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A Pre-Columbian World: Searching for a Unitary Vision of Ancient America

October 6–7, 2001 | Pre-Columbian Studies Symposium, Mary Ellen Miller and Jeffrey Quilter, Symposiarchs

Forty years ago, a group of Americanist scholars published a volume of collected essays by some of the most eminent scholars of the day (K. Lothrop et al., Essays in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961). Contributors included Junius Bird, A. Rex González, George Kubler, Samuel Lothrop, Betty Meggers and Clifford Evans, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, G. Reichel-Dolmatoff, John Rowe, Matthew Stirling, Doris Stone, J. E. S. Thompson, and Gordon Willey. Articles ranged from “Notes on Plumbate Vessels . . .” to “Horizon Styles in the Tropical Forest . . .” At the time, Maya glyphs were mostly mute; radiocarbon dating was new and of uncertain value; and archaeological taxonomic systems were proposed and debated. In the far distance, the faint sounds of the drumbeats of New Archaeology could be heard.

In the four decades since then, archaeology and art history have grown in the numbers of their practitioners and diversified in the subject matters they cover. Scholarship has lurched through Processualism to Post-Modernism and grappled with issues of appropriation of the past and cultural heritage. Once trained as generalists in fields where almost any investigation resulted in new discoveries, younger scholars have become increasingly specialized in their geographical, temporal, and theoretical perspectives.

Quo Vadis Pre-Columbian Studies? This symposium will approach the issue of how the different disciplines that study the Pre-Columbian past have been shaped by national boundaries, other fields of study, and their own historical trajectories. It will examine issues of behavioral and ideological patterning in the ancient New World by looking at case studies from areas sometimes considered peripheral to Nuclear America—Southern Central America, the Midcontinental United States, and the Southwest. Issues of temporal change and continuities in art and symbol systems also will be explored. Through these specific topics, larger issues of where the study of Ancient America is now situated and what directions it may or should take in the future will be addressed: to what degree can we or should we attempt to define a Pre-Columbian World System?


Saturday Morning: Introduction & Theoretical Grounding

  • Jeffrey Quilter (Dumbarton Oaks), “New World Order”
  • Elizabeth Boone (Tulane University), “The Defining Sample: How We Pursue the Pre-Columbian Past”
  • Simon Martin (Institute of Archaeology, London University), “Word, Sign, and Symbol in Understanding the Pre-Columbian World”

Saturday Afternoon: Issues and Regions

  • Mary Helms (UNC, Greensboro), “Glimpses of a Common Cosmos? A Brief Look South and North from Panama”
  • Warren DeBoer (CUNY, Queens), “Little Big Horn on the Scioto: Hopewell and Orbits of Interaction in the New World”
  • Robert Hall (University of Illinois, Chicago), “Exploring the Mississippian Big Bang”
  • Polly Schaafsma (Museum of New Mexico) and Karl Taube (University of California, Riverside), “Bringing the Rain: An Ideology of Rain Making in the Pueblo Southwest and Mesoamerica”

Sunday Morning: Inscribing and Marking a Past & Present

  • Tom Dillehay (University of Kentucky) and Ramiro Matos (National Museum of the American Indian), “Stylistic Variation and Meaning in Pre-Columbian Andean Imagery: The Fusion of Art, Architecture, and Landscape”
  • Anna Blume (Fashion Institute of Technology, NY), “Animal Transformations: The Mixing of Maya and European Belief and Fantasy”
  • Mary Miller (Yale University), “The Ideological Edifices of a Pre-Columbian World”