mayan architecture (or rangeland management in Mongolia, or metallurgy in prehistoric Russia, or the Bronze Age in Cyprus, or early New Zealand, etc.) to actually save lives and improve quality of others’ lives here at home. As an anthropologist, I know that defining what is strictly “American” in our globalized world is more complex than simply asking for a birth certificate (as do others, see

While I can only speak about my experience, I call upon others to report theirs.

Guatemala is a country that has been deeply troubled since colonization and the subsequent break from Spain. However, socioeconomic problems greatly accelerated after an American CIA-backed coup in the 1950s led to three decades of civil war, displacing populations and leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The country is still trying to come to terms with its modern history.

One way that my small project helped is to contribute to a growing movement in Guatemala to protect its cultural and natural patrimony through constructive means: archaeology, ethnography, biology, ecology, and so on. As more Guatemalan-born archaeologists take charge of their past, they strengthen a sense of national identity. And as American researchers representing our country and supporting professionals and students through NSF funds, we send a message that the U.S. wants strong and healthy democratic traditions projected through helping the growth of in-country projects of science and conservation.

But finally, I want to address how research into Mayan Architecture (or, Insert Questionable Social Science Topic Here) saves lives. Put very bluntly, many of the people we work with in the northern department of Guatemala choose to work with archaeological projects over what very often is the other attractive alternative: narcotrafficking. Without comment on the perceived failing of the US or Mexico’s policy on drug cartel activity, the sad reality of this part of the world is that the US demand for illegal drugs is fueling destruction of property and community in Central America.

These people may not be deemed “American” by our representatives because they live beyond the U.S. borders, but their blood, sweat, and tears enter our country through the vast transnational flows of people and ideas in the Americas. By intervening in these communities, displaced by civil war and with little economic recourse, archaeologists have planted the seeds of long-term prosperity and archaeological and natural sustainability. Tourism is growing in the area, resulting both from Guatemalan-backed funding and U.S.-based funders recognizing the leading role that the U.S. must play in the region.

In short, yes, we save the lives of individuals and their families at our research sites. They, or their sons and daughters might end up migrating to the representatives’ home states of Texas one year, Virginia the next, but back on a plane to Guatemala to pick broccoli that ends up in our U.S. supermarkets the year after that. Their grandchildren may be running for the House of Representatives one day.

The American people should prioritize research spending “in favor of improving Americans’ quality of life,” as the representatives note. But not at the expense of SBE research that creates useful knowledge, contributes to local and U.S. economic and defense interests, and trains American researchers to understand other cultures and histories.

We should never cease to raise a magnifying glass to our neighbors, a mirror to ourselves, or an ear to the past. That, representatives, is common sense.

“If ever the humanities were necessary…it is in this epoch of disintegration and dislocation.”

Mildred Bliss to Professor Paul Sachs, Director of the Fogg Museum, May 9th, 1942.

Profiling the “Axe-Gods”

In class, while discussing Olmec art, we took a look at the “Kunz” jadeite axe in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History.

“Kunz” Axe, from Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico (Berrin and Fields 2010: Plate 2)

This class of items, although few are known from stratigraphic excavation, were likely funerary offerings, such as the one recovered in Tomb E at the site of La Venta. The principal features include the prominent head proportionally larger than the rest of the body, downturned mouth often with feline dentition, hands grasping or held parallel, and sometimes Olmec “flame eyebrows” (see Taube 1996).

Celt, Tomb E, La Venta

One of my students, new to the field of Pre-Columbian art, asked an excellent question: why are these objects known as axes or celts?

I then brought up the images of one of the great Olmec pieces in the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art, for which they provide profile views.

Celt with Deity, Cleveland Museum of Art

Whereas we are accustomed to focusing on the frontal view of these figures, the profile view enhances the sense of sharpness or “axe-iness” of these three-dimensional sculptures. On the Olmec examples, most have a visible groove where, presumably, the stone could have been hafted to a shaft.

As many have noted, (e.g., Snarskis 2003:163-168; see also Easby 1981; Graham 1995, 1998), the practice of incising or modeling figures out of stone celts also became a widespread practice in ancient Costa Rica. In fact, many of these objects have complex biographies, found in Costa Rica after having been incised and worn by other Mesoamerican peoples. However, it is unclear whether or not the numerous Costa Rican examples were former celts worked into pendant figures, or whether they were influenced by the movement of peoples and ideas from the Olmec tradition (e.g., Graham 1992:173, 189; Pohorilenko 1981; Salgado González and Guerrero Miranda 2005; Snarskis 1998:63; *Update, Hoopes has brought to my attention an in-press work by David Mora Marín that further examines relationships between pendants in Costa Rica and Mesoamerica, see Mora Marín n.d.). The greenstone pendant tradition may extend beyond the Isthmo-Columbian area to the circum-Caribbean as well (see Rodríguez Ramos 2011:Fig. 1h).

