Following an introductory essay, six short contributions by academics and museum curators in the United States (US) and Europe tackle the current state and future of Pre-Columbian visual culture studies. They explore the field’s impressive growth in this century, as well as some of the dangers it currently faces as a result of that growth. Several trace its present state to its origins and the part played by early Mexican and US nationalism, the popularity of world’s fairs, and the civil rights movement, among other factors. Also considered are problems inherent in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century separation of the preconquest past from the newly labeled colonial period, as well as the concurrent embrace of the term “Pre-Columbian.” Other essays take a hard look at the present and future relation of art history to archaeology and cross-disciplinary studies within the field, which is defined in part by their dependence on, or skepticism regarding, iconography. Whereas academics wrestle in these essays with the implications of a declining job market, museum curators struggle with limited funding. Nonetheless, possible new strategies and opportunities for the future are proposed, including engagement with issues posed by the rising interest in decoloniality and global indigeneity.

RESUMEN Luego de un ensayo introductorio, seis contribuciones cortas de académicos y conservadores de museos en los Estados Unidos y Europa abordan el estado actual y el futuro de los estudios de cultura visual precolombina. Se explora el impresionante crecimiento del campo en este siglo, así como algunos de los peligros que enfrenta actualmente como resultado de este crecimiento. Varios colaboradores trazan el estado actual del campo hasta sus orígenes y notan la influencia en él de las primeras manifestaciones de los nacionalismos de México y los Estados Unidos, la popularidad de las ferias mundiales y el Movimiento por los derechos civiles, entre otros factores. También se consideran los problemas inherentes a la separación entre el pasado precolombino y el llamado período colonial que se establecía entre fines del siglo XIX y principios del siglo XX, así como la aceptación simultánea del término “precolombino”. Otros ensayos analizan detenidamente la relación presente y futura de la historia del arte con la arqueología y los estudios interdisciplinarios dentro del campo, que se define en parte por su dependencia o escepticismo con respecto a la iconografía. Mientras que los académicos discuten en estos ensayos las implicaciones de un mercado de trabajo decreciente, los curadores de museos abordan las restricciones presupuestarias. No obstante, se proponen posibles nuevas estrategias y oportunidades para el futuro, como la participación futura en cuestiones planteadas por el creciente interés en la descolonialidad y la indigeneidad global.

RESUMO Após um ensaio introdutório, seis curtas contribuições de acadêmicos e curadores de museus nos Estados Unidos e na Europa abordam o estado atual e o futuro dos estudos da cultura visual pré-colombiana. O impressionante crescimento do campo neste século, bem como alguns dos perigos que atualmente enfrenta como resultado desse crescimento, são explorados. Diversos colaboradores traçam o estado atual do campo até suas origens e o papel desempenhado pelo nacionalismo inicial do México e dos Estados Unidos, a popularidade das feiras mundiais e o Movimento dos direitos civis, entre outros fatores. Também são considerados os problemas inerentes à separação, no final do século XIX e início do século XX, entre o passado pré-conquista e o recém-rotulado período colonial, bem como a aderência simultânea ao termo “pré-colombiano”. Outros ensaios dedicam olhar atento à relação presente e futura da história da arte com a arqueologia e estudos interdisciplinares dentro do campo, que é definida em parte por sua dependência ou ceticismo em relação à iconografia. Enquanto os acadêmicos lutam nesses ensaios com as implicações de um mercado de trabalho em declínio, os curadores de museus lutam com recursos limitados. No entanto, são propostas possíveis novas estratégias e oportunidades para o futuro, incluindo o envolvimento futuro com questões levantadas pelo crescente interesse na decolonialidade e na indigeneidade global.

There has perhaps never been a more significant or consequential time for the practice of Pre-Columbian art history in the United States. In the face of rampant xenophobia, political vitriol, and violence directed toward Latin American and Latinx communities, as well as the denigration of Native communities and the desecration of sacred lands within the United States, the scholarly work of humanistic recognition of Indigenous America’s past and present bears an especially heavy weight of representation. To labor as scholars, teachers, and students toward expanded understandings of the deep antiquity of human invention, creativity, and art making in the Americas becomes an act of both moral and political commitment.

