29 June 2011

Carving of a Mammoth Could Be the Oldest Known Artwork in the Americas

rough sketch of the etched Vero bone
Since 1913, numerous bones of Pleistocene megafauna have been found in Vero Beach and nearby Van Valkenburg Creek in Florida. These have ranged from the remains of mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, tapirs, horses, llamas, dire wolves, and even saber-tooth cats (Purdy et al 5). In 2006 or 2007, a fossil collector, James Kennedy, found a 15.75” long, fragmented bone from near the site (4). It wasn't until February 2009, that he noticed the faint carving of a proboscidean—that is, the order of elephants and mammoths—on the bone's surface. The significance of this carving sank in, and he contacted several anthropologists to examine the bone.

Over the next years, a team of scientists from at least six different institutions conducted a battery of tests to determine the age of the carving and its authenticity. Forgeries of ancient indigenous art have been common in the last century, such as the Holly Oak pendant that surfaced in 1889. The shell gorget carved with the image of a mammoth was radiocarbon dated to 1530±110 (Corliss), and appears to be a 19th-century carving on an older shell.

To dispel the possibilities of forgery, the Vero bone was subjected to rare earth analysis, optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), examination of backscattered SEM, energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy, and reflectance transformation imaging (Purdy et al 3).

Research determined the bone was from the Vero area (7) and that the engravings are from the same era as the bone. The incised areas bear the same weathering marks as the bone's surface. The fragment contrasted greatly with a modern bone found in the area (8). The original cuts into the bone revealed no trace metals and were extremely different than an intentional incision made by the scientists with a razor (10).

The image is clearly recognizable as a mammoth, due to the shape of its high-domed skull, the proportionally correct tusks and trunk, and its front legs being longer than its hind legs (Purdy et al 4, 13). Such imagery is common in ancient Europe, but heretofore unproven to exist in the ancient Americas. Mammoths became extinct 13,000 years ago, so that establishes the minimum age for the bone (4), while the possibility exists that it could date back to 20,000 years ago.

An intriguing diamond pattern of the cross-hatched lines flanks the mammoth image. While visible to the left, the lines fade and aren’t visible on the worn, weathered right side of the bone (11).

The artistic subject matter may be clear, but the species of the bone cannot be precisely determined. It is a mineralized bone, so DNA cannot be extracted (5). Due to its size and shape, mostly likely it belonged to a mammoth, mastodon, or, possibly, but less likely, a giant sloth (4).

In the scholarly article published the Journal of Archaeological Science, the research team is cautious about declaring this Vero mammoth engraving the oldest art of the Americas. They point out a curious discovery in 1959 at the highly contested archaeological site, Hueyatlaco, near Valsequillo, Mexico. There Juan Armenta Camacho found a mastodon pelvis incised with images of several Ice Age animals, including a mammoth. The pelvis has since been lost (Purdy et al 14). Shrouded with controversy, this object will hopefully resurface. Found in Oklahoma, the Cooper Bison skull is the oldest known painted object in the Americas and dates back to 12,200 years ago. Cross-hatched lines and other abstract designs appear on rocks found in Texas, which date from approximately 11,500 years ago (Bower).

The research team briefly writes, “The similarity of the Vero engraving with Upper Paleolithic European art begs the question of whether this similarity is simply due to coincidence or if there exists a more direct Ice Age connection between North American and Europe as Stanford and Bradley (2004) have argued” (Purdy et al 12). That is as far as they state. Personally, I believe time will reveal that ancient peoples’ migration routes are more complex than imaginable; however, logically, it would follow that if two different groups both saw a mammoth, their rendering of the animal would be similar.

The carving is quite elegant. The lines are curvilinear, and one would imagine that an artist who can butcher a mammoth would be extremely deft at handling a knife. The multiple carving marks along the contour could be mistakes, but they imply motion. The far, hind leg is completely carved out, suggesting a shadow. The base of the trunk and front foreleg are not clearly terminated; rather, they fade into the negative space.

Online responses to mainstream press articles about the find are predictably horrible. Some suggest that the artist had to be European not Native American, even though it accepted by even the staunchest Clovis First advocate that Paleo-Indians had widely settled the Americas by 11,000 BCE. Basic science, both Native American and Western, is apparently not getting through the general public.

Other people can’t believe anything so realistic could be made so long ago. But much ancient art is highly naturalist due to the keen observational skills a hunter would require. The artist had living models from which to work. The profile of the walking mammoth shows receding perspective in the tusks and legs. Popular culture has dictated that Native American art is flat with no perspective, but this view comes from the early 20th century, and even pre-20th century ledger art often displayed foreshortening and perspective. The artist was observing from life, not necessary from a stylized artistic tradition, so the realistic rendering makes sense.