When Colin, Juan Antonio, and I started to look at the many “Axe-Gods” (see Easby 1968:26-27; Lothrop 1955:46; Stone 1973) in the Dumbarton Oaks Intermediate Area collection, the obvious question came to us: what do we mean when we say “axe-gods?”

Perhaps the profiles can reveal new clues.

Two obvious types of pendants emerge when examining the collection: those with avian and anthropomorphic features. Several “axe-god” pendants with avian imagery, including beaks, cleft crests and sometimes tail feathers, and incised wings or feathers, exist in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, such as PC.B.225, PC.B.229, PC.B.230, PC.B.231, PC.B.239, and PC.B.293.

Avian “Axe-Gods” at Dumbarton Oaks

As with the Olmec carved axes, the “axe-gods” often have a hafting groove, whether real or only indexing axe-iness. Although with these jadeite objects, the perspective of the imagery is shifted vertically so that the “heads” of the bird figures are at the narrow end, rather than at the wider face as with the Olmec celts (Graham 1995:20-21). Furthermore, Costa Rican jades are almost universally perforated to be worn, while Olmec celts were not (Easby 1981:138).

Few are known from archaeological contexts (see Garber et al. 1993:219-226; Guerrero M. 1998: Pl. 11, Fig. 11; Snarskis 1977: Fig. 7). Below are two of the best examples to date from modern-day Costa Rica.

(l) Pendant, Talamanca de Tibás, Guerrero M. 1998: Pl. 11; (r) Pendant, La Regla, Guerrero M. 1998: Fig. 11.

These Costa Rican objects also recall the recently discovered pendant in a tomb at Takalik Abaj, Guatemala (see also Easby 1963).

Jade Pendant, Takalik Abaj
Archaeology Magazine

In his recent address at the Symposium “Revealing Ancestral Central America” at the National Museum of the American Indian, John Hoopes remarked that the Takalik Abaj pendant perhaps originated in Costa Rica rather than the highlands or Pacific Coast of Guatemala (see Mora Marín n.d.).

Other “axe-gods” are not overtly avian at first glance from the front, especially some of the smaller-scale pendants such as PC.B.228, PC.B.233, PC.B.234, or PC.B.238, until one examines the objects from the side.

Avian Pendants, Dumbarton Oaks, File Photos

Subtle incisions or deep carving evoke feathers, crests, and beaks of tropical birds.

Avian Pendants, Dumbarton Oaks, Profile Views

The representation of the tail feathers in the lower part could hold clues when considering the particular species represented, if there were a taxonomic association in the first place. The likelihood is high that the peoples of ancient Central America and Colombia had a fluid concept of species, remote from our own Linnaean taxonomy. The long, sharp tails of the example Dumbarton Oaks pieces could represent parrots, such as macaws, sought after for colorful feathers used in personal adornment. Other prominent candidates are important large birds in the area, including King Vultures or Harpy Eagles, both with distinctive features (see Graham 1992:194-195; Dumbarton Oaks past exhibit “Flights of Fancy: Birds in Pre-Columbian Art“).

So the avian pendants such as the ones above might not be proper targets for the “quaint” (Easby 1981:139) descriptor “axe-god” upon further study. It seems that the reexamination of ancient Central American spirituality and “life on the ground,” such as that discussed by Rosemary Joyce in her address at the NMAI Symposium, calls for a new look at these symbolic systems (see Fernández  2013). The lack of explicit “supernatural” or “godlike” features on most of these pendants may lend credence to alternative interpretations, such as ancestral or hunting talismans.

So, perhaps it’s time to axe the term “axe-god”? Maybe it’s for the birds.


Berrin, Kathleen, and Virginia M. Fields, eds. 2010. Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Easby, Elizabeth Kennedy. 1963. Un “dios hacha” de las tierras altas mayas. Estudios de Cultura Maya 3: 97-106

1968. Pre-Columbian Jade from Costa Rica. New York, Andre Emmerich, Inc.

1981. Jade. In Between Continents/Between Seas: Precolumbian Art of Costa Rica. New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Fernández, Patricia. 2013. Between Beliefs and Rituals: Material Cultures of Ancestral Costa Rica. In Revealing Ancestral Central America, Rosemary Joyce, ed., pp. 59-67. Washington, Smithsonian Institution.

Garber, James F., David C. Grove, Kenneth G. Hirth, and John W. Hoopes. 1993. Jade Use in Portions of Mexico and Central America: Olmec, Maya, Costa Rica, and Honduras – A Summary. In Precolumbian Jade: New Geological and Cultural Interpretations, Frederick Lange, ed., pp. 211-231. Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press.

Graham, Mark Miller. 1992. The Early Art of the Atlantic Watershed of Costa Rica. In Wealth and Hierarchy in the Intermediate Area, Frederick W. Lange, ed., pp. 165-206. Washington, Dumbarton Oaks.