This is especially true in California, where I taught for five years, and where the state’s Mexican and Indigenous histories live in its people and are registered both physically and linguistically in the landscape. But it is also true beyond the Golden State: in New York, in Washington, DC, and in other cities both east and west, in towns north and south, in universities and colleges that have traditionally served Latinx and Native student populations, and those that haven’t. Scholarly insistence on humanity’s antiquity in the Americas can be a piece of broader resistance to the forces of prejudice that threaten our espoused civic ideals. Yet for too long, rooted as it was in early twentieth-century primitivism along with other areas of “non-Western” studies, the practice of Pre-Columbian art history has itself been complicit in the violent commodification of Native art and culture for modern elite consumption. In its future tense, however, the field bears significant decolonizing potential.

As one of the younger subdisciplines of art history, Pre-Columbian art—also known as the arts of the ancient Americas, although each term carries its own insufficiencies—has had a shorter academic lineage than many others. Its first generation of pioneers in the United States began in the 1940s and 1950s, sketching out a field that the second generation of scholars would fill in with further detail and color, creating increasingly specialized knowledge and understandings in subfields from Aztec monoliths to Maya murals to Moche ceramics to Inca textiles and beyond. As the third generation (depending on how one charts the genealogies) comes into its own and begins to train the fourth, some may say that there is danger in those specializations becoming walled-off territories of too-narrow scholarly interest.1 As we specialists become increasingly comfortable in the cozy niches of our hard-earned expertise, it can be easy to lose ourselves in the myopia of beloved esoterica. A tendency toward scholarly balkanization risks losing sight of broader intersections with other areas of humanistic study and, with them, our field’s relevance to scholarship and to society at large.

As we take stock of Pre-Columbian art history in 2019, as its political stakes become increasingly present and pressing, I see a two-part charge. Instead of doubling down on the figurative borders that define our subspecializations and schools of thought, let us think instead about wells and horizons. That is, we must continue to drill down as specialists toward new and renewed aquifers of evidence and knowledge, while simultaneously opening up our studies more deliberately to broader horizons of humanistic inquiry and social engagement. The verticality of the well’s plunge and the horizon line of intellectual outreach constitute the axes of the field’s future.

How then should Pre-Columbian art history proceed? In which directions should we stretch toward new dialogues, and where should we seek to tap new primary sources of evidence and understanding? There is, of course, no universal mandate or formula to follow. But if there is a principal development that has emerged in scholarship of the last decades, it is the continued growth of the field beyond its original stakes in style, aesthetics, formalism, and iconography. This growth is part of a wider embrace of contextual, spatial, material, ontological, and phenomenological approaches to works of art as things that are—and have always been—entangled and enfolded within human lives. It is also part of broader poststructuralist, new materialist, and object-centric developments in the humanities and social sciences at large.

If there has been a turn toward broader methods in Pre-Columbian art history, the forms of evidence available to those pursuits can vary dramatically. Although it may be regarded as a niche field within art history as a whole, the real scope of Pre-Columbian art history is dizzyingly expansive: encompassing more than three thousand years of artistic traditions from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska and the Caribbean. Indeed, to open out to new horizons, Pre-Columbian art history must recognize the artificiality of modern borders and embrace a hemispheric vision of the field. The US-Mexico border, either walled or unwalled, is of course a recent construction. The turquoise traders and others who moved between what is now the American Southwest and Central Mexico did not draw their boundaries at the Rio Grande. Nor should scholarship, although conventionally we still do.

At the same time that scholarly borders should be crossed, it would be absurd to assume that the same problems of method and evidence apply equally to each setting and context within this millenarian hemisphere. In the broadest strokes, Pre-Columbian art history can be seen to have broken out into at least three major, though certainly nonexclusive, modes of inquiry based on the forms of evidence available beyond the artworks themselves: the study of art and architecture created around the time of the European invasions of the sixteenth century, which is aided by early modern histories written by Europeans and by Native and mestizo chroniclers (early modern historical); the study of art and architecture created centuries or more prior that benefits from the decipherment of early Indigenous writing (epigraphic); and the study of art and architecture created in the total absence of scribal traditions, either foreign or autochthonous, which may be approached instead through archaeological and material remains (archaeological). In many studies art historians embrace two or more of these modes simultaneously, but examining the differences may prove useful as we assess the state of the field at present. Each of these three epistemological modes entails its own combination of methodological and theoretical problems, as well as its own possibilities for renewed evidentiary sources and expanded scholarly dialogues.

