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.
A couple of years ago I attended a wonderful and inspiring symposium on Mesoamerican rituals, organized and hosted by one of the most influential and renowned research institutions involved in Mesoamerican studies. Over the course of two days a series of excellent papers on the symposium topic were presented by the invited scholars—a diverse crowd of archaeologists, epigraphers, ethnohistorians, and bioarchaeologists, many of them employing PowerPoints to support their arguments. Painted images, sculptures, and architecture featured in nearly every talk. Some artworks were dealt with in great detail, whereas others were used mainly as illustrations or to situate other finds and artifacts in a wider context. At the end of the symposium all of the presenters gathered to discuss the planned volume with the publisher, organizers, and editors-to-be. At some point during this meeting, however, a point of concern was raised—that there were no art historians among the speakers. How, for the publication, could the topic be properly approached from the visual perspective? Art historians, if seemed, were required if iconography was to be analyzed and interpreted in an appropriate and satisfactory manner.
Not being trained as an art historian, but having just presented a paper with a strong emphasis on visual culture, supported by what could be called traditional art historical evidence, I was momentarily surprised and somewhat dumbfounded. Then reluctantly, and in a probably rather naive manner, I explained that I could not see why this was necessarily a major problem. I did so partly because ancient images form part of the archaeological record, and as such, ideally at least, should be of equal interest to the archaeologists who excavate them as any other category of archaeologically retrieved artifacts. They should therefore be subsequently integrated into attempts to understand and reconstruct various aspects of Pre-Columbian societies. I also took this position, in part, because I was not academically trained within, and thus do not share, the same sense of explicit boundaries between the disciplines that apparently characterizes much Mesoamerican research in the United States (US). I shall return below to the issue of disciplines and their oftentimes blurred and, in my opinion, counterproductive borders. But first let me explain why I reacted as I did.
In a way, it all began with the German scholar Eduard Seler (1849–1922), who is sometimes referred to as the dean of Mesoamerican studies. In an almost superhuman output of publications, Seler dealt with all aspects of Mesoamerican studies, past and present, including linguistics, archaeology, history, ethnography, art history, the history of religions, and so forth. He thus laid the foundations of what became the German school of Altamerikanistik, which by definition is cross-disciplinary. Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture as an empirical unit was at the core of this approach, and Seler and his students would thus employ data from archaeological, art historical, epigraphic, linguistic, and religious studies perspectives in a seamless, integrated manner, applying an equally wide array of methods in the process. Among Seler’s students in Berlin were Konrad Theodor Preuss (1869–1938) and Walter Lehmann (1878–1939), both to become central figures in European Mesoamerican research who would pass on Seler’s legacy to their own students.
Among those students was Ernst Mengin (1893–1973), who, like so many others in Germany’s intellectual elite, had fled Hitler’s Germany. In 1934 he arrived in Denmark. For several years he served as a priest in the German Reformed Church in Copenhagen, but in 1949 he began teaching at the University of Copenhagen, where a chair in Central American Languages and Ancient American Indian Culture had been established for the first time in the university’s history. Mengin thus initiated a scholarly tradition founded upon Seler’s cross-disciplinary approach. His main interests were the Nawatl (Nahuatl) language, philology, and early colonial manuscripts, areas that would dominate Mesoamerican research in Copenhagen for decades to follow.
After Mengin’s retirement in 1971, teaching as well as research was taken over by the historian of religions Arild Hvidtfeldt (1915–1999), who is probably best known for his study of Aztec deity impersonation rituals, and the linguist Una Canger (b. 1938), a leading authority in Nawatl dialectology. To this day, the BA and MA study programs of American Indian Languages and Cultures at the University of Copenhagen continue to introduce students to the various disciplines and methods through which an understanding of Mesoamerica can best be obtained, namely archaeology, linguistics, ethnohistory, philology, epigraphy, art history, history of religions, and ethnography. Since the year 2000, research and teaching in the department has gradually shifted toward archaeology, religion, epigraphy, and iconography, although philology and language studies remain deeply integrated into current research topics. Examples of such topics are calques in ancient Maya texts (“calque” being the term for a loan translation, that is, when a word is borrowed from another language and translated word for word, like “skyscraper” being calqued into Spanish as rasca-cielos), the writing systems of Epiclassic (600–950 CE) Central Mexico, and comparative analysis of deer-serpents in Mesoamerican art and mythology.1 And so I have never thought of or identified myself as primarily a historian or an art historian or an epigrapher, but as a Mesoamericanist, and I believe most of our students do as well, and this explicitly acknowledges and aims to further Seler’s legacy. We strive, so to speak, to pass on his torch to the next generation.
