Ancient Americas

The Gardiner Museum’s Ancient Americas collection is considered to be the foremost in Canada.

By Gardiner Museum

Gardiner Museum

Figure of dancer with 'pastillaje' headdress (600-900) by Veracruz Culture, MexicoGardiner Museum


It encompasses 47 separate cultures from the vast modern day geographical areas of the American Southwest, Mexico, Central and South America. Some of the cultures and people of these areas date back as far as 3500 BC to AD 1550, just before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Although each of the cultures represented are considered separate distinct groups, there are similarities between many of them. From intensive agriculture to complex systems of water control, and mathematics to monumental architecture, all of these groups developed one the great miracles of human ingenuity—pottery. The low-fired earthenware vessels and sculptures are made without the use of the potter’s wheel and are decorated using various techniques. Some of these finishes are applied prior to firing, such as slip decoration, and others, including the application of resins and pigments, are added post-firing. The themes illustrated on the works are often influenced by the flora and fauna found in their highly varied environmental zones, from rugged highlands and arid deserts to humid tropical lowlands.

Parrot with Double-chambered Bottle (500 - 300 BCE) by Salinar Culture, Peru, Cerro ArenaGardiner Museum


The Andean region includes the modern countries of
Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Most of the cultures
represented in the Gardiner Museum’s collection come from the Pacific
coastal areas or highland regions of these countries. All of the Andean
pieces date from about 5500 to 500 years ago.
Some of the cultures represented in the Museum’s collection include
the Moche, Chimu, Paracas, Nasca, Inka, Jama Coaque, Wari, and Manteño.
The Andean objects in the Museum’s collection were given by George and Helen Gardiner as part of their original donation.

This bottle has a bridge handle, double chambers and double spouts. It is modelled in the shape of a squawking parrot, the parrot’s open mouth producing a whistling sound when liquid moved back and forth between the chambers.

Seated Figure with Gold Nose-ring (1000-1400) by Quimbaya Culture, Columbia, Cauca ValleyGardiner Museum

Solid slab figures of seated men and women were placed in shaft tombs, perhaps as companions for the dead. The small holes across the forehead and ears were probably used to attach hair, gold ornaments and clothing.

Stirrup-spout Bottle with Warriors (450-550) by Moche Culture, Peru, North CoastGardiner Museum

The Moche, a culture that flourished in northern Peru from about 100-700 CE, combined low relief modelling and fine-line painting to render deities and mythological scenes such as the god “Wrinkle Face” battling a crab monster.

Although this is a common theme in Moche religious art, its significance is unknown. Running figures, either messengers or warriors, often are depicted on Moche fine-line bottles. Here the runners traverse an uneven terrain with plants, snail shells and cactus. An octopus-like motif adorns each side of the stirrup spout.

Effigy Jar with Anthropomorphic Mythical Being (100-300) by Nasca Culture, Peru, South CoastGardiner Museum

This massive and rare early Nasca piece depicts a powerful being (perhaps an ancestor) with a feline mask (note whiskers), clutching a male figure with a baton and trophy head.

Themes related to liquids and the sustenance of the earth, as well as death, decay and rebirth are evident both in human and plant life, the latter in the form of paired beans painted on the front. The vessel shape itself bears a resemblance to mummy bundles, in which the dead were buried upright in a fetal position wrapped in cloth. Sometimes these vessels were adorned with perishable trimmings made of cloth, feathers, wood or plants.

Jaguar-effigy Tetrapod Vessel with Rattle Supports (1200-1400) by Guanacaste-Nicoya Zone Cultures, Costa Rica, GuanacasteGardiner Museum

Intermediate Area

The Intermediate Area includes objects from the modern
countries of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Works in the Gardiner
Museum’s collection are mostly from chiefdoms located on the Pacific
side of these countries although there are a few from the Atlantic
watershed areas. Known for their ceramics, cultures from the
Intermediate Area also worked extensively with a gold alloy known as
Tumbaga. These objects span a time period of just under 2000 years, from
about 200 BCE to CE 1550.
Cultures include the Cocle, Nicoya, Diquis, Veraguas, and others.
The Intermediate Area ceramics were part of the original donation to the Museum given by George and Helen Gardiner.

This effigy dish, with hollow legs containing rattling clay pellets, represents a feline. Yet the figure has human-like arms resting on human-like knees, with anthropomorphic digits rather than a feline’s paws and claws. This figure may be a shaman transformed into his/her jaguar spiritual form.

Jaguar-effigy Tripod Vessel (200-500) by Nicoya Culture, Costa Rica, GuanacasteGardiner Museum

A snarling jaguar leans forward in a menacing pose. His front legs and tail function as the vessel’s three supports; the jar’s flared opening protrudes from the feline’s back. This vessel’s artistic style represents a transition from the realism of the first centuries CE to the more stylized and elaborately painted styles of later periods.

Standing Female Figure (800-1100) by Nicoya Culture, Costa RicaGardiner Museum

This elaborately dressed pregnant woman embodies fertility, the sculptor having accentuated her hips, breasts and abdomen. Her body is decorated with tattoos or body painting, her head and loins are wrapped in simple strips of cloth, and she is adorned with ear spools. Such finely crafted female figures were produced in Costa Rica from as early as 100 BCE, the earlier versions characterized by realism and the later iconic ones characterized by abstraction.

Pedestal dish with serpent design (700-900) by Cocle Culture, Panama, Southern Azuero Peninsula, Sitio ConteGardiner Museum

Pedestalled plates were often decorated with the image of a mythical being, which combined human and animal physical traits — especially those of felines, serpents, caimans (or alligators) and raptor birds (eagles, falcons, vultures). The ray-like motifs emanating from the figures may represent spiritual power.

Plate with hieroglyphic text (550-650) by Maya Culture, Guatemala, Central Peten, possibly UaxactunGardiner Museum


The Gardiner Museum’s Mesoamerican objects come from
the modern countries of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and
Belize. Many great civilizations and cities emerging in these regions
along with intellectual accomplishments, such as the domestication of
corn, hieroglyphic writing, and a precise calendar based on the
observations of the heavens. Objects in this collection date from about
1500 BCE to approximately CE 1521.
Cultures represented in the Museum’s collection include the Maya,
Aztec, Zapotec, West Mexico, Teotihuacan, Mixtec, as well as many
The Mesoamerican objects in the Museum’s collection were part of the
original gift of ceramics given by George and Helen Gardiner.

Maya writing, in the form of hieroglyphics, is the most complex and beautifully rendered language in the Americas. Major breakthroughs in translation of the glyphs since 1990 have resulted in significant advances in Maya research. Canadian hieroglyphic expert Marc Zender has offered a version of the translation of the text which is written on the rim of this plate: The clay-vessel with the painted face, used to serve venison tamales, was held by (or fashioned at the behest of) The Lineage-head, the Ballplayer and son of the Divine Lord of Uaxactun.

Dog-form Effigy Vessel (300 BCE - 300 CE) by Colima Culture, MexicoGardiner Museum

The Mexican hairless dog (xoloitzcuintli) served two crucial functions in Mesoamerica. It was domesticated as a source of meat protein, a role suggested by the fattened condition of many ceramic renderings. It was also believed to guide the dead through the darkness of the underworld to the world beyond.

Dogs were associated with the god Xolotl and were servants of Tlaloc, the god of storms. In one Mesoamerican creation tale, dogs were the ancestors of humanity.

Baby-face' Figure (1100-800 BCE) by Olmec Culture, Mexico, Puebla, Las BocasGardiner Museum

This enigmatic hollow clay sculpture of a seated baby-like figure defies understanding. It is sexless or androgynous with the naturalistically rendered rounded body and shortened legs of a toddler. In life, the elongated heads resulted from tightly wrapping the cranium during infancy, an aesthetic practice found among many Mesoamerican peoples. This practice may be related to Olmec ideologies of birth and regeneration through shamanic ritual and transformation, an interpretation based on some figures combining human and jaguar characteristics.

Incense Burner (400-750) by Teotihuacan Culture, Mexico, Mexico, TeotihuacanGardiner Museum

Elaborate ceramic incense burners from Teotihuacan were constructed from mould-made parts.

Incense was placed on top of burning embers held in the base and the smoke rose through a narrow chimney at the back of the lid.

Emaciated Male and Female Seated Figures (300 BCE - 300 CE) by Nayarit Culture, Mexico, Nayarit, Ixtlan del RioGardiner Museum

Usually created in pairs, these sculptures may depict married couples, whose effigies were placed in tombs as surrogates for the living or repositories for souls of the deceased. Some portray domestic activities, such as the woman carrying a dish on her shoulder. Other finely dressed individuals show symptoms of disease such as leporine (rabbit-like) lips. Yet others, wearing jewellery and elaborate clothes, may belong to the elite. Shamans or ritual specialists carry fans and accoutrements of office. The Ixtlán del Río style uses geometric motifs to represent tattooing or body painting.

Figure of dancer with 'pastillaje' headdress (600-900) by Veracruz Culture, MexicoGardiner Museum

The figure’s pose suggests both a dance and a ritual trance. Often the two are related, with dance being integral to the trance-inducing process. The figure wears a long skirt decorated with horizontal stripes, an ornate headdress and body adornments. The black asphalt paint may represent face painting.

Dancer-musician Figural Whistle (600-800) by Maya Culture, Guatemala, HighlandsGardiner Museum

Codex-style Vase (675-725) by Maya Culture, Guatemala, Nakbe area, Northern PetenGardiner Museum

The vase depicts the birth of supernatural twins; their birth date and names are recorded in the vertical text. Although the specific identity of these twins remains unknown, they are the progeny of a young woman and Itzamnaj (a god associated with wisdom, divination, esoteric knowledge, and the healing arts). The aged Itzamnaj emerges from the open maw of a serpent whose tail transforms into K'awil, the patron god of Maya kings. One of the most important gods in the pantheon of the Classic Period, Itzamnaj remained dominant until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

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