Review of MacCurdy, “Study of
Chiriquian Antiquities” 1
Doctor MacCurdy in his study of Chiriquian Antiquities
(Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, vol.
3 ) tries to prove that the geometrical ornamentation is derived
from representative designs.
The difficulty in proving or disproving this theory lies in the fact that
the material studied is not dated, that we do not know whether some
forms are older than others, or whether all belong to the same time.
That changes of artistic style have occurred in these areas is more than
likely, notwithstanding the meagerness of proofs of cultural sequences
on our continent. Dr. Spinden's demonstration of changes in the technique
of an art style in Central America, the analogous phenomena
observed among the cruder cultures of the Northwest coast, are important
from this point of view which should receive the closest attention
It seems to the writer that the chief objections to the attempted interpretation
of the development of an artistic style from a study of the
undated object alone lie in the formal character of the treatment of the
problem. Dr. MacCurdy, like his predecessors, has given us a careful
classification of form and ornament, arranged according to considerations
of technique, and of greater or lesser complexity of form. Among
these he selects the forms which seem most plausible as the starting point
of the series and the rest are then arranged in order, a time sequence
being substituted for a series based on similarities of form. It may be
that the investigator happens to strike the correct arrangement, but,
considering the complexity of the problem and the possibilities of development
in various directions, the probability of having reached a true
historical explanation is not very great.
Dr. MacCurdy sums up the series of processes that lead to conventionalization
541as due to reduplication, exaggeration, elimination or
fusion of parts of units; transposition, shifting and substitution; isolation
of parts and their use independently of the whole; wholesale reduction
and simplification; adaptation to fit a given space (pp. 127, 229).
All these may occur, but they do not prove an historical development,
because they are merely an enunciation of the principles of classification
or seriation chosen by the student.
Wilhelm Wundt, in his Völkerpsychologie, has pointed out that in
our studies of the development of art the psychological processes of the
artist are the essentials for a clear understanding of the history of art,
and I think this point of view must be kept in mind constantly.
For this reason it seems to me that the purely classificatory method,
as followed by Dr. MacCurdy as well as by previous students, is not
likely to give us the desired clue. Neither can it be found in ethnological
inquiry and the most copious explanatory notes, which must always
be open to the suspicion of having been read into the designs by the
We have to bring before our minds more clearly the procedure of
the native artist, the conditions under which he works and the extent
of his originality. The term conventionalization, which we so readily
employ, should be taken in a stricter sense, and we must understand
what happens in the mind of the artist — including under this term
subconscious processes — who either conventionalizes a realistic representation
or develops a realistic form out of a geometrical form. Thus
the problem presents itself of discovering the fundamental art forms
that exert a domineering influence over the artist.
From this point of view, it seems to my mind that the first element to
be determined is what is stable in each art form. Dr. MacCurdy does
this in his careful classification of the material; and the association
between lack of painting and presence of attached decorative elements
modeled in the round, — a conclusion which I think has quite a general
validity; — the presence of painting and lack of relief decoration; and
other more detailed characteristics of certain forms, like the presence of
the rim in vessels with neck decoration are brought out clearly.
The next step in the discussion of the ware with attached ornaments,
however, does not seem to me well taken. Dr. MacCurdy points out the
great frequency of armadillo-like forms, and the peculiar character of
carapace, foot, eye and tail ornaments. From these he concludes, if I
understand him rightly, that the life motive is older than the elements
542just described, which are derived from it. The relationship of the ware
with relief decoration to analogous types of neighboring districts does
not seem to me to favor this view. It is the essential characteristic of all
this ware, that the decorative elements consist of small nodes or fillets
which are applied to the surface of the vessel or to some of its parts, like
feet, neck, shoulder or handle; and which are decorated by a series of
short parallel impressions. An oval node with single medial lines is
often used to indicate an eye; a similar nodule with a number of parallel
lines indicates the foot, a series of parallel, short fillets with parallel short
crosslines, are applied to the bodies of animal forms, but also to the
bodies of vases. Hartman 1 describes analogous technical motives from
Chircot and Orosi in Costa Rica (for instance Pl. 22, Fig. 2; Pl. 27,
Fig. 2; Pl. 37, Figs. 5, 6; Pl. 39, Fig. 1; Pl. 51, Fig. 8; Pl. 64, Fig. 7)
which in technical character are so much like the Chiriqui specimens
that we can hardly doubt that they are derived from the same device.
It might seem that this method of decoration is so easily discovered that
little weight can be attached to it. Its extended use in South and Central
America and in the West Indies 2 is, however, quite characteristic of
that area. In North America it is not common, except in the Gulf
region. 3 In contrast with its frequency in the highly developed pottery
of Central America its almost complete absence may be noted in Africa,
where highly decorated pottery forms are by no means absent, and
where lids with animal figures might seem to suggest readily the application
of the device. 4 This is true also of the prehistoric pottery of
Europe. Only in the slip (barbotine) decorations of the terra sigillata
do we find anything resembling the American appliqué ornamentation,
but since the material is applied in a semifluid state, it does not attain
the same freedom of treatment. Nodes that do occur in European prehistoric
pottery seem to have been made rather in imitation of punched
bronze decorations and belong to a late period. Attached animal figures,
made in clay, like those found at Oedenburg, also seem to be imitations
543of metal work and have never reached that development which is so
characteristic of Central American ceramic art. 1
The characteristics slit rattle feet of Chiriqui pottery prove even more
conclusively than the application of fillets and nodes, that the art forms
of this province must be considered as a special development of forms
characteristic of a much wider area. This type of foot is so well known
that no special reference to its occurrences outside of the Chiriqui territory
need be given.
We are thus led to the conclusion that the armadillo motive of the
author is historically related to the method of decorating and building
up vessels from separate pieces, nodes and fillets, the nodes and fillets
being in many regions decorated by parallel incised lines, or by dots.
If this is true, the armadillo motive can only be a specialized application
of the building up of animal motives from the elements in question, and
neither can the elements themselves be considered primarily as symbols
of the armadillo (p. 61), nor can all the animals built up of these
elements be interpreted as armadillos.
For the same reason I am inclined to doubt the correctness of the
interpretation of the alligator group, which was first given by Professor
Holmes in the work before referred to. The upturned snout, of which
much is made as a means of identification, is a character of much wider
distribution than the alligator motive. The monkeys on Plates 27 and
32a of Dr. MacCurdy's book have it, and we find it as well in the
interior of Costa Rica 2 as in parts of South America. This is no less
true of the curious “nuchal appendage” which occurs in Costa Rica 3
as well as in South America, 4 and of the dotted triangle.
It seems to me that the essential point of this consideration lies in the
technical and formal motives that are common to a large area, although
differing in details in its provinces. These are the materials with which
the artist operates and they determine the particular form which a
geometrical motive or a life motive takes. If the notched fillet and node
544are the material with which the hand and the mind of the artist operate,
they will occur in all his representations. If the conventional outline of
the animal body has a definite form, all animals will tend to be represented
in that manner. I have tried to emphasize at a previous time 1 the
importance of such fixed traditional forms in determining the conventional
style of decorations.
In his further descriptions of the art work of Chiriqui Dr. MacCurdy
notes the similarity of motives used in metal castings, notably in the
gold castings, and the armadillo pottery, a similarity which consists
essentially in the use of detached figures, nodes and fillets, as described
before. He also calls attention to the frequent occurrence of the head
with upturned snout — the alligator-head design of painted pottery —
in this technique, a feature that had escaped the attention of previous
students. At least one of them has, however, the type of proboscis rolled
down (Pl. 58, Fig. g) which is so common on the plateaus of Costa
Rica. In this case also the rigidity of the fundamental form seems
particularly suggestive to the writer, because a variety of animals have
all been presented in analogous outlines.545
1 Science, N.S., vol. 34 (1911), pp. 442-446.
1 C. V. Hartman, Archeological Researches in Costa Rica (Stockholm, 1901).
2 See, for instance, W. J. Fewkes, “The Aborigines of Puerto Rico,” 25th Annual Report Bureau of American Ethnology (1907), Fig. 36, p. 185; Pl. 76, Fig. c;
Pl. 78; Pl. 79.
3 G. P. Thurston, The Antiquities of Tennessee (Cincinnati, 1890), p. 146; Pl. 7;
W. H. Holmes, “Aboriginal Pottery of the Eastern United States,” 20th Annual
Report Bureau of American Ethnology (1903); for references see index under
“fillets” and “nodes.”
4 “Notes analytiques sur les collections ethnographiques du Musée du Congo,”
vol. 2, “Les industries indigènes”; part 1, “La céramique.” (Fig. 293a is the only
one that may exhibit this technique.)
1 Relief ornaments consisting of fillets have been described from northern Germany,
Bohemia, Bosnia and Italy. See, for instance, Radinsky, Butmir, Vienna, 1895;
K. Koenen, Gefässkunde der vorrömischen, römischen und fränkischen Zeit in den
Rheinlanden (Bonn, 1895), Pl. 3, Fig. 12.
2 Hartman, loc. cit.., Fig. 2; Pl. 35; Pl. 81; Fig. 286, p. 128. The region in question
has more frequently a proboscis-like appendage, rolled downward.
3 Hartman, loc. cit.., Fig. 2; Pl. 35.
4 M. H. Saville, “The Antiquities of Manabi, Ecuador,” Contributions to South
American Archaeology. The George G. Heye Expedition (1907), Pl. 8. See also
E. Seler, “Archäologische Untersuchungen in Costarica,” Globus, vol. 85 (1904),
1 Notes to G. T. Emmons, “The Chilcat Blanket,” Memoirs of the American
Mueum of Natural History, vol. 3, part 4, pp. 355 et seq.