Seler was not the only great scholar who saw potential in cross-disciplinary approaches. The collected works of one of the most towering figures in Mexican archaeology, Alfonso Caso (1896–1970), display a comparable disciplinary breadth of approach to Mesoamerican cultures. Caso directed archaeological excavations (for instance at Monte Albán in Oaxaca), but he was also the leading force in identifying historical narratives and individuals in Mixtec codices, just as he did pioneering work on calendars and writing in central Mexico. Similar ambitions were expressed by yet another leading Mexican scholar of the twentieth century, the archaeologist and anthropologist Ignacio Bernal (1910–1992), whose ideal future Mesoamerican scholar was “a new type for whom we eventually could perhaps find a shorter term than ethnoarchaeohistorian.”2 Although such a holistic approach to ancient Mesoamerica has not yet been formulated or formalized at many (if any) research institutions in the world, the graduate and postgraduate program in Estudios Mesoamericanos at Mexico City’s Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México certainly represents an innovative step in this direction. It reflects Bernal’s broad vision as we continue to examine the dialogue among established disciplines and research traditions.
Another German-born scholar who fled Hitler’s regime was the famous art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968). Panofsky went to the United States, and it was there that his well-known three-level model of iconographical analysis was first published in 1939. Panofsky’s theory was later modified for the Mesoamerican context by the Dutch scholar Maarten Jansen in 1988. Panofsky’s model has its problems and shortcomings, including its dependence on literary sources, and because it was developed for a Western, Christian art tradition, it does not always readily transfer to other cultural settings.3 Nonetheless, one thing that has always guided my own approach to Mesoamerican iconography is Panofsky’s call for the use of all types of available sources in order to reach an understanding of what he termed the “intrinsic” meaning of a work of art, which was part of the third, final, and most difficult level of his analysis: iconology. As expressed by one of Panofsky’s former students, James Ackerman, in the 1963 volume Art and Archaeology: “The perfect iconographer would require an encyclopedic knowledge of the culture in which he works. This achievement is far beyond anyone’s reach; like many other scholars, the iconographer must be satisfied with seeking to learn where to look for what he does not know.”4 In other words, for iconographers working with Pre-Columbian cultures, all aspects of the cultural context in which a given representation was produced, used, seen, and impacted humans have the potential to allow us better to understand the meanings of that representation.
One might therefore ask: How else could we get even close to the admittedly utopian notion of the “intrinsic” meaning of ancient imagery, if not by means of a cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary approach? Relying on the methods of one discipline alone would not seem to suffice to generate the full scope of research questions and the resulting interpretations and answers. In order to best access the fullest meaning of ancient Pre-Columbian visual culture, to unlock all the keys, one might say, I believe we need the disciplinary and methodological equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. And in fact, when reading some of the most recent works by art historians on Mesoamerican topics, they do not strike me as narrow-minded, with no interest in applying methods and approaches from other disciplines. In this sense, significant contributions in Mesoamerican iconography and visual culture already appear to be, at least to a degree, cross- or interdisciplinary.5
Another important factor in forming my own identity as a cross-disciplinary researcher were two books coauthored by the epigraphist and Latin American studies scholar Linda Schele and the archaeologist David Freidel: A Forest of Kings (1990) and Maya Cosmos (1993).6 In these two volumes, ancient Maya history and society, religion, and rituals across millennia are presented in a way that clearly draws on and integrates a rich variety of kinds of evidence, in particular from archaeology, art history, and epigraphy, with no fear of stepping outside the established paths of Maya research, including an interest in communicating to and activating a broader, nonacademic audience. To me, reading them as a young student, the books represented a new and different way of thinking and writing about the Maya, which had a strong appeal. The cross-disciplinary and comparative framework that Schele and Freidel introduced, especially in Maya Cosmos, also corresponded very much to the program I was following at the University of Copenhagen. I know that several, mainly Mayanist colleagues from my own generation have been similarly inspired and influenced by these groundbreaking books, which led many of us working today, perhaps unconsciously, to think, research, and write from a cross-disciplinary perspective.
