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Rollout photograph of a Maya vase with a red background. Vase depicts three figures: a large cat on its hind legs, a man standing inside a fire, and a standing human skeleton holding a jar. Glyphic symbols surround the three figures.

Pre-Columbian Roundtable

March 1–2, 2024 | Pre-Columbian Studies Roundtable; Joanne Baron and Frauke Sachse, Organizers

The Social Domains of Maya Ceramic Texts

This event is open by invitation only

This roundtable discusses textual and visual semantic genres of Maya ceramics in the Kerr Photographic Archive.

The Pre-Columbian Department has invited leading experts on Maya writing and iconography to discuss Dumbarton Oaks’ ongoing work on the cataloguing of the Justin Kerr Photographic Archive of Maya ceramics. The aim of the Kerr project is to catalogue images of Maya vessels in the collection, including a systematic analysis of the iconographic contents and thorough transcription and translation of hieroglyphic texts. Writing on Maya ceramics features different textual genres, ranging from standardized wording to forms of discourse that remain opaque – sometimes involving unique, yet undeciphered, signs and passages. By comprehensively recording text and image on Maya ceramics (including previously unpublished vessels), the Kerr project hopes to contribute new data and insights into Maya writing on pottery and the social realities in which these objects were produced and used. Participants will revisit long-standing research questions about the textual and visual semantic genres on Maya pottery and their relationship to social domains.


  • Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, Yale University
  • Stephen Houston, Brown University
  • Simon Martin, University of Pennsylvania/Penn Museum
  • Mallory Matsumoto, UT Austin
  • Christian Prager, University of Bonn
  • Alexandre Tokovinine, University of Alabama
  • Erik Velásquez García, UNAM
  • Marc Zender, Tulane University

Image: Polychrome cylinder vase, K3831, depicting the different supernatural wahy characters (Justin Kerr Maya archive, Dumbarton Oaks).  

Past Topics


Opening Up the Eastern Andes: New Perspectives on Regional Identities and Inter-Cultural Engagements

April 28, 2023 | Pre-Columbian Studies Roundtable; Anna Guengerich and Tamara L. Bray, Organizers

This roundtable reassessed the role the Eastern Andes played in South American prehistory. The eastern slopes of the Andes, also known as the montaña, yungas, or ceja de selva, were historically viewed as a no-man’s land by travelers and scholars alike, a zone inhospitable to human habitation and a natural boundary separating the macro-regions of the Andean highlands and Amazonian lowlands. Characterization of this region as an isolated backwater with limited cultural evolutionary potential was codified by Julian Steward in the influential Handbook of South American Indians published in 1948. The presence of monumental sites in the region, such as Kuélap and Gran Pajatén, have been explained traditionally as the creations of Andean peoples who had migrated downward from the higher elevations. Recent research, however, suggests that the Eastern Andean region might constitute a zone of broader cultural significance in itself, and that the role that Eastern Andean peoples played in South American prehistory needs to be re-evaluated. Bringing together archaeological data, ethnohistoric records, and ethnographic accounts, the participants explored dimensions of relationality through which Eastern Andean peoples were undoubtedly linked with neighboring highland and lowland populations. The roundtable additionally provided a forum for considering and debating alternative frameworks for conceptualizing the role of trans-regional, inter-cultural interaction and the impact of such on notions of identity.


  • Tamara L. Bray (Wayne State University), “De-Naturalizing Difference: Reflections on Othering and the Oriente”
  • Anna Guengerich (Eckerd College), “Imperial Narratives or Empirical Realities? Representation and environment in Inka Chachapoyas”


  • Sonia Alconini (University of Virginia), “Chunchos, Kallawayas and Puquina-Arawaks in the Lower Antisuyu”
  • Cristiana Bertazoni (University of Zurich), “Mapping the Sacred Landscape of the Ashaninka”
  • Carla Jaimes Betancourt (University of Bonn), “The Llanos de Moxos - Cultural Dynamics East of the Andes”
  • Catherine Alejandra Lara Illescas (French Institute of Andean Studies), “Between Technical Polarization and Hybridization: The Encounter Between Aént Chicham and Andean Pottery (eastern Ecuadorian montaña, XIIIth- XVIIIth centuries AD)
  • Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo (University of Florida), “A View of the Ahistorical Society of Quistococha (Iquitos) at the Lower Edge of the Upper Amazon River”
  • Francisco Valdez (Unité de Recherche Mixte Paloc: Patrimoines Locaux et Gouvernance. IRD MNHN, Paris), “The Ideological Roots of the Early Interaction in the Andean World”
  • Darryl Wilkinson (Dartmouth College), “The Late Intermediate Period Colonization of the Eastern Andes: Identity, Specialization and Exchange”

The Empire of the Ancestors: The Wari of the Middle Horizon

May 7–8, 2021 | Pre-Columbian Studies Colloquium, Mary Glowacki and Anita Cook, Organizers


Wari (ca. 500–1000 CE) was one of the earliest expansionist states in the Americas and laid the groundwork of statecraft for the Inka empire. Wari imperial expansion has been linked to environmental changes associated with the El Niño cycle that left the Ayacucho heartland with drought and the need for productive farmland elsewhere. Moving into fertile territories required appeasement of the ancestors who ensured the continuous flow of water, which sustained crops and life. This colloquium addresses the role of ancestral veneration in Wari expansionism. The Wari cherished their ancestors, keeping them in close proximity in sub-floor chambers and tombs, which permitted offerings from and communication with the living. The tight relationship between the living and the dead permeated all aspects of Wari culture and is exemplified on a grand scale in imposing mausoleums. Wari ancestral shrines and oracle centers may have played a much larger role than administrative nodes and waystations, scattered across the Andean landscape. The ancestors were represented as effigy vessels, many of which were made to be ceremoniously smashed and buried, as was done with small stones, shell figurines, or beads—cached in the ground like the deceased ancestors they signified. The intriguing evidence for ritualized practice at Wari sites outweighs the more conventional evidence of imperial rulership. Did a Wari ancestor cult propagate messages of power and subordination across the Andes to maintain the delicate balance between the ancestors and Wari’s ability to prosper from the earth? This and other questions regarding the role of ancestor veneration for Wari’s pan-Andean presence are addressed during this colloquium. The colloquium is organized into several sessions, each of which features a designated presenter and several discussants. Presentations are made available to attendees digitally prior to the event; the sessions are solely dedicated to discussion.