  • Bower, Bruce. "Bone may display oldest art in Americas." Science News. 27 June 2011.
  • Purdy, B.A., Jones, K.S., Mecholsky, J.J., Bourne, G., Hulbert, R.C., MacFadden, B.J., Church, K.L., Warren, M.W., Jorstad, T.F., Stanford, D.J., Wachowiak, M.J., Speakman, R.J. "Earliest Art in the Americas: Incised Image of a Proboscidean on a Mineralized Extinct Animal Bone from Vero Beach, Florida." Journal of Archaeological Science (2011), doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.05.022
  • Corliss, William R. "A Mammoth Fraud In Science." Science Frontiers. No. 61: Jan-Feb 1989.

15 June 2011

Review | Teri Greeves: Storied Beads

Sunboy's Women, ©2011 Teri Greeves
Storied Beads marks Teri Greeves’ first solo exhibition in Santa Fe in over three years. The Kiowa-Comanche-Italian bead artist has been busy — traveling nationwide, teaching, showing in major group exhibitions, and beading. Her new series, unveiled at the show, takes beadwork to a completely new level.

Hung in Shiprock’s main gallery hall, the works are immense. Five new, monumental beaded appliqué pieces are mounted on shimmering raw silk and luminescent vinyl. The tallest piece looms at 80” high.

The trend in beadwork is to use the smallest possible beads — to achieve fine detail and to display the beader’s technical prowess. However, an ongoing challenge for bead artists is to have their audience not just admire the technical skill in a piece but go beyond to see the composition, palette, and most importantly the content. Beadwork is an art medium loaded with historical implications; however, it’s still an art medium.

By blasting past expectations, Greeves carves a new space for expression. In these new works, she uses pony beads, large-scale beads that can be a centimeter or more width. These oversized beads, in glass, crystal, brass, and wood, coupled with mother-of-pearl disks showcase the reflective, translucent, textured, or glittering surfaces of the individual beads — approaching almost a mosaic quality, which is beautifully offset by the raw silk. While beadwork is most often seen in motion — on personal adornment, dance or ceremonial regalia, moving rattle or fan handles — the glittering quality of the cut-beads and crystals are activated when the viewer walks along, bringing the piece to life. In Sunboy's Women, Swarovski crystals flicker in the starry night sky.

Detail of Wa-Ho: The First Song After the Flood
Stars are a perfect allegory for the Kiowa oral history that inspired these works. The stories reflect unchanging truths, standing outside of daily timeframes, and serves as navigational guides like stars. “This is how our histories are passed on to us: through the vibrations of sound spoken from one individual to another,” writes Greeves in her artist’s statement. “It is also the basis of much conflict between how we see history and how history is written and read by non-Natives.” The subject matter in the show is highly specific. Greeves truly wants people to know and understand the stories, so she included lengthy artist’s statements for each work. The gallery has posted her statements in toto on their website; however, the staff at Shiprock is so gracious and outgoing, you would feel completely welcome reading the entire statements in the gallery at your leisure.

The centerpiece of the show is Sunboy's Women, a 72” x 72” diptych mounted on blue and red raw silk, the colors worn by Kiowa gourd dancers. Sun Boy or Half-Boy are cultural heroes that were born from an earth woman who fell in love with the Sun. She died trying to return to the earth from the sky world, so the orphaned Sun Boy was raised by Spider Woman, an adoptive grandmother. The figures of the two women are portrayed side by side—young and old—encased in a giant handprint, dividing in half like Sun Boy.

The figures in the show are women, each portrayed representational but faceless, giving them a timeless or universal quality. Greeves’ figurative style calls to mind the work of Virginia Stroud, a Muscogee-Cherokee artist who was adopted Kiowa and who helped revive ledger painting in the 1960s and 1970s. Text is also a key feature of the works, graffiti-esque text in the thought bubble above NDN GRRRL! and the embellished script of a lullaby in Wa-Ho: The First Song After the Flood.

detail of Wa-Ho: The First Song After the Flood
The haunting She Loved Her People struck me the most. A lone, faceless female figure stands on a burgundy background, brandishing a sword.  Curliqued script proclaims that “She loved/her people.” Strategically sewn darker beads create an illusion of shadow on the figure, and mother-of-people discs stand in for elk’s teeth on the yoke of her dress, composed of sparkling cut midnight blue beads. Greeves explains how a 16-year-old Cheyenne girl witnessed Custer’s massacre of her people, including most of her relatives, at the Washita River. The girl saw Custer slice through the belly of a pregnant woman, dismembering her unborn child. This survivor joined a war party, traveled north to Little Big Horn. She fought in that battle and ultimately found Custer. She slit him open from naval to neck with his own sword. Today the German silver trailers that Southern Plains women wear at their waist commemorates this girl’s bravery.

The juxtaposition of feminine grace and bloodshed might seem incongruent, especially expressed through the “delicate” medium of beadwork. However, this and other works are about family