However, my experience at the symposium on Mesoamerican rituals revealed that a borderless and more holistic approach is not shared by all researchers working in the Mesoamerican field. Borders are still being guarded by some institutions and academics, and scholarly identities and traditions rooted in specific disciplines often still matter. From occasional eavesdropping and conversations with colleagues on both sides of the “border,” I have gathered that there is, in particular, a divide between those who trained as archaeologists and those who trained as art historians. But should these boundaries really occupy us so much? Does each not simply foster stereotypes of the other? It may be banal to point this out, and it will come as no surprise, but a close look at the history of research in scientific and humanistic disciplines reveals that disciplinary boundaries are blurry, dynamic, and subject to changes often related to evolving local and historical circumstances. For instance, in the US university system, archaeology is usually housed within a department of anthropology, whereas in Denmark the two are usually separate study programs, situated in two different faculties (archaeology in the humanities and anthropology in the social sciences). Interestingly, anthropology at the University of Copenhagen was first known as ethnography until a decision was made to change the nomenclature, possibly to indicate a shift from an older, continental European tradition to what was considered a more modern, Anglo-Saxon approach (to make things even less transparent, Denmark’s second largest university in Aarhus until recently had a department called Anthropology and Ethnography, which was under the humanities). Another case in point is ethnohistory, which continues to have some difficulty in defining itself as a discipline separate from its origins in, and close relationship with, history and anthropology.7 Although an emerging discipline in the West, ethnohistory remains little known among historians in Europe, perhaps because they regard it as a subfield of history and not a discipline unto itself. When borders are hard to find and draw, it may be because they are not really there.
In the department of American Indian Languages and Cultures at Copenhagen, I was trained to approach ancient and present-day Mesoamerica from several complementary disciplinary angles, gradually specializing in the history of religion, iconography, and epigraphy, while acquiring additional competencies through selective courses, seminars, conferences, intensive readings, and so forth. Looking back, the inelegant title of my 1998 thesis—“Making the Man-Made World Alive: Dedication Rituals of the Maya—A Survey of the Epigraphic, Iconographic, Archaeological, Ethnohistorical, and Ethnographic Sources”—clearly reflected my ambitions to embrace the cross-disciplinary approach as well as the deep time span that Schele and Freidel engaged in their works. For the past twenty years, iconography, writing systems, and the religions and mythologies of Mesoamerica have been my main areas of investigation, and I have (almost) always felt that my cross-disciplinary background was an advantage.
A case in point is the work I did with my late colleague who was trained as a philosopher, Toke Sellner Reunert, in which we questioned the existence of a Mesoamerican belief in a multilayered universe with thirteen heavens and nine underworlds before the arrival of Europeans.8 Our analyses of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cosmological models and what we argued were their transformations in the decades after the Spanish conquest and the arrival of its new cosmology were only possible if we approached the question from a cross-disciplinary perspective. In that study we drew on a variety of sources, including archaeological evidence, iconography (Mesoamerican as well as medieval European), (ethno)historical documents from early colonial New Spain and Europe, colonial dictionaries, as well as nineteenth- and twentieth-century ethnographic descriptions. Leaving open the possibility of a multilayered Pre-Columbian cosmos, we noted that the available evidence revealed that the relatively few sources describing a multilayered universe are all of Post-Columbian origin and almost certainly were influenced by Euro-Christian concepts regarding the structure of the cosmos. Far more common, in both Pre- and Post-Columbian sources, is an emphasis on the cardinal directions, the center, and a much simpler, merely three-tiered cosmos.9
In yet another study, the archaeologist and epigrapher Christophe Helmke and I sought to identify the much-discussed Maya influence in the famous murals at Epiclassic Cacaxtla in Tlaxcala, Mexico. We put forth a dating for these important interactions between the Maya lowlands and Central Mexico based on the occurrence of specific ritual objects and supernatural beings, as well as a kind of “iconographic paleography” in which we employed data and methods from different disciplines, namely archaeology, art history, and epigraphy. We reached the conclusion that the Maya artists who were involved in producing the murals were most likely to have come from one of the western Maya lowlands kingdoms, specifically from within the greater Usumacinta River area, sometime between the second half of the eighth century and the early ninth.10 Of course, there is also a negative, or less fulfilling, side to practicing as a cross-disciplinary, comparatively minded Mesoamericanist. In particular, one experiences an occasional sense of insecurity based on the lack of a solid, focused methodological and theoretical “island” associated with a specific discipline. At times one gets the uncomfortable sensation of being isolated, of living in a disciplinary no-man’s-land, floating in an ocean of possibilities where only the surface has been scratched. Nonetheless, for me the approach has been ultimately deeply rewarding.
