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Mosaic Skulls: Ancestors, Human Remains, and the Forgery of Mesoamerican Material Culture

Martin Berger, Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Summer 2014

My summer fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks focused on gaining a better understanding of the creation of “mosaic skulls,” human skulls decorated with a mosaic of turquoise and shell tesserae, supposedly created by Mixtec artisans during the Late Postclassic period (AD 1200–1521). Most of these are thought to be forgeries. During my stay, I was able to expand my corpus with four new mosaic skulls at Dumbarton Oaks, and to compare these with other mosaic objects in terms of iconography, style, and manufacturing technique. I also reviewed archival documents in order to get a better understanding of the provenance of these objects. The outcomes of this research will be presented in an article that is scheduled for submission in late 2014 or early 2015. My stay at Dumbarton Oaks also enabled me to study the important turquoise mosaic collection at the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as turquoise mosaic pieces at Johns Hopkins University’s Archaeological Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Comparing the style and techniques used to manufacture these pieces between each other, and with the mosaic skulls, allowed me to identify differences and similarities in iconography and manufacturing techniques. This will lead to a more general publication on Late Postclassic turquoise mosaics, scheduled for submission in 2015. A study of over 250 auction catalogues in the Dumbarton Oaks library not only provided me with several “new” mosaic skulls, but also allowed me to expand my corpus of turquoise mosaic masks on wood. This study also provided more insight into how the Pre-Columbian art market developed in the 1950s–1990s. This work forms the basis for a future, in-depth study of the workings of the Pre-Columbian antiquities market from the 1960s to 1980s, concentrating on the networks that existed between dealers, museum curators, and Mexican middlemen, and trying to assess the impact of international cultural heritage legislation, especially the 1970 UNESCO treaty. Lastly, in order to identify Pre-Columbian examples of decorated skulls, I closely examined several Pre- and Postclassic Mixtec and Aztec codices, concentrating on the Codex Borgia/Yoalli Ehecatl and the Codex Vindobonensis/Yuta Tnoho. This provided a wealth of information for a future study on the use of human remains as ritual objects in Late Postclassic Mesoamerica.