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Sacred Matter: Animism and Authority in Pre-Columbian America

Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20004
October 7  –  8, 2016
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Pre-Columbian Studies Symposium; Steven Kosiba, John Janusek, and Thomas Cummins, Symposiarchs

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Please note that due to renovations of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, this symposium will be held off-site at the Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20004.

Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to announce the annual Pre-Columbian symposium, to be held off-site at the Naval Heritage Center in Washington, D.C., on Friday, October 7, and Saturday, October 8, 2016. The symposium, organized by Steve Kosiba, John Janusek, and Thomas Cummins, will run for two full days beginning Friday morning and concluding late Saturday afternoon.

The symposium examines animism in Pre-Columbian America, focusing on how objects and places played central social roles in practices that expressed and sanctified political authority in the Andes, Amazon, and Mesoamerica. Throughout these regions, Pre-Columbian people staked claims to their authority when they animated matter by giving life to grandiose buildings, speaking with deified boulders, and killing valued objects. Likewise, things and places often animated people by demanding labor, care, and nourishment. In these practices of animation, things were cast as active subjects, agents of political change, and representatives of communities. People were positioned according to specific social roles and stations: workers, worshippers, revolutionaries, tribute payers, or authorities. Such practices manifested political visions of social order by defining relationships between people, things, and the environment. 

With this theme, the symposium addresses theoretical issues of interest to a broad range of scholars, including anthropologists, historians, and philosophers. In recent years, such scholars have come to see things and places as active components of social life. But, similar to early anthropological theories of animism or more recent new materialist accounts, these scholars often prioritize how things and places index broader cultural frameworks rather than focusing on the contexts and practices in which matter may come to life to realize political goals. Participants in this symposium argue that the actions of things and places, and the authority that they may constitute, rely on situated practices. This interdisciplinary group of scholars will present a range of perspectives (archaeological, art historical, ethnohistorical, and linguistic) to shed light on how Pre-Columbian social authority was claimed and sanctified in practices of transformation and transubstantiation—that is, practices that birthed, converted, or destroyed certain objects and places, as well as the social and natural order from which these things were said to emerge.

This symposium is organized by Steve Kosiba (University of Minnesota), John Janusek (Vanderbilt University), and Thomas Cummins (Harvard University). Symposium speakers include Beth Conklin (Vanderbilt University), Marco Curatola (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú), Carlos Fausto (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), Santiago Giraldo (Global Heritage Fund—Colombia), Byron Hamann (Ohio State University), Scott Hutson (University of Kentucky), Arthur Joyce (University of Colorado), Patricia McAnany (University of North Carolina), Bruce Mannheim (University of Michigan), Johannes Neurath (Museo Nacional de Antropología/INAH, Posgrado en Estudios), and Mary Weismantel (Northwestern University). Catherine Allen (George Washington University) will provide concluding remarks.

Space for this event is limited, and registration will be handled on a first come, first served basis. For further information, please contact the Pre-Columbian Studies program at Dumbarton Oaks (, 202-339-6444).

Image: Stirrup spout bottle representing a maize deity. Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Photograph: Claudia Obrocki.