Coming to an end to these brief reflections, I must emphasize that I do not mean to imply that there are no differences between what art historians and archaeologists, or others who work with Mesoamerican visual culture, do when it comes to describing, analyzing, and interpreting Pre-Columbian imagery, nor are there no differences in how they do it. And so we still need, and always will need, art historians working on ancient Pre-Columbian visual culture, as their methodological background, theoretical knowledge, and broad comparative knowledge of art’s history and functions will always allow them to contribute insights that few others will have. Looking specifically at the field of Mesoamerican visual studies, however, it seems necessary that art historians also continue to familiarize themselves with epigraphy, philology, and Mesoamerican languages. This is so because Mesoamerican imagery frequently appears together with texts, whether in mural art, stucco facades, stelae, lintels and panels, ceramics, codices, mapas, and lienzos. Because (as we know today) Maya and Aztec texts and imagery work closely together, we can assume that this was also the case with the as yet largely undeciphered writing systems of Mesoamerica, including those of the Olmec, Zapotec, and ancient Teotihuacan. For example, the many glyphic elements embedded in Maya iconography are sometimes used as semantic determinatives. The diagnostic elements of the logogram for “tree,” say, can be included in representations of objects that are made from wood such as canoes. Such glyph elements were not meant to be read as a text, but provided the Maya, and provide us, with crucial points of entry to understanding the images. We may expect that similar conventions were at play in other Mesoamerican cultures. In other words, epigraphy and text analysis cannot easily be separated from art historical analyses and interpretations when it comes to literate Mesoamerican societies.
Nonetheless, a word of caution: insufficient knowledge of how writing systems work and behave in Mesoamerica—and in the rest of the world—as well as their relationship to language, have led to the suggestion (some might even say invention) of other categories of visual communication, such as semasiography, which is best defined as a kind of a nonphonetic, graphic form of communication through the use of symbols and signs detached from any specific language. These approaches are in many ways problematic, in my view only causing confusion and essentially blocking the way to further decipherments. Downplaying the phonetic content in central Mexican writing systems, and thus their close association with a specific language, the semasiographic approach suggests that images and symbols “speak” to the viewer independent of language. Thus, accurate decipherments are not possible, and “translations” become merely a matter of the semasiographer’s personal knowledge, intuition, and interpretation of the signs and images.11 An approach with more to offer is the broad, comparative study of visuality among Mesoamerican cultures.12 After decades of an observable trend in Mesoamerican studies toward increasing specialization in specific regions, cultures, time periods, and even cities, we have at present only a handful of active practitioners of the comparative method. An outgrowth of the work by Mesoamericanists like Seler, Caso, and, in more recent decades, Karl Taube, it acknowledges the shared cultural traditions and beliefs across Mesoamerica and thus allows detailed knowledge from one region or period to be used to formulate hypotheses about analogous—or deviating—phenomena in other regions and periods.13 Because we know that peoples, languages, ideas, and objects were constantly moving across Mesoamerica, I believe the comparative, pan-Mesoamerican approach is an important complement to regional and specialized projects.
So, returning to the anecdote I recounted in the beginning, I obviously do not see a need for a disciplinary “border patrol” insisting on some near-monopoly of a specific set of data. Needless to say, we must always respect the special knowledge, experience, competences, and opinions of those trained in specific disciplines, but I think we should all do our best, and also encourage our students, to integrate data, methods, and theories from other disciplines into our own research. We should not be afraid to step across boundaries and enter new territories. Borders, after all, mostly reflect historical, political, and educational circumstances, as well as ambitions and strategies. They are human and historical constructs, not reflections of how ancient Mesoamerican cultures perceived and interacted with each other and the material and immaterial world around them.
I find it difficult, if not impossible, to predict what the future has in store for Pre-Columbian visual culture studies in the United States and for our own small program at Copenhagen University. The institutional challenges and national and local circumstances are undoubtedly very different in different places. I am confident, however, that the flexibility, openness, and creativity inherent in cross-disciplinary studies can advance our understanding of Pre-Columbian art and iconography, and I think we professors and teachers should assist our students in bridging different disciplines in their work. Importantly, I do not think this will cause the extinction of any of the individual disciplines. In fact, Mesoamerican research in general may only be able to survive if housed within the larger, well-established disciplines or area studies programs such as archaeology, art history, anthropology, and Latin American studies. Seen from a European perspective, and considering that Copenhagen is now the only university in Europe offering a full university degree in Mesoamerican cultures and languages, it seems clear that we are indeed in very dire straits. There is, moreover, no reason to think that things will improve in the near future. Smaller, so-called “exotic” academic programs such as ours regularly face threats of shutdowns because they do not attract large numbers of students and thus do not generate high revenues for their institutions. Quantity, not quality, has become the dominant criterion, with studies in Indigenous American cultures, ancient Assyria, Egypt, and India increasingly considered unproductive, even useless, to modern Western society. Hopefully, the proximity of the United States to Mesoamerica, and to Latin America in a broader sense, will prevent such drastic measures in the case of North American colleges and universities, and Pre-Columbian and Latin American visual culture studies will find constructive ways to collaborate, acknowledging the importance and contributions of each field, and allowing fruitful and inspiring border crossings to the benefit of all those involved.
University of Copenhagen