Unknown Artist, Paracas mantle. South Coast, Peru, About 100 BC - AD 200. Cotton fabric, camelid fiber (probably alpaca) embroidery. H: 48.625 in, W: 88 in. Funds from Alvin & Geraldine Cohen, Mr. & Mrs. Morris A. Long, Tom & Noël Congdon, Mr. & Mrs. Samuel Gary, Hannah Levy, Jan & Frederick R. Mayer, Myron & Louann Miller, Neusteter Institute Fund, Margaret Powers, Mrs. Charles Rosenbaum, Mr. & Mrs. Irving Shwayder, Joyce and Ted Strauss, Mr. & Mrs. Taplin and the Volunteer Endowment Fund; 1980.44

Mayer Center, Department of Art of the Ancient Americas

Unknown Artist, Paracas mantle. South Coast, Peru, About 100 BC - AD 200. Cotton fabric, camelid fiber (probably alpaca) embroidery. H: 48.625 in, W: 88 in. Funds from Alvin & Geraldine Cohen, Mr. & Mrs. Morris A. Long, Tom & Noël Congdon, Mr. & Mrs. Samuel Gary, Hannah Levy, Jan & Frederick R. Mayer, Myron & Louann Miller, Neusteter Institute Fund, Margaret Powers, Mrs. Charles Rosenbaum, Mr. & Mrs. Irving Shwayder, Joyce and Ted Strauss, Mr. & Mrs. Taplin and the Volunteer Endowment Fund; 1980.44

Collection Highlights

Maize Goddess Chicomecoatl

Chicomecoatl, or Seven Serpent, the Aztec goddess of corn and sustenance was associated with both fertility and agricultural abundance. During the annual Huey Tozozotli festival that honored the corn plant, corn cobs and maize stalks would be bundled and carried by young women to be left at the Temple of Chicomecoatl. Maize, a staple food for Central Mexico, played a prominent role in creation accounts of humans, who were thought to be made of corn dough. Chicomecoatl could, therefore, be understood as the manifestation of earth’s sustenance and of humans themselves.  

Images of the corn goddess feature a tall, rectangular paper headdress known as an amacalli or paper crown, adorned with rosettes at the corners and consisting of multiple tiers and frequently depict her carrying ears of corn in her hands. Here, she holds four, two in each hand. 

Unknown Aztec Artist, Maize Goddess Chicomecoatl. Central Mexico, 1400-1519. Volcanic Stone. 17.25 x 9.125 x 3 in. Museum Purchase, 1957.31

Water Channel Beaker

In the ancient Andes, the drinking of maize beer played a prominent role in ceremonies. Sixteenth-century accounts of the Inka Empire tell how a toast between two parties could seal a contract, cement political alliances, or invoke the blessing of the goddess Pachamama when poured on the ground. Although commonly associated with the Inka empire, examples of drinking cups can be traced back to earlier cultures such as these tenth-century examples. 

This silver aquilla (cups made of precious metals) depicts a complex visual narrative carefully hammered into the vessels’ surface. The intricacy of the design and the purity of the metal suggests that this vessel was intended to accompany a royal personage in the afterlife as libation vessel. The rim includes a shallow projection or pouring spout.  Joanne Pillsbury and Carol Mackie’s recent material and iconographic analyses of the object suggests that this vessel as well as another in our collection (1969.303) were designed as a pair and manufactured in the same Lambayeque workshop. 

This Water Channel Beaker, so named because of the long thin conduit filled with marine imagery that encircles a large part of the vessel, prominently depicts a splayed leg female figure wearing a plumed headdress and framed by a lobed cartouche. A row of supernatural entities populates the upper register; architectural enclosures, hunting scenes, and a grove of trees appear around the center of the vessel. 

Unknown Artist, Water Channel Beaker. Lambayeque culture, North Coast Peru, 900–1100. Hammered silver. 6 x 5.5 x 4.5 in. Gift of the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1969.302.

Breastplate

Breastplate
Parita style
About A.D. 1150–1400
Central Panama, Azuero Peninsula
Gold alloy
Department acquisition funds, 1965.196

Hammered gold breastplates from central Panama are decorated with intricate embossed images of supernatural beings with claws, bared teeth, and serpentine appendages. Closely similar beings, often in dynamic poses, are painted on polychrome pottery from the same region. Long known collectively as the Crocodile God, such creatures actually combine traits from many creatures, including iguanas, sharks, and even deer.

