Art of the Ancient Americas

The Gallery’s collection of art from the ancient Americas comprises approximately 1,500 objects, crossing cultural boundaries from the Olmec to the Inca and spanning more than 3,000 years. Its strength lies in the art of the Maya and their predecessors. The collection also includes strong representative holdings from Costa Rica, West Mexico, and the Andean regions.
Standing Male Figure
Anthropomorphic Hacha with a Bird Headdress
Conch shell with incised designs
Wool Pile Cap
Finial with bird-helmeted figure
Cylindrical vessel for cacao

About Art of the Ancient Americas

Inspired by renowned Yale scholar and professor George Kubler, the Yale University Art Gallery began collecting ancient American art in the 1950s, with a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Fred Olsen. The Olsen collection provided a representative base of Mesoamerican art and established the strength of the collection in the art of the Maya and the cultures of West Mexico, including outstanding Maya terracotta figurines from Jaina Island and striking Nayarit figures and house models. The collection has grown, fostered by Professor Mary Miller, with special focus on the Maya and the ballgame, including a rare clay model of a ballgame, figures of ballplayers, yokes, hachas, and other ballgame paraphernalia. South American cultures are represented by a range of vessels, sculptures, and textiles. Recent acquisitions have included the largest carved Maya femur known, along with notable Olmec and early Maya pieces and a major donation of antiquities from Costa Rica.

The permanent-collection gallery of the ancient Americas traces themes in art from ancient Mexico to Peru, across cultural boundaries from the Olmec to the Inca, spanning more than 3,000 years and exploring themes of religion, music, writing, and the arts. As in ancient cultures across the world, the art and religion of the ancient Americas focused on the natural environment—mountains, water, wind, and fire—and the animals and plants on which the people depended for survival. Corn was so fundamental to life that it became a god, with rituals devoted to its cultivation. Rain and fire were also gods. Mountains and animals such as jaguars embodied cosmic powers. All were frequent symbols in art. One display case devoted to the ballgame centers on a clay model of a game and includes players—women, too—and their equipment. Areas of the installation highlight themes of warfare, wealth, and power, featuring gold, jade, shell, and textiles, which were items of luxury and emblems of status.

Dominating the permanent-collection gallery is the rotating display of the three murals of Bonampak, the finest Maya wall paintings known today, shown at Yale in the painstaking reconstructions by artist and anthropologist Heather Hurst and artist Leonard Ashby. The originals remain in situ in Mexico, difficult to visit but renowned and studied through copies such as this and the life-size replica in Mexico City. Vividly portraying Maya court life, with colorful processions of beautifully garbed lords and ladies, musicians, and dancers, and striking scenes of war and ritual sacrifice, these murals provide the thematic framework for the gallery.

Note from the Curator

The Gallery recently received a gift of a major collection of Peruvian antiquities, formed in the 1930s by George Hewitt Myers, B.A. 1898, M.F. 1902. Donated in honor of Myers—best known as a collector of textiles and founder of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.—by his seven grandchildren, the collection has been on loan to the Gallery since 1939 and was first exhibited here in 1940. It consists of eighty-eight objects produced by Peru’s Moche, Wari, Nazca, and Inca cultures in a range of media, including ceramic, stone, shell, metal, and wood. Among the most striking objects is this potato-shaped pot decorated with desert plants and creatures, such as cacti, spiders, snakes, and foxes, that evoke the landscape of coastal Peru. The double spout of the vessel, which facilitates pouring and minimizes evaporation, is typical of Nazca pottery.

Susan B. Matheson

The Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art

Potato-Shaped Vessel, Peru, South Coast, Nazca, ca. A.D. 500–700. Ceramic with pigment. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the grandchildren of George Hewitt Myers, B.A. 1898, M.F. 1902

Meet the Curators

Susan B. Matheson

Susan B. Matheson, the Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art, oversees the collections of art from the ancient Mediterranean and ancient Americas. She has organized exhibitions on Greek vases, Dura-Europos, and Neoclassical and Gothic Revival Art, and she was cocurator of the exhibition I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome in 1996. Her books include Polygnotos and Vase-Painting in Classical Athens, volumes on Yale’s Athenian vases and ancient glass, and Art for Yale: A History of the Yale University Art Gallery. She teaches courses on Athenian vase painting for the departments of Classics and the History of Art at Yale.

susan.matheson@yale.edu

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Lisa R. Brody

Lisa R. Brody, Associate Curator of Ancient Art, received her B.A. from Yale and her Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York Univeristy. She has excavated around the Mediterranean and on Yale’s campus, and her publications include Aphrodisias III: The Aphrodite of Aphrodisias. In 2011 she co-curated Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity, which was on view at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College and Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, and she coedited the accompanying book. She most recently cocurated Roman in the Provinces: Art on the Periphery of Empire and coedited the exhibition catalogue.

lisa.brody@yale.edu

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Further Reading

Kubler, George, ed. Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico and Central America. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1986.

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec, rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. An Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Stone-Miller, Rebecca. Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Whittington, E. Michael. The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame, exh. cat. Charlotte, N.C.: Mint Museum of Art, 2001.

Young-Sanchez, Margaret, et al. Nature and Spirit: Ancient Costa Rican Treasures in the Mayer Collection at the Denver Art Museum. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2010.

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Precolumbian, Sculpture
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Jewelry, Precolumbian
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Precolumbian, Sculpture
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Precolumbian, Sculpture
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Ceramic, Containers, Precolumbian
Collection Objects
Ceramic, Containers, Precolumbian
Collection Objects
Precolumbian, Sculpture