Heritage and Its Missions

December 11, 2020 | Pre-Columbian Studies Colloquium, Cristóbal Gnecco and Adriana Dias, Organizers

Investigations on heritage have flourished in the last two decades, ranging from the empirical to the theoretical, from the local to the global. Interdisciplinary in scope and classed under the name “critical heritage studies,” these investigations make extensive use of ethnographic perspectives to examine heritage not as a collection of inert things (or intangibles, to use more recent parlance) upon which a general historical interest is centered, but as a series of active meanings that have consequences in the social, political, and economic arenas. Such critical, relational approaches are beginning to have a bearing in studies of the heritage meanings accorded to the standing remains of the pre-Republican Catholic missions in the Americas, most notably in California, Mexico, and the Southern Cone. Yet no academic event has been devoted to engaging those meanings in comparative terms, exploring issues that are important for a number of actors/collectives, not just those related to the states and the disciplines. This colloquium aims to discuss past and current heritage meanings accorded to missions by national and multicultural states, local communities (especially, but not exclusively, indigenous ones), international heritage agencies, and scholars (historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and heritage experts). Participants from several countries in the Americas show how different actors (local communities/collectives, indigenous peoples, archaeologists, scholars, and heritage institutions at the national and transnational level) and narratives collide or articulate around those varied heritage meanings, some of which are decidedly counterhegemonic. The understanding of such struggles must show how global policies on heritage are performed locally, even if the purported heritage is of colonial origin, such as that of the Catholic missions. Participants address the following starting questions: (1) how heritage agents produce knowledge from their positioned perspectives, (2) how different actors/collectives/communities/publics relate to them, (3) how heritage representations are deployed (and many times countered) as social facts, and (4) how different conceptions of “heritage” collide, collaborate, and intersperse, in order to produce the meanings around which semiotic struggles unfold.


  • Cristóbal Gnecco (Universidad del Cauca)
  • Adriana Dias (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul)


  • Deana Dartt (Live Oak Museum Consulting, United States), “Mapping the Camino Indigenous: Reclaiming the Road on Our Terms”
  • Adriana Dias (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil), “The Province of Paraguay Jesuit Missions: Semiotic Policies and Heritage Meanings”
  • Cristóbal Gnecco (Universidad del Cauca, Colombia), “Heritage at Stake: The Contemporary Guaranis and the Missions”
  • Lisbeth Haas (University of California-Santa Cruz, United States), “The California Missions as Heritage Sites”
  • Elizabeth Kryder-Reid (Indiana University-Purdue University, United States), “Teaching Missions, Training Citizens: The California Missions as Curriculum”
  • Edith Llamas (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), “From the Total Destruction of the Mission to the Designation as a Magical Town. Magdalena de Kino: Between Historical Discontinuity and the Petrification of the Past”
  • Lee Panich (Santa Clara University, United States), “Unearthing Indigenous Histories at the California Missions”
  • Maximiliano von Thüngen (Universität zu Köln, Germany), “‘A living church, not dead ruins’: Uses and Meanings of the Jesuit Missions of Paraguay”
  • Guillermo Wilde (Universidad Nacional de San Martín), “Crisis of the ‘Heritage Order’: Disputed Representations of the Jesuit Mission’s Past”

Mesoamerican Codices: New Discoveries and New Directions

March 12–13, 2019 | Pre-Columbian Studies Colloquium, Diana Magaloni Kerpel and Barbara E. Mundy, Organizers

The marriage of science and the humanities has led to new understandings of the physical nature of these codices, the manuscripts created by indigenous artists in the Americas, most of them from Mesoamerica, where an indigenous tradition of manuscript making had a millennium-long history. Research scientists working in laboratories across Europe and the Americas have interrogated these precious works using both noninvasive and invasive techniques, and now we now know more about the physical nature of substrates, surfaces, pigments, and binders than at any point since the moment of their facture. At the same time, scholars in the humanities have offered new insights into indigenous conceptions of the material world and processes of facture. This colloquium seeks to bring together some of the leading scientists and humanist scholars of the codices to foster an interdisciplinary dialogue. How can the questions humanists seek to answer about the codices—the meaning of their iconographies and semantic systems, the reasons for their creation, the identities and social roles of their creators, their biographies over time—inform, and be informed by, the new discoveries that have been made on the scientific front? And how can discoveries made, and questions posed by the humanities inspire the work of scientists?

Long at the forefront of fostering interdisciplinary dialogues in Pre-Columbian Studies, Dumbarton Oaks will bring together scholars—among them laboratory scientists and humanists—to foster cross-disciplinary dialogue, thereby advancing “the state of the question” as it is asked within specific fields. The colloquium will include one day at Dumbarton Oaks, and a second day at the Library of Congress and the National Museum of the American Indian to examine works in situ.