Art Treasures of Washington – The National Museum : Chiriqui Pottery

THE Congress of the United States, in the act of August 10, 1846, founding the Smithsonian Institution, recognized that an opportunity was afforded, in carrying out the design of Smithson, to provide for the custody of the museum of the nation. To this new establishment was therefore intrusted the care of the national collections.

In the beginning the cost of maintaining the museum side of the Institution’s work was wholly paid from the Smithsonian income; then, for a number of years, the government bore a share; and, during the past three decades, Congress has voted the entire funds for the expenses of the Museum.

The museum idea was inherent in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, which, in its turn, was based upon a ten years’ discussion in Congress, and the advice of the most distinguished scientific men, educators, and intellectual leaders of the nation of seventy years ago. It is interesting to note how broad and comprehensive were the views which actuated our lawmakers in determining the scope of the Museum; a fact especially remarkable when it is recalled that at that date no museum of considerable size existed in the United States, and the museums of England and of the continent of Europe, were still, to a large extent, without a developed plan, although containing many rich collections.

The Congress which passed the act of foundation enumerated, as within the scope of the Museum, “all objects of art and of foreign and curious research, and all objects of natural history, plants, and geological and mineralogical specimens belonging to the United States,” thus stamping the Museum, at the very outset, as one of widest range and, at the same time, giving to it a distinctly national flavour.

The development of the Museum has naturally been greatest in those subjects which the conditions of the past sixty years have made most fruitful the natural history, geology, ethnology; and archaeology of the United States, supplemented by many collections from Other countries. The opportunities in these directions have been mainly brought about through the activities of the economic and -scientific surveys of the government, many of which are the outgrowth of earlier explorations, stimulated or directed by the Institution. The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 afforded the first opportunity for establishing a department of the industrial arts on a creditable basis, and of this the fullest advantage was taken.

The Museum owns a remarkable collection of American aboriginal pottery — the largest, most comprehensive general collection in the world.

” It is hardly possible to find within the whole range of products of human handicraft a more attractive field of investigation than that offered by aboriginal American ceramics, and, probably, no one that affords such excellent opportunities for the study of early stages in the evolution of art and especially of the esthetic in art. The early ware of the Mediterranean countries has a wider interest in many ways, but does not cover the same ground. It represents mainly the stages of culture rising above the level of the wheel, of pictorial art, and of writing, while American pottery is entirely below this level and thus illustrates the substratum out of which the higher phases spring.”

But the story is not confined to elements of the art. Progress may be traced to the very verge of civilization. Between the groups of products belonging to the inferior tribes, scattered over the continent from Point Barrow to Terra del Fuego, and those representing the advanced culture of central America and Peru, there is a long vista of progress.

” Near the upper limit of achievement is the pottery of Mexico, comprising a wonderful cluster of well marked groups. Some of the highest examples of the ceramic art are found in or near the Valley of Mexico, and a number of striking vases of this region preserved in the Mexican National Museum, may be regarded as masterpieces of American fictile art. Central America and South America furnish a series of superb groups of earthen-ware, amongst which are those of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Chiriqui, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, and Argentina, each disputing with Mexico the palm of merit.

The work of the Pueblo tribes in Arizona and New Mexico, all things considered, stands first within the area of the United States; closely approaching this, however, is the attractive ware of the Mississippi Valley and the Gulf Coast. Below this, and at the base of the series, is the simpler pottery of the humble tribes of the North.

” Numerous tribes have continued to practise the art down to the present time, some employing their original methods and producing results but little modified by the lapse of centuries; while others, coming more directly under the influence of the whites, have modified their work so that it no longer has any particular value to the ethnologist devoted to aboriginal studies. The Pueblo country furnishes the best examples of the survival of old methods and old ideals. Here numerous tribes are found practising the art successfully, producing vases and other articles quite equal in many respects to the ancient product.

” The study of the present practices is highly instructive, and the archaeologist may begin his study of the ancient pottery in America with a pretty definite knowledge of the technical and functional status of the art, as well as a clear conception of the manner in which it embodies the symbolic and aesthetic notions of a people.”

Earthenware relics are very generally distributed over the country. Wherever pottery making tribes dwelt, wandered, camped, sought water, collected food, conducted ceremonies, or buried dead, are found deposits of this character.

The richest fields are along great water ways ; the Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Red Rivers especially possess almost inexhaustible supplies of ancient ware. A broad region including the confluence of the great streams of the Mississippi system, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and the Arkansas, seems to be the richest of all. Yet there are less extended areas in other sections almost equally rich.