1995. Iconography and Jade in Costa RicaVinculos 21(1-2): 17-28.

1998. Mesoamerican Jade and Costa Rica. In Jade in Ancient Costa Rica, Julie Julie Jones, ed., pp. 39-57. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Guerrero M., Juan Vicente. 1998. The Archaeological Context of Jade in Costa Rica. In Jade in Ancient Costa Rica, Julie Julie Jones, ed., pp. 23-37. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1955. Jade and String Sawing in Northeastern Costa Rica. American Antiquity 21(1): 43-51.

Mora Marín, David F. n.d. The “Charlie Chaplin” Silhouette Figural Theme: A Pan-Middle American Theme. Unpublished manuscript.

Pohorilenko, Anatole. 1981. The Olmec Style and Costa Rican Archaeology. In The Olmec & Their Neighbors: Essays in Memory of Matthew W. Stirling, Elizabeth P. Benson, ed., pp. 309-327. Washington, Dumbarton Oaks.

Rodríguez Ramos, Reniel. 2011. The Circulation of Jadeite Across the Caribbeanscape. In Communities in Contact: Essays in Archaeology, ethnohistory and ethnography of the Amerindian circum-Caribbean, Corinne L. Hofman and Anne van Duijvenbode, eds., pp. 117-136. Leiden, Sidestone Press.

Salgado González, Silvia, and Juan V. Guerrero Miranda. 2005. La distribución de la jadeíta en Centroamérica y su significado social. Cuadernos de Antropología 15: 53-64.

Snarskis, Michael J. 1979. El jade de Talamanca de TibásVínculos 5: 89-107.

1998. The Imagery and Symbolism of Precolumbian Jade in Costa Rica. In Jade in Ancient Costa Rica, Julie Jones, ed., pp.59-92. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

2003. From Jade to Gold in Costa Rica: How, Why, and When. In Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, Jeffrey Quilter and John Hoopes, eds., pp. 159-204. Washington, Dumbarton Oaks.

Stone, Doris Z. 1973. El dios-hacha de jadeíta en la América Central: Su localización geográfica en el tiempo. Atti del XL Congresso Internazionales degli Americanisti, Rome-Genoa 1: 213-218.

Taube, Karl A. 1996. The Rainmakers: The Olmec and their Contribution to Mesoamerican Belief and Ritual. In The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership, pp. 82-103. Princeton, The Art Museum.

Intermediate Area Catalog, Beginnings

Since beginning at Dumbarton Oaks in July, I’ve begun traveling intellectually south from the Maya area and into the Intermediate Area. With the goal of producing a definitive catalog of the Dumbarton Oaks collection from the Intermediate Area in the coming years, I’ve begun working with my colleagues in Pre-Columbian studies to lay the foundation for the eventual publication. The initiative is under the direction of Colin McEwan, Director of Pre-Columbian Studies, and I work along with our colleagues at the museum, Juan Antonio Murro and Miriam Doutriaux, and the temporary Pre-Columbian Studies coordinator, Katie Caruso. Special thanks also go to Gudrun Bühl, Museum Director, and Jan Ziolkowski, Director of Dumbarton Oaks, for supporting the Intermediate Area Catalog project efforts.

An obvious first issue: what do we call this area? Is Intermediate Area still a useful term? Some articles in the 2003 Dumbarton Oaks volume Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia (Quilter and Hoopes, eds.) address this issue. For example, (using Wordle), here is a cloud from the chapter by Hoopes and Fonseca Z. proposing an Isthmo-Colombian Area.

Hoopes_CloudConversations with visiting scholars, such as Dr. Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Eugenia Ibarra Rojas from the Universidad de Costa Rica, have sparked new thoughts about how to characterize this area with respect to its art and archaeological cultures.

Objects Database

Most of the objects from this collection are online through the Dumbarton Oaks museum, and the entries include bibliography, exhibition history, and acquisition information. I created a database building on the museum’s information to include other information such as iconographic notes, comparanda, notes from conservation assessments, and prior reports by scholars who have studied the collection.

Reference Photography

A secondary goal of updating the object database with accurate measurements and weights for the objects is to create a new set of detailed photographs, in collaboration with the museum, to make available eventually to scholars involved with the catalog. For example, here is the file photo of PC.B.319, a Double-Figure pendant:

PC_B_319_S1New photography reveals details about the iconography of the two figures, hidden behind the dangling plaques:

PC.B.319_5Additionally, photos of the rear of the pendant reveal information about the casting process:

PC.B.319_7Finally, the photos could potentially help refine line drawings of some of the objects in the future. For example, here are my rough sketches of PC.B.303, an Avian Pendant:

PrintThese prompted a colleague to question, is it a bird? Is it a plane? My thoughts go to: crazy, nightmarish butterfly?

Thus began the journey into Intermediate Area studies. After a month, I see a lot of exciting opportunities for this catalog, both with the pieces in the DO collection and in the broader archaeological and art historical scholarship of the area. Stay tuned for more updates as we continue documenting the objects and building the project bibliography.