The highest ranking members of ancient Panamanian society were buried with numerous human attendants and lavish offerings. These included polychrome pottery and gold ornaments such as helmets, breastplates, wrist guards, pendants, and beaded necklaces. Other valuable materials placed in graves include turtle carapaces, stingray spines, whale teeth, shark teeth, boar tusks, carved bone, agate, quartz, emerald, and serpentine.

Unknown Artist, Breastplate with Frontal Figure, Parita style (Parita region, Azuero Peninsula, Central Panama) about A.D. 1150–1400. Gold alloy; 5.25 inches.
Denver Art Museum: Department acquisition funds, 1965.196.

Seated Figure

Seated Figure
Olmec
About 1000–500 B.C.
Mexico, Guerrero, Zumpango del Rio
Earthenware with slip and pigments
Funds from various donors, 1975.50

The Olmec created Mesoamerica’s first civilization. Their sites are concentrated in the warm, humid Gulf Coast region of Mexico, although Olmec architecture, sculpture, and cave paintings are also found in central Mexico. Portable Olmec style objects have been discovered as far south as Costa Rica. The Olmec were masterful sculptors, carving massive stone monuments such as ruler portrait heads and thrones (also known as altars). They also created smaller scale works in jade and ceramic. This earthenware figure is easily recognized as Olmec by the elongated head, slanted eyes, and downturned lips. The body is sexless, with smooth, rounded limbs and small hands and feet. The pose is elegantly casual, with a slightly cocked head and asymmetrical arm and leg positions.

Unknown Artist, Seated Figure. Olmec, 1000-500 BC, Zumpango del Río, Guerrero, Mexico. Ceramic. Denver Art Museum Collection: Funds from various donors, 1975.50

Funerary Urn

Funerary Urn
About A.D. 400–1300
Brazil, Marajó Island
Earthenware with colored slips
Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 2006.14

The people of Marajó Island buried their dead (either complete bodies or secondary burials of cleaned bones) in ceramic urns.  The largest urns, such as this, have thick walls and required considerable skill to fire.  Opposite one another on the jar’s neck are large modeled faces with heavily lidded eyes, a short protuberant nose, and a chinlike element that extends onto the vessel shoulder.  Heavy black lines enhance the facial features, and define arms and hands on the vessel below the faces.  A womblike element centered on the belly suggests a feminine identity for the urn.  Small human figures with protectively raised arms are modeled on the jar’s neck, between the large faces.  

The urn may have been housed above ground or partially buried in a roofed cemetery shelter, allowing descendants or others to view the painted and modeled imagery and to handle or make offerings to the human remains.  This constellation of images and practices is suggestive of rebirth, with the bones – sheltered and nourished within an earthen ancestral being – serving as seeds for new life.

. Funerary Urn . A.D. 400-1300. Earthenware with colored slip. Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer. 2006.14A-B.

Tasseled Tunic

By 1200 CE, the Kingdom of Chimor controlled nearly 800 miles of territory including Peru’s north coast, the most fertile region in the Andes. Using sophisticated irrigation techniques, the Chimu oversaw an extensive regional economy that traded its agricultural bounty, plus key goods such as salt and cotton, in return for luxury items: spondylus shells, cochineal dye, and precious metals. Known for the monumental adobe architecture of their capital city Chan Chan, the Chimu amassed great wealth and converted large compounds into veritable museums. 

Among Andean communities, a textile as extravagantly ornate as this one would have been considered an object of prestige. Its intricate structure consists of an openwork, knotted net made of thin cotton cords. The vertical cords also serve as warps on which brilliantly dyed camelid fiber (probably alpaca) yarns are woven. Elaborate knotted tassels, attached separately to the surface, hide small embroidered medallions set in an alternating pattern. Only when movement causes the tassels to rise can the pattern be seen. In other words, this extraordinary garment captures the kinetic, sensory aspect of Andean adornment that we can never fully appreciate in a museum setting.
 
—VL
 

Unknown Artist, Tasseled Tunic. Chimú, Peru, 900–1400 CE. Knotted network and tapestry with applied tassels, cotton and camelid fiber. 21 x 53 x 2 ½ in. Neusteter Textile Collection, Gift In Memory of Richard Levine; 2011.358

Incised Celt with Portrait of Female Ruler

This object preserves one of the earliest known portraits of a Maya queen. Celts, both plain and incised, formed an essential part of Maya royal costume. They hung down from a belt around the waist in sets of three, clinking against each other as the ruler walked. Very few incised examples survive, and those that do picture male rulers. 

Like her male contemporaries, she wears an elaborate headdress, and a string of beads encircles her face. In addition, her dress includes a jade net skirt and a shawl, knotted at the base of her neck, that covers her torso. The combination of garments underscores her femininity and modesty. These eventually became hallmarks of Late Classic period (600–850 CE) portraits of royal women.