It is to mortuary usage that we owe the preservation of so many perfect examples of fragile utensils in clay. Pottery is practically imperishable, so that it is often the chief record that a departed people leave behind; and therefore, next to actual records and inscriptions, is probably the most valuable, as well as often the only kind of remains left by a race.

European pottery has long held the attention of the archaeologist; but it is only in recent years that the treasures of the Western Continent have been deemed worthy of consideration. The real value of an investigation of the field of the American Indian for information concerning the distribution of the tribes; for its bearing upon the history of ceramic art; and its general story of primitive effort and invention was obscured by the student’s natural preference for the work of peoples tied by the sentiment of actual ancestry to his own, and by the artistic quality of the old world product.

The collection preserved by the National Museum may be roughly classified under eight general heads : Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Panama or Isthmian (including Chiriqui), Central America (including Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras), Mexico (including Yucatan), Pueblo or Arid Region (including Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) and Mississippi.

The strongest collections are those of the Isthmian and Arid Regions.

The National Museum contains a large and precious collection of archaeological material from the province of Chiriqui, chiefly obtained by Mr. J. A. McNeil, during years of enthusiastic labour in the field. The information derived and the lessons to be learned from this collection, together with all particulars relating thereto, gathered from other sources, are presented in a paper by William H. Holmes, published in the Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1884-1885.

His work in the classification of the immense number of objects and in the elucidation of their functions, materials, construction, forms, and decorations has been careful and comprehensive. His manifest success has been owing to his artistic insight and skill, as well as to his archaeologic training.

The objects of ancient art found in Chiriqui, as elsewhere in North America, are derived almost entirely from graves, and appear to have been manufactured for mortuary purposes, and not for use by the living. A general review of the contents of the graves shows that the ancient inhabitants were skilful in the manipulation of stone, gold, copper, and clay; and tombs of undoubtedly great antiquity yield evidence of culture of long standing.

The pottery of Chiriqui is noted for the perfection of its technique, its high specialization of form, and its conventional use of a wide range of decorative motives. Its forms present many striking analogies to the wheel-made ware of the Mediterranean.

The mythological stage of the builders of these graves is shown by the fact that, in their ceramic art, there is no attempt to render the human face or figure with accuracy. The personages of their religious philosophy were zoömorphic, and some of their forms may be discerned by a skilful analyst in all the ornaments used. The decorative devices used upon the vessels have always some reference to the mythic creatures associated with the vessel and its functions.

Mr. Holmes has made an important discovery in the evolution of decoration in the Chiriqui pottery, from which are deduced instructive generalizations of wide application. All the decorations used by this people originate in life forms of animals, none being vegetable. Coming from mythological concepts they are significant and ideographic; ,and coming from nature they are primarily imitative and nongeometric. Nevertheless, the agencies of modification inherent in the practice of art, through its mechanical conditions, are such that the animal forms early employed have changed into conventional decorative devices, among which are the meander, the scroll, the fret, the chevron, and the guilloche.

The relics preserved in the National Museum consist chiefly ,of articles of gold, copper, and clay. Half a dozen specimens of images or idols are found in the McNeil collections. The most important of these represents a full-length female figure, twenty-three inches in height. It is executed in the round, with considerable attempt at detail. Its strong characteristics are the flattened crown, encircled by a narrow turban like band; the rather angular face and prominent nose ; and the formal pose of the arms and hands. Besides the head band, the only other suggestion of costume is a belt about the waist. The material is a compact, slightly vesicular, olive gray basaltic rock. The personage represented was probably an important one in the mythology of the Chiriquians.

A remarkable figure of large size, now in the National Museum, was obtained from the Island of Cana, or Cano, by Mr. McNeil. It is nearly three feet in height and very heavy. In general style it corresponds more closely to the sculpture of the Central American states than to that of Chiriqui.

The metate or hand mill, which consists of a concave tablet and a rubbing stone, was an important adjunct to the household appliances of nearly all the more cultivated American natives. It is found not only in those plain substantial forms, most suitable for use in grinding grain, seeds, and spices by manual means ; but, in many cases, has been elaborated into a work of art, which requires long and skilled labour for its production. The metates of the Chiriqui present a great diversity of form and possibly represent distinct peoples or different grades of culture.

A superb piece in the collection has an oval plate, thirty-seven inches in length, twenty-nine in width, and two inches thick; and is nearly symmetrical, and rather concave above. The central portions of the basin are worn quite smooth. Near the ends, within the basin, two pairs of small, animal-like figures are carved; and ranged about the lower margin of the periphery are eighty-seven neatly sculptured heads of animals. There are four short, cylindrical legs.