The study of art and architecture created during the centuries leading up to—and continuing in the wake of—the European invasions of the Americas has been the most robust for obvious historiographical reasons. The abundance of art historical work on the late pre-Hispanic empires of the Aztecs (that is, the Mexicas) and the Incas can be attributed to the profusion of documentary accounts penned by invaders, extirpators, survivors, and intermediaries. To understand these colonial documents, however, requires extensive understanding of the rhetoric, references, and imaginaries forged in an early modern Spanish empire that itself was multiethnic and in operation across both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

That wider world manifests in colonial documentation of Pre-Columbian art and architecture—both in text and in illustrations—as a decidedly global visual economy in which, for example, Native temples were panned in eyewitness accounts as mosques (mezquitas);2 divine entities were pressed into the guise of the Roman pantheon (such as sixteenth-century Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún’s glossing of the Mexica divinity Huitzilopochtli as “another Hercules”);3 and artists rendered Inca royalty on palanquins, seemingly derived from South Asian iconographies of courtly transport (as seen in illustrations made by the Native Andean author Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala).4 Neither colonial text nor colonial image can be taken uncritically at face value as ekphrasis or as illustration, but rather must be approached through scholarly exegesis of form, meaning, and historical condition. For the Andes, the field has benefited profoundly in this area from the publication of the extensive, multiauthored Guide to Documentary Sources for Andean Studies, 1530–1900, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, in both its original English edition and the recent Spanish translation.5 To work in this mode with colonial sources on Pre-Columbian art requires rigorous engagement, not only with the heterogeneity of both European and Indigenous traditions and cultures, but also with the inflections of a wider early modern world.

It is even more difficult to extrapolate the insights gained from these complex texts onto subjects set in deeper time. In those earlier and more ancient settings of Pre-Columbian art, other sources and forms of evidence rise in importance. In some situations, within the first-millennium CE kingdoms of the Mayas and Zapotecs, and even earlier among the Olmecs, breakthroughs in epigraphy since the mid-twentieth century have opened up vast new worlds of emic historical understanding. Together with central Mexican traditions of pictography, readings of hieroglyphic writing offer Indigenous perspectives not beholden in the same way to later, interoceanic colonial histories. They exhibit unique forms of textuality, visuality, and dialectic relationships between text and image. Scholarship written in this epigraphic mode offers important case studies that can be put into dialogue with other work focused on premodern emergences of artistic and scribal traditions and rivalries within courtly culture in other world areas. In some of these settings we might even play with the idea of comparative “medieval” art history, to return rhetorically to Pál Kelemen’s short-lived designation of Pre-Columbian art as “medieval American art.”6 This is not to suggest that disparate and diverse traditions be reduced to sameness through their coevality, but rather that salient differences can be drawn out in unique ways when cast in the raking light of comparative consideration.

Ultimately, however, the settings within the Pre-Columbian world that can benefit from epigraphic approaches are the exception, not the rule. Most communities did not develop scribal systems, although those that did have received the lion’s share of scholarly attention. But even when art historians can make use of hieroglyphic decipherment, the texts of inscriptions and codices tend to be restricted to specific genres of dynastic histories, prognostication, and cosmological events that marked the course of both human and divine time. That is, the agendas of the ancient authors left out far more about their worlds than they conveyed. Elsewhere, in the absence of such textual sources—and also in these settings with them—Pre-Columbian art history must shift its focus to non-textual, material, spatial, and contextual sources for understanding. In settings without text, and in the face of text’s insufficiencies, art history also turns from archives to archaeology.

