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Archive for the ‘Pre-Columbian’ Category


Many years ago – presumably sometime around 2004-2006 – I attended a great talk & book-signing event with author Roger Atwood, at Back Pages Books, a fantastic little indy bookstore in Waltham MA, run by my friend Alex Green. Atwood’s book, Stealing History, opened my eyes to incredible stories of the international black market in illegally unearthed & smuggled antiquities.

One of the stories he tells in this book is of the illegal looting and subsequent trafficking in 1987 of a cache of solid gold artifacts and other objects from the Peruvian tomb of the Lord of Sipán, an elite of the Moche culture (c. 50-700 CE). One of the most significant objects in the cache was a large golden backflap, described in Archaeology Magazine as follows:

Made of gold, copper, and silver, the backflap weighs about 2.5 pounds and is 25.6 inches long and 19.6 inches wide. It consists of flat blade-shaped central piece surmounted by rattles made of matching front and back pieces. Known from tombs of Moche warrior-priests and depictions on vases, backflaps were suspended from a belt around the waist and covered the wearer’s backside. Warrior-priests wore them as armor in combat and as symbols of power during rituals including the sacrifice, perhaps to insure rainfall and agricultural fertility, of captured enemy warriors.

If I recall correctly from what I read in Atwood’s book, the traffickers eventually ended up trying to sell the backflap and other objects to a potential buyer known only as “El Hombre del Oro.” After a number of communications to arrange the exchange, they met him in a parking lot on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, only to be arrested by members of the FBI Art Crimes unit, learning to their dismay that “El Hombre del Oro” was Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Goldman. The treasures of Sipán were turned over to the Peruvian authorities, and some (all?) made their way into the collections of the Museum of the Nation in Lima.

I love this story. And I hoped that someday I might eventually happen to make my way to Lima, where I might happen to see the golden backflap at the center of this story. What a pleasure it was to see it – not just any other Moche backflap, but what I’m hoping, assuming, is the very same one – at the Getty’s “Golden Kingdoms” exhibit of pre-Columbian art. It’s incredible getting to see, in person, objects you’ve read about, heard about, seen in illustrations or photographs. It’s incredible seeing objects and knowing this whole story behind them – whether it’s a story about the artist, or the composition, or in this case a story of international smuggling & an FBI sting operation.

For this alone, the exhibit was absolutely worth it. But “Golden Kingdoms” turned out to be a truly excellent exhibit otherwise, as well. As I return to thinking about designing World History courses that I might, hopefully, potentially, teach in the future, the artifacts and labels in this exhibit, seeing how they described and discussed various pre-Columbian cultures, was just really interesting and useful. And huge massive thanks to the Getty for allowing photos, even of all these objects from collections all across the Americas! I took photos of many gallery labels, to hold onto the content for future syllabus- & lecture-writing.

One thing that was especially great about this exhibit was its spotlights on many individual cultures and sites. From this, I can piece together just a bit more (more than from the textbook, and whatever other resources I may use) on the Maya, Aztecs, Olmecs, Inca, Moche, etc., not only in general, but with some small degree of specific focus on sites such as Sipán, Chichen Itza, Tenochtitlan, and Palenque.

For a Latin America specialist, all of this might be rather basic material. But for someone like myself, who specializes in East Asian and Pacific history, and who wants to incorporate more of the premodern, the non-West, and more discussion of visual & material culture in his World Survey courses, this was really great. Of course, I could eventually get my hands on the exhibit catalog, or various other materials, but, still, there’s nothing like seeing an exhibit in person and getting inspired right then and there, to talk about how different cultures associated gold, jade, shells, and other materials with being “emitted, inhabited, or consumed by gods,” and …

Having just returned from a trip to Hawaiʻi where I finally got to see the feather cloak (ʻahu ʻula) gifted by Kalaniʻōpuʻu to Captain Cook, now on loan from Te Papa Tongarewa to the Bishop Museum, I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing some Wari and Nasca feathered cloaks and wall panels. On top of the Māori feather cloaks we saw in the newly renovated Pacific Hall at Bishop Museum, this provides a great opportunity for comparison.

The Getty exhibit also included: an Inca checkerboard tunic, an example one can use to illustrate what’s described in Spanish records of the first meetings between conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Inca emperor Atahualpa.; some stunning stelae from Tikal and related cultures; and just a few objects from the post-conquest period, concluding with a painting of Don Francisco de Arobe and his sons Pedro and Domingo, Native elites from what is today Ecuador, dressed in a combination of Native and Spanish clothing.

The Getty’s contributions to the citywide “LA/LA: Latin American and Latino Art in Los Angeles” event also include a show of contemporary Argentinian photography, a show of the “Concrete” art movement in Latin America (which compares interestingly with the Gutai movement in Japan), and a small but excellent exhibit in the Research Center on “The Metropolis in Latin America,” discussing the modern urban history of Havana, Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City – how they developed themselves into modern cities, with national monuments, national architecture, public transportation, and so forth, later becoming centers of Modernist architecture as designers and thinkers turned to Latin America with ideas of building these cities into Modernist utopias. This exhibit not only provided me with comparative narratives and examples, adding to my knowledge/interest in how cities such as Honolulu, Tokyo, Kyoto, Naha, and Seoul were transformed into modern(ist) cities in the 19th-20th centuries, but the exhibit also included some very nice timelines of the major events of Latin American history.

Looking forward to eventually teaching World History, and incorporating some of this great content.

“Golden Kingdoms” runs until Jan 28, 2018 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. “The Metropolis in Latin America” closes on Jan 7.

All photos my own, taken at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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