The style and syntax of the inscription, translated by Matthew Looper and Yuriy Polyukhovych, dates the object to about 400 CE and identifies our subject as Lady “Bird” Star, beloved of the gods. The text further alludes to an illustrious lineage linked to the dynasties of Tikal and Caracol. 

—VL

Unknown Artist, Incised Celt with Portrait of Female Ruler, Maya, About 400, Guatemala, eastern Petén, Ucanal (reportedly discovered in Costa Rica). Greenstone. 5 × 2½ × ¼ in. (12.8 × 6.3 × .7 cm). Gift of the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer to the Denver Art Museum, 2017.237.

See More Art of the Ancient Americas

Browse objects from the art of the ancient Americas collection in our online collection.

Gallery view of the Rhythm and Ritual exhibition with ancient musical instruments inside glass cases and a picture of a musician on the wall

Rhythm & Ritual: Music of the Ancient Americas

The Denver Art Museum partnered with Museo de las Americas to feature artworks from our art of the ancient Americas collection in an exhibition at Museo, on view through October 17, 2020. This exhibition is curated by Jared Katz, the DAM's Mayer Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow for Art of the Ancient Americas.

Rhythm & Ritual: Music of the Ancient Americas features about 80 instruments from the Olmec, Andean, and Maya peoples dating from 1000 BCE to 1530 CE. Rhythm & Ritual celebrates the life history of these instruments and helps us have a better understanding of the lived experiences of ancient people while simultaneously creating a connection to culture and music that endures today.

Publications

The Ancient Americas most recent publication, Murals of the Americas, includes essays from the 2017 Mayer symposium. Topics included work from the American Southwest, Mesoamerica, and contemporary murals. Presenters considered the role of large-scale art inscribed on walls in sparking dialogue, furthering learning, or inspiring viewers. The papers in this volume, like the collection, span from the earliest civilization in Mesoamerica to the present, and include the perspectives of artists Judith Baca and Ed Kabotie as well as those of well-regarded academics. Each chapter discusses how murals function as a powerful tool for the expression of political, social, or religious ideas across diverse time periods and cultures.

List of publications include:

Research & Symposia

Scholars wishing to access the Mayer Center for Ancient and Latin American Art department collections and/or library holdings must contact the Mayer Center well in advance of a visit. Due to ongoing construction and renovation of the galleries, six to eight weeks notice is recommended. If approval for study is granted, the collection/library will be made available as the staff of the DAM's schedule permits. Please plan accordingly. Please contact mayercenter@denverartmuseum.org for more information.

The Mayer Center Fellow Program

This program is designed to support scholarly research related to the museum’s collections of Art of the Ancient Americas art and Latin American art and to provide curatorial experience.

Symposia

Over the last two decades, the Mayer Center’s annual symposium and accompanying publication provides a forum for ongoing research being conducted throughout the region. The 19th annual symposium held in November 2019, El Mar Caribe: The American Mediterranean, featured scholars working in and around the Caribbean basin. A volume of the presentations is forthcoming.

The Ancient Americas’ most recent publication, Murals of the Americas, includes essays from the 2017 Mayer symposium. Topics included work from the American Southwest, Mesoamerica, and contemporary murals. Presenters considered the role of large-scale art inscribed on walls in sparking dialogue, furthering learning, or inspiring viewers. The papers in this volume, like the collection, span from the earliest civilization in Mesoamerica to the present, and include the perspectives of artists Judith Baca and Ed Kabotie as well as those of well-regarded academics. Each chapter discusses how murals function as a powerful tool for the expression of political, social, or religious ideas across diverse time periods and cultures.

Joanne Posner-Mayer Mezzanine Gallery, rendering courtesy of OMA New York.

Denver Art Museum, Joanne Posner-Mayer Mezzanine Gallery, rendering courtesy of OMA New York.

The Mayer Center

Art of the Ancient Americas forms part of the Frederick and Jan Mayer Center for Ancient and Latin American Art. Founded in 2001 through the generosity of Frederick and Jan Mayer, the Center’s purpose is to increase awareness and promote scholarship in these fields by sponsoring academic activities including symposia, fellowships, research projects, conservation, and publications.

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Lit up hallway of the newly renovated Martin Building

The Martin Building Project

The gallery for this collection is closed during the Martin Building renovation project. Standing seven stories tall, the Martin Building will house collection galleries, a conservation laboratory, interactive classroom space, a family activity center, two restaurants, and the brand new Anna and John J. Sie Welcome Center.