Costa Rica’s ancient artisans getting their due in Washington

The country’s prehistoric past is getting major exposure in Washington, D.C.  The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center have an exhibit running until Feb.1, 2015 that spotlights Central America pre-Hispanic cultures.

The emphasis of “Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed,” as the name suggests, is on the pottery left by the cultures. But there is much more. Couple with the exhibit is a book edited by archaeologist Rosemary A. Joyce, of the University of California at Berkeley. She has been conducting fieldwork in Honduras since 1977.

Her thesis is that Central American cultures have been under rated because they did not create giant and unsustainable cities like the Mayans and other cultures.

“Outstanding works of art force us to acknowledge that links existed from the Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica to the Ulúa Valley in Honduras, and from there to Belize and Guatemala,” she said in the book, “Revealing Ancestral Central America.”

Costa Rica’s other major archaeological sites outside the Nicoya peninsula also have strong representations. Of course, there are the stone spheres from the southern Pacific coast. Las Mercedes on the campus of University Earth in Guácimo, Limón, is represented as well as the enigmatic Guayabo de Turrialba.

“It is evident that people of pre-16th-century Central American societies lived in a visually rich, materially luxurious, world, said Ms. Joyce. She also said that even in farmers homes excavations uncovered colorful ceramic pots and bowls.

The area around San Vicente de Nicoya is filled with small workshops where residents produce ceramics in much the same way their ancestors produced the pieces that are on display in Washington.

In fact, the Ecomuseo de la Cerámica Chorotega there organizes the Festival de las Nimbueras every year to honor the artisans who work with clay to produce masterpieces.

Pottery making there has been continuous for at least 4,000 years.

The Washington exhibition draws on the extensive holdings of 12,000 pieces at the Smithsonian, but many similar pieces are on display here in the Museo de Jade, the Museos del Banco Central and the Museo Nacional, not to mention the museum in Nicoya about 17 kilometers southeast of Santa Cruz.

However, the bilingual exhibit in Washington outlines a trade network and cultural similarities among the inhabitants of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panamá.

Together, these objects span the period from 1000 B.C. to the present and illustrate the richness, complexity and dynamic qualities of Central American civilizations that were connected to peoples in South America, Mesoamerica and the Caribbean through social and trade networks that shared knowledge, technology, artworks and systems of status and political organization, said the museum.

This is our first major exhibition that examines our remarkable Central American collection, which is world class based on its sheer size and the fact that these are whole and intact objects,” said Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in a release. “It also marks the first time that we have created a bilingual exhibition that will increase our scholarship and outreach to an entirely new audience.”

Ms. Joyce also makes the point in her book that much of the early archaeology cites in Central America have been lost due to landslides, river erosion and construction even by later Indian groups. She notes that there is evidence that there were inhabitants here at least 9,000 years ago. She is supported in that view by a site just over the line in Panamá in the Parque Internacional La Amistad that has been dated at least that old.

A sampling of the works on display in Washington is HERE!


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