A principal challenge for Pre-Columbian art history in the archaeological mode is how to navigate competing disciplinary claims to American antiquity. In American archaeology—as compared to “Old World” archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean and elsewhere—modern archaeological practice since the mid-twentieth century has been tightly bound to the social science research agendas of anthropology. Less often have questions of humanistic concern been centered within “New World” anthropological archaeology. In that field, images and objects have typically been regarded as constituting data sets from which to extrapolate understandings of social, political, and economic phenomena, even in more recent, post-processual archaeological theory and practice. By contrast, an archaeologically informed art history—what I refer to elsewhere as “archaeo art history”—would invert this hierarchical relationship.7 Rather than use the visual arts to illustrate past ways of life or beliefs (as anthropological archaeologists often do), art historians can instead tap dormant potential in archaeological data (for instance stratigraphy, context, carbon dating, isotopic and molecular analysis) to reveal the dynamic ways that people made, encountered, and engaged with images, objects, and things in antiquity. In this way, deeper histories of human responses to images and objects can be written through readings of the physical traces of things done.

Art historians can access archaeological data for image and object studies by participating in excavation projects or recovering data from the archives of earlier field research. It is less common for Pre-Columbianist art historians themselves to take a lead role in the design and execution of archaeological excavations. But when archaeological practice unfolds under the aegis of art historical research per se, it can capture perspectives and observations that might otherwise go unrecorded. At Pañamarca, a late Moche center on the north-central coast of Peru (ca. 650–800 CE), my team’s excavations within the ruins of the site’s densely painted architecture are one example of field archaeology designed in the service of art history.8 The view from the excavation unit—nose to nose with the painted figures of Moche protagonists and battling foes whose names and meanings are now lost—produced visions of the painted monument as a textured transcript of events past. We could see the thin laminations of layered clay plaster and pigment, drips of hurried paint, areas of architectural burning, figural graffiti that mimicked aspects of mural design, spattered stains of ancient liquid that contained cactus juice, and finally whitewashing and abandonment. Many of these minute details may have gone unrecorded in other projects with other priorities, but for us they constituted a material chronicle of the image-filled structure and its deep history of image making and image experiencing. Although we may never be able to decode the master narratives of the iconography of the Pañamarca murals as their makers understood them, in this late setting in the far south of the Moche world, myriad other smaller narratives of human actions and lived experience can be read from their painted surfaces.

Of course, attentive study of form, facture, and physical condition should not be limited to monuments encountered in archaeological excavations. Similar attention is essential to the study of Pre-Columbian objects from all periods and places that exist today in museum collections, often without specific provenience. The importance of the study of objects themselves—including style and iconography, those foundations for the history of Pre-Columbian art history—transcends the threefold epistemological divisions that I have laid out here. Even without known archaeological or historical context, objects can be interpreted through what archaeometrist Heather Lechtman described as the “internal context” of their physical materials and their makers’ technical choices.9 We have only just begun the tremendous work that can yet be carried out with Pre-Columbian collections through the application of methods for material characterization and analysis, digital rendering, geospatial mapping, and network visualization. A call to materials, substance, and substrate—against textual primacy—is one of the strengths that Pre-Columbian art history can bring to the field of art history at large. It requires a broad call, though, to bring together expertise and collaboration across art history, archaeology, museum curation, art conservation, and materials science. Such object-based scholarship has broad relevance for the writing of marginalized histories that cannot rely on textual archives, but that might otherwise be retrieved from the edge of historical oblivion through material, spatial, and visual sources.

Lastly, the most important engagement that Pre-Columbian art historians must cultivate for the continued relevance and vitality of our field is with contemporary communities. This can take many forms, from collaboration with local museums and cultural centers to public outreach through primary-school curriculum development. Rather than being a dusty subject of arcane interest, Pre-Columbian art history has the capacity to be a decolonizing project, especially in the form of pedagogy and outreach. In teaching and public engagements, it is important to open dialogues between Pre-Columbian art history and practicing artists who work with the art and imagery of the Indigenous American past. In opening these dialogues, though, we also open discussions about appropriation and authenticity—from the works of early twentieth-century modernists to contemporary Latinx artist-activists—and about competing claims to Pre-Columbian art and the authority to interpret and even reinvent its meanings in the present.

Several contemporary artists are working today in important and insightful ways with forms of Pre-Columbian art. I close this essay by invoking the recent work of two, both born in Peru but now working in the United States. In her 2015 series So What Do We Do with Our History?, artist Ana de Orbegoso engages with the well-known Moche portrait vessel (huaco retrato) in photography, collage, sculpture, and video art. She creates her own versions of the iconic forms that might appear at first as faceless antiquities from an imagined futuristic past, but that—upon closer approach—reflect the faces of their beholders as modern projections of identity on their polished surfaces. De Orbegoso slyly plays with materialist desire and taste in a project designed to familiarize these ancient forms within modern life, casting her “neo-huacos” in yellow gold, rose gold, silver, and other stylish monochromatic hues. Kukuli Velarde takes a different approach in her 1997–2008 series Plunder Me, Baby. The series consists of aggressive, sexually exposed ceramic bodies that hit back against centuries of colonial trauma and gendered violence. The female bodies are based on studied observation of particular Pre-Columbian artworks from Peru and Mexico, although each bears Velarde’s own face. One sculpture, closely modeled on a well-known “acrobat” figure from Tlatilco (ca. 1200–900 BCE), though recast as female and with the artist’s own sneering visage, is called India Patarrajada. She will do all the acrobacies the Master orders, pero no esperes que te quiera mucho . . . Velarde’s unflinching work activates the power of Pre-Columbian art as historical medium and awakened muse for blistering critique as seen in Figure 1.


Kukuli Velarde, India Patarrajada. She will do all the acrobacies the Master orders, pero no esperes que te quiera mucho, Tlatilco/Olmec, Mexico. 1200–800 BC, 2008. White clay, wax, casein paint, resin, 22 × 15 × 16 in. (55.9 × 38.1 × 40.6 cm). Photo by Doug Herren.


Kukuli Velarde, India Patarrajada. She will do all the acrobacies the Master orders, pero no esperes que te quiera mucho, Tlatilco/Olmec, Mexico. 1200–800 BC, 2008. White clay, wax, casein paint, resin, 22 × 15 × 16 in. (55.9 × 38.1 × 40.6 cm). Photo by Doug Herren.

The future of Pre-Columbian art history will depend on the creation and ongoing cultivation of broader dialogues along these horizon lines—across global history, premodern art history, archaeology, and anthropology, and with contemporary artists, curators, and communities. As we work to make the field’s relevance increasingly explicit, we must also advocate for its widespread curricular inclusion in programs of study. Rising scholars should think broadly and in new ways about how their work occupies spaces within the field’s intersections—both laterally, with other areas of early modern, premodern, and ancient art history, and diachronically, within the longer history of art in what is now Latin America, the United States, and Canada. We must throw open the conversations to invite in others from adjacent areas of scholarship and from institutions and communities beyond university and museum walls. Together we might most effectively chart a course to the future of the study of the past.

Lisa Trever
Columbia University
Cecelia F. Klein, “Introduction of the Session,” paper presented in the session “Theory, Method, and the Future of Pre-Columbian Art History” at the 100th Annual Conference of the College Art Association, Los Angeles, February 24, 2012,
Sabine MacCormack, “The Fall of the Incas: A Historiographical Dilemma,” History of European Ideas 6, no. 4 (1985): 422–23.
Bernardino de Sahagún, “Prólogo,” in Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, 1577, vol. 1, fol. 10r, Medicea Laurenziana Library, Florence, digital facsimile available through the World Digital Library,
See for example Guaman Poma’s ca. 1600 illustration of an Inca king in procession in Martín de Murúa, Historia general del Piru: Facsimile of J. Paul Getty Museum Ms. Ludwig XIII 16 / Martín de Murúa (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008), fol. 84r.
Joanne Pillsbury, ed., Guide to Documentary Sources for Andean Studies, 1530–1900, 3 vols. (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008); Joanne Pillsbury, ed., Fuentes documentales para los estudios andinos, 1530–1900, 3 vols. (Lima: Fondo Editorial, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 2016).
Pál Kelemen, Medieval American Art (New York: Macmillan, 1943).
Lisa Trever, Image Encounters: Moche Murals and Archaeo Art History, book manuscript in preparation.
Lisa Trever, with contributions by Jorge Gamboa, Ricardo Toribio, and Ricardo Morales, The Archaeology of Mural Painting at Pañamarca, Peru (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2017).
Heather Lechtman, “Cloth and Metal: The Culture of Technology,” in Andean Art at Dumbarton Oaks, ed. Elizabeth Hill Boone (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996), 1:33–43.