Exhibitions: Living Legacies: The Arts of the Americas

Stories Revealed: Writing Without Words
Indigenous peoples throughout the world have developed sophisticated methods of recording and transmitting information, primarily in pictorial and glyphic form. In the Western Hemisphere, ancient civilizations such as the Cupisnique (900–200 B.C.) and Moche (A.D. 200–800) of Peru, the Maya (A.D. 300–900) of Mexico and Central America, and the Mississippian people (A.D. 1200–1500) of the southern United States documented myths, battles, royal events, and religious ceremonies visually, through stone monuments, ceremonial architecture, vessels, ornaments, and works on paper. Many Andean cultures in South America recorded information via textiles (see "Threads of Time").

The Aztecs of Mexico (A.D. 1350–1521) developed a writing system that, like that of the Maya, combined pictorial images with hieroglyphic texts. They painted vibrant manuscripts, or codices, on animal hides, cloth, and amatl (paper made from fig-tree bark). With the arrival of Europeans, the Aztecs began incorporating alphabetic texts into their native accounts, as seen on codices produced from the mid-sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.

For more than five hundred years, North American Plains Tribes have painted action-packed narratives, recording individual and tribal deeds on hides and shirts. Delicately etched scenes dance across ivories produced by arctic Eskimo artists (A.D. 1700–1900).

Indigenous peoples have also recorded information in subtle, abstract, mathematical, and symbolic forms, such as an Inca knotted string khipu, a Shipibo-Conibo vessel, or a Taquile woven belt. Each of the stunning works reveals a hidden story—demonstrating that alphabetic writing is simply one way of recording and communicating information.

Previous: Enduring Heritage: Arts of the Northwest Coast


Exhibition Highlights

Woman's Blouse (Huipil) Plains Native American Hide Painting Engraved Whale Tooth