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Representing Death and Decomposition in Ancient Costa Rican Funerary Masks

Elisa C. Mandell, California State University, Fullerton, Summer Fellow 2012

At Dumbarton Oaks I advanced my research on the meaning and significance of a small group of Costa Rican funerary masks (ca. 1–500 C.E.), which originate from the area of Playas de Sámara of Greater Nicoya. I propose that these Costa Rican masks depict an important biological and spiritual event—the transformation from life to death—and in doing so, a high degree of accuracy is used to communicate the complex series of physical changes of decomposition.

In order to understand what the Costa Rican masks may have meant to the ancient society that created and used them, the excellent resources of the Dumbarton Oaks library allowed me to expand on several fronts by employing a multi-disciplinary methodology. For example, while my search of numerous museum catalogs turned up only one other Costa Rican mask, it is very similar to those that form the basis of my study. As the mask-makers probably practiced secondary burial, I was pleased to locate articles in the library about the archaeological excavations of ossuaries in the Americas, including a Costa Rican cemetery consisting of bundles of skeletal remains.  To better grasp ancient Costa Rican eschatology, I surveyed colonial ethnohistories, such as those by Columbus and Oviedo, as well as ethnographies about the modern Bribri.  Finally, I prepared and delivered a lecture about my research to the Pre-Columbian Society of Washington D.C. My time at Dumbarton Oaks was fruitful due not only to its resources, but thanks also to the wonderful and hard-working staff.

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