Archaeology of the Ancient Americas
A fascination for uncovering artifacts of the ancient civilizations of the Americas began long before Europeans arrived in the region in the fifteenth century. Peoples all across North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean archipelago collected, inherited, and used antiquities from ancestral peoples; the Aztec and Maya rulers from Mesoamerica even deposited Olmec-period objects in their most sacred offerings to signal a connection with their ancient forbearers.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, antiquarian expeditions explored the ruined temples and royal courts from what is now the southwestern United States to Peru. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, scientific excavations brought to light indigenous civilizations of astonishing complexity.
Recent discoveries continue to illuminate ancient American creativity. Since its founding, The Met has collected testaments to the brilliance of native artists from the Americas, including works by artists from the Inca and Aztec empires and their predecessors in the Andes and Mesoamerica, as well as from the ancestral Puebloan and mound-building societies of North America.
Today, newly established fieldwork in the region—such as that at Piedras Negras, Guatemala—enhances the study of ancient American art through exhibitions and scholarly publications at The Met and by building relationships with archaeologists and site museums across Latin America.
Excavation at Yokib, Piedras Negras
Shrouded in the Guatemalan jungle overlooking the Usumacinta River lie the ruins of the ancient Maya city of Yokib, known today as Piedras Negras ("Black Rocks" in Spanish). One of the most important dynastic royal courts in the Classic period (ca. AD 250–900) flourished here from the fifth to the ninth centuries. At least eleven known self-proclaimed "holy lords" of Piedras Negras erected dozens of monuments with detailed inscriptions of their accomplishments as kings and queens, including their control of a vast network of local nobles. The artists themselves also sought recognition. At least forty-two sculptors from the seventh to ninth centuries at Piedras Negras signed their own works, providing an unprecedented window into the identities of artists and the nature of creative expression in the ancient Americas.
Since 2016, The Met has collaborated with several institutions, including Brown University, Brandeis University, and Harvard University's Peabody Museum, as well as with Guatemalan archaeologists and conservators from the Ministry of Culture and Sports, to develop a long-term strategy for excavations and conservation of the monuments remaining at Piedras Negras.
The conservation efforts consisted of a pilot project to consolidate and protect the monuments from moisture, re-housing them on new platforms under translucent fiberglass roofs constructed with dense local wood. The opacity of the roof panels was designed to let in sufficient light and heat to impede the growth of algae, lichens, and other organisms.
The excavation at Piedras Negras is supported by the Adelaide Milton de Groot Fund, in Memory of the de Groot and Hawley Families.
Explore richly illustrated essays on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History:
"Arts of the Spanish Americas, 1550–1850"
Image making and the decorative arts were deeply intertwined with the state religion of Roman Catholicism.
"Aztec Stone Sculpture"
Many Aztec sculptures still exist despite massive destruction by the Spaniards, who regarded them as heathen idols.
"Ancient Maya Sculpture"
Maya sculptors celebrated the human form in a naturalistic way.
Known for colossal sculpture in volcanic stone as well as intricate works in jade, Olmec artists were revolutionary for their time.
"Capac Hucha as an Inca Assemblage"
This ritual ceremony marked the limits of the empire while bringing the ancestral power of the landscape into the fabric of the Inca regime.