Cleveland Museum of Art: A Look into the Pre-Columbian Period

Queen Lady K’abel’s Stela (Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art)
Nathan Budge, Contributing Writer

I am grateful to have visited the Cleveland Museum of Art many times in my life. Growing up in the Cleveland area made it very accessible to my family and me. I have seen works of art again and again, and I see them differently each time. The museum is an encyclopedic museum, meaning it attempts to represent many cultures from all periods of time. 

The museum’s pre-Columbian collection has always interested me. The central piece in this collection is a Maya stela depicting Queen Lady K’abel, dating from the Classic Period (200-900 C.E.). The queen’s stela ostensibly depicts her wealth and prowess; part of her regalia includes what is thought to be jade jewelry, as well as feathers from exotic birds and a round shield. This piece is magnificent, setting in stone a true image from the past, the period’s equivalent of a photograph.

Few artifacts of Maya life survive today because of the humid environment of the Yucatan jungle. Maya murals are mostly lost and painted stucco on buildings has fallen off with time. Today, a modern visitor can only see the skeletons of Maya buildings without their veneer. Ceramics excavated from tombs, however, are often in good condition. Among these ceramics are vessels for drinking cacao, their decorations depicting scenes ranging from mythological to royal. 

In the collection, there is also a mural from Teotihuacan, a megacity that flourished simultaneously with the Maya. It is thought that the people of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico interacted with the Maya in the Yucatan, but it is still a matter of debate as to how they interacted. The mural, possibly part of a patio in the megacity, depicts an elite male offering a chant or prayer.

The pre-Columbian galleries also offer a view into civilizations that predated the Inka, including the Chimu and Moche. Pre-Columbian art in Peru tends to be better preserved due to the dry desert climate, yielding bright and decorative textiles we can appreciate today. One Chimu artifact on display is part of a litter used to transport rulers who were thought of as deities. Preserved on the litter’s flat wooden plane are five mythical beings with crescent-shaped headdresses. Moche ceramics depict animals and human portraits from all walks of life.

Getting to witness these treasures informed my conceptions of the past and present. I have looked at the stela of Lady K’abel since I was a child. Now that I am taking an archaeology class with Dr. Navarro-Farr, I was amazed to find out that she took part in a team that excavated the probable royal tomb of Lady K’abel. The vault served as a shrine for people to honor the late queen, as citizens left tokens that piled up in the vault. One astonishing reason to believe this significant shrine was a royal tomb is that the skull of the individual has a knob at the top that would have resulted from wearing a heavy headdress for a long period of time – 20 years in the case of Lady K’abel’s reign. Overall, this was a great exhibit that showcased an important period in history. Its artifacts from the Maya and Inka empires allow for a greater appreciation of a distant past.

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