HUMN 240
Extra Credit Write-up

Pre-Columbian Exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago 

On September 19, 2003, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago to see the pre-Columbian exhibits of the Americas. Many of the items were from civilizations of the Mesoamerican region, including the cultures of the Olmec, Teotihuacanos, Maya and Aztec. In the modern world, a popular mindset of many seems to be that, prior to the arrival of Europeans a few centuries ago, the ancient empires and cultures were primitive, basic ones. An exhibit such as the one at the Art Institute, however, is enough to dispel such beliefs. These indigenous cultures showed a remarkable degree of skill in many areas, especially art and architecture.

Olmec Exhibit

Called “the mother civilization of the Americas,” the Olmec civilization was the first state society in Mesoamerica. It is estimated to have begun around 1500 B.C.E. The Olmec people are renowned for their skill in stone- and jade-carving, as exemplified by much of their pottery and other ceramics, stelae (carved or inscribed stone slabs and pillars), masks, sculptures, textiles and some jewelry.  Possibly the most well-known examples of their stone-carving talent are the numerous large basalt heads. (Many of the figures created by the Olmecs were described in class as having “very Negroid features.”) One particular part of the Olmec display was a large stone mask, from somewhere between 500 and 400 B.C.E., which was described as representing an entrance to the underworld. In Olmec tradition, the visual arts formed a vital connection between the seen and unseen orders of life, keeping alive the integration and renewal of human society and the forces of nature. This type of philosophy was common to many of the civilizations throughout ancient Mesoamerica.

When discussing Olmec art, we should remember that it is important to consider not only what is physically represented but also what it symbolizes or conveys about their culture. The information panels along the exhibit discussed such significance; for example, one of the prominent figures in their art was jaguars, especially in small figurines. The exhibit explained that animals were significant to the Olmecs’ religion, and jaguars were considered supernatural creatures. Art was created, in part, to give power to the shaman or other ruler. Anthropomorphic creatures were common in spiritual beliefs and customs.

The stelae were used as a sort of way of commemorating (and recording) important people and events. The Olmecs are believed to have devised one of the first forms of writing, and are also said to have been responsible for the Long Count calendar, based on a vegesimal (based on the number 20) counting system using dots and bars. Such innovations may have been the basis for similar methods used by the Maya. All in all, however, the most noteworthy characteristic of the Olmecs is their emphasis on a shamanistic religion—and the extraordinary art created as part of it.

Mayan Exhibit

Like the Olmec people, the Mayans incorporated spiritual and religious beliefs/customs into many aspects of society. Mayan cities had ceremonial areas with a plaza surrounded by buildings. The Maya developed their own style of hieroglyphic writing to meticulously record names, births, deaths, marriages, alliances, victories, mythological events and religious happenings. Seen at the exhibit were a number of stone reliefs, including one depicting a ritual ballgame of some sort. (Ballgames were played to celebrate a ruler’s investiture, settle disputes and even predict the outcome of significant occasions and events.) Most of the stone reliefs shown were dated from 650 to 900 C.E.

Also like the Olmecs, the Maya used stelae as well to record significant occurrences. These stone monuments describe royal inaugurations, military triumphs, marriages, deaths and religious events of the agricultural cycle. The ruler was considered symbolically connected with maize, as well as the earth, sky and water. One vase (from between 650 and 800 C.E.) depicts a royal ascension. Custom dictated that the sacrifice of a captive was required as proof of the new ruler’s military abilities. It was seen as an offering to the gods and a sign of the forthcoming triumphant reign [of the new leader]. On a related note, costumes (as illustrated on the variety of mediums) indicated one’s rank, authority and place of origin.

Also discussed at the Maya exhibit was the Popol Vuh, a document that details much of the religion, mythology and history of the Mayans (specifically the Quiché). It also is a narration of the dawn of life. On one vase (unofficially called The Vase of the Seven Gods; dating from 700 or 800 C.E.), the sculptor depicts the gods assembled in darkness before the beginning of time—in fact, according to their Long Count calendar, the date is August 13, 3114 B.C.—with six deities facing the commanding seventh deity, Lord One Death.

Of the pre-conquest civilizations in the Americas, the Mayans were the most concerned with intellectual and scientific endeavors. They had a contribution to the counting of time, as well as an extraordinarily accurate calendar whose preciseness has never been matched. The Mayans had both ceremonial and day-to-day calendars. Overall, the Mayans are known for not only their magnificent temples and skills in pottery, but for their overall achievements in many fields. Whether it was agriculture, scientific, astronomical, political or religious, the Mayans are thought of as having been a very advanced civilization for their time.

Other Exhibits

I will touch on some of the other exhibits, though not in as much depth. While the Olmec and Mayan civilizations were the focus, there were other cultures on display as well. There were a few things of the Teotihuacán, including some stone masks (dates ranged from 350 to 700 C.E.); these were not worn in their culture, but rather attached to supports and “dressed” with plumed headdresses, flowers and the like—ornaments were part of a complex system of symbols linking the people of Teotihuacán to the deities of nature. There was also a fragment of a mural (600-750 C.E.) on display, said to be part of a cycle that was painted on the walls of a palace. (In the metropolis, palaces and apartment compounds were plastered with brilliantly painted religious ritual scenes.) A rain priest, apparently dancing, is seen in full costume and headdress, likely in prayer for agricultural success; rain and agriculture were quite significant to the society.

From the Aztec exhibit was a “coronation stone,” called “Stone of the Five Suns,” from the ascension of Motecuhzoma II. Believed to be from Tenochtitlán, the hieroglyphic stone connects mythology with real historical events. The Aztecs believed that the earth has been created and destroyed four times, and that the present is the fifth period of creation. (There is much more detail to it than that, however.) 


I could write many more pages on all that I saw. The incredible exhibit, which took up over five full rooms, encompasses nearly a dozen different cultures. The array of items is not done justice by just what I’ve covered. However, I found out a lot that day; studying civilizations is fine, but the experience isn’t complete until you’ve seen fragments for yourself. All of these cultures, covering a range of a few thousand years and many thousands of miles, had things in common. Back then, the people indigenous to the land felt a connection to it; spirituality was prevalent and the only real gods (to them) were in nature. Nature was symbolic of integration, renewal and religion. Certainly each culture had differences; one had a symbolic cave-mask, which was once an entrance to a temple. Some temples were seen as a place of religious communion between the living community and the ancestors dwelling in the world below, near the source of water and the earth’s fertility. Some cultures had more emphasis than others on offerings and prayers. The forms of artwork were done differently in different civilizations; some human figures were abstracted. In murals, emphasis was usually on costumes, gestures and speech-scrolls rather than naturalistic proportions or portraiture. In ceramic figures, realism was emphasized. There were different civilizations from different eras, but they all emphasized visual arts as forming a connection between the seen and unseen worlds. Human society and nature lived in harmony, not in competition.