TAÍNO Sculpture

by Larry Roberts

© 2014 Larry Roberts
200 pages

978-0-578-14695-9 (paperback)

Price $



Introduction --

Pre Columbian studies have primarily focused on Mesoamerican and Andean cultures since the dawn of New World archeology. Magnificent lost cities emerging from remote jungles of Mexico and Guatemala revealed a wealth of precious artifacts. Such wonders stimulated archaeological examination and public imagination. In contrast Taíno sites seemed ordinary, featuring little more than refuse middens and stone lined plazas. This, and an archaeological mind-set on mainland discovery left little impetus for Antillean excavation. Meanwhile local collectors gathered “prehistoric curiosities” as man and nature exposed them.

Around the middle of the 19th century news of finely carved stone idols and beautifully made petuloid celts began reaching the U.S.

Under the auspice of the Smithsonian, Jesse Walter Fewkes, director of American Entomology, started preliminary surveys to develop a collection of Greater Antillean artifacts. Although most of the specimens acquired were through donations or purchases from private collectors, he did conduct excavations when feasible.

In 1907 Fewkes published his research, “The Aborigines of Puerto Rico and the Neighboring Is-lands”. To date his exhaustive study, including illustrations and photographs, remains one of the definitive books written on Taíno stone sculpture. This burst of inquiry stalled however, as scholars focused on colonial history rather than the pre Columbian past. The 1980’s brought a revival in indigenous research. Irvin Rouse became the voice of progressive studies with his publication “The Taínos, Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus”. Using pottery, a universal marker for developing chronological data, Rouse established the Antillean cultural series commonly used today. This tried and true methodology continues to be tested and in some cases challenged as advanced analytical technologies are developed. One such development is the study of lithics. A closer look at knapping techniques used in the manufacture of stone tools and the use and procurement of semiprecious stone for ritual goods has added a new dimension to understanding Caribbean Island cultures especially helpful in my research.

Numerous books have been written on the various cultural aspects of social structure, politics, and religion with a limited view of the remarkable art produced by island artisans. The relative isolation of Taíno sculptors from contemporary Amerindian motifs resulted in numerous artistic innovations. Many are so unique they stand alone in the field of pre Columbian art while exhibiting cross-cultural designs that have universal appeal.

The focus of this reference is on ceremonial stone, bone and shell carvings and the animals that were important to the Taíno creative impetus. Hopefully the unique pieces presented will offer new insight into the interpretive dialogue. After all art replaces the written word in non-literate cultures.

The observations I offer are based on the physical nature of the artifacts and related reading. However, the intent of this book is not to present an archaeological exposé, but to introduce the reader to a rare and wonderful art form and the motivation for its creation. It is time to move Taíno art from the shadows of the Mesoamerican megaliths and recognize its visual legacy, not only for the incredible artistic achievements but the insights that help us define a lost civilization.

The majority of sculptures represented here are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the “Classic” centers of Taíno culture and religious art.



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