Another variety is carved to imitate a puma or ocelot. The whole creature is often worked out in the round from a massive block of stone. The thin tablet represents the body and rests upon four legs. The head which projects from one end of the tablet is generally conventionalized, but sculptured with sufficient vigour to recall the original quite vividly. The tail appears at the other end, and curves downward, connecting with one of the hind feet, probably for greater security against breakage. The head, the margin of the body, and the exterior of the legs are elaborately carved with tasteful decoration, geometric in character, refer-ring, no doubt, to the markings of the animal’s skin. Nearly identical specimens are found in Costa Rica and other parts of Central America.

A fine example of medium size, in the collection from Rio Joca, is a puma shaped metate of gray andesite, the upper surface polished by use.

The leading motive of the ceramic art of the Chiriqui, like that of most countries is the vessel. The less usual forms include drums, whistles, rattles, stools, spindle whorls, needle-cases, and toys, all of which present features of peculiar inter-est.

The potters were very skilful, and so great is the symmetry, and so graceful the shapes, that one is tempted to suspect the employment of mechanical devices of a high order. So perfect is the polish made by rubbing the surface with smooth pebbles that it has sometimes been mistaken for glaze.

The prevailing colours of the ware range from light yellow grays to a variety of ochery yellows, and pale terra cotta reds. In one or two groups there is an approach to salmon or orange hues, while still another is black or dark brown.

The decoration of the pottery of this province shows several curious features. Plastic and flat forms are used about equally. The more important plastic forms consist of animals, modelled in the round. The human figure is treated grotesquely ; and numerous animals are depicted, including crocodiles, pumas, armadillos, monkeys, crabs, lizards, scorpions, frogs, and fish. These figures ,are usually placed upon the shoulders of the vessel or are attached to the legs and handles, or form part of them. The favourite subjects are doleful little figures, human, or partly so, fixed upon a vessel in a sitting posture, with legs and arms doubled up and expressing in their attitudes and physiognomy a variety of exaggerated emotions.

The animals made use of in decoration were the embodiment of mythological conceptions, and their images were revered, and served as fetiches or charms. They were applied to the vessel because its use had reference to them, or because they were thought to have a beneficial effect upon its functions.

The collection is rich in the type of terra cotta unpainted ware, in which one admires the graceful forms and perfect finish. A superb specimen of this class is a large vase with two mouths and neatly decorated necks. The decoration consists of minute nodes with annular indentations about the necks, and two grotesque figures, placed, with con-summate skill, in the angles formed by the contact of the two necks.

Tripod vases form a feature of the collection. A remarkable specimen has unique supports consisting of two rudely modelled semi-human, grotesque figures, affixed to the under surface of the bowl and supporting it with their backs.

Painted decoration amongst the Chiriqui is executed with much freedom and, in many cases, considerable skill. The treatment is varied and embraces a wide range of motives. Much of the ware is decorated with reptilian motives, from which it has become known as ” alligator ware.” The ornament is of a striking character, applied to bottle shaped vasos with globular bodies. The development of the series shows vases, symmetrical in form, decorated either in zones about the upper part of the body, or in circular areas generally four in number, placed, at equal distances, about the shoulder of the vessel. In these the alligator motive is strangely conceived or symbolized and subject to simplification.

In other specimens the whole conformation of the vessel is modified in an attempt to perfect the likeness of the alligator, whose head, tail, and legs are graphically rendered.

One of the most remarkable pieces in the collection illustrates both the skill and the bizarre fancy of the archaic potter: A large vase, having a flaring rim and a subcubical body, is supported by two grotesque human figures, whose backs are set against opposite ends of the vessel, the legs wide apart affording firm support. The heads of the two figures project forward from the shoulders of the vase, and are flattened so as to give long, oval outlines to the crowns, which are truncated and furnished with slit-like openings.

One of the most beautiful vases in the collection belongs to the polychrome group, of which the Museum contains but three examples. This vase is twelve inches in height, with a short neck and a thick, flaring lip. The ground of the vase is red, while a wide zone of handsome decoration in black and red, encircles the upper part of the body. The motive of the highly conventionalized forms is undoubtedly reptilian. The oval faces are placed on opposite sides, taking the positions usually occupied by the modelled heads. Each face is accompanied by a pair of arms which terminate in curious hands, and the caudal appendages are placed midway between the faces filling triangular areas.

The collection includes miscellaneous objects in clay, and an amusing group of grotesque toy-like statuettes or figurines, the latter confined to the alligator group. These are small, carefully finished and painted in red and black lines and figures. They are semi human and the sex is usually feminine.

In the paper here so liberally quoted, Mr. Holmes dwells with peculiar interest upon the development of life forms in vase painting, modified by the technical restrains of an art, and the aesthetic forces of the human mind. Realistic forms undergo marked changes, gradually assuming a geometric character, and finally lose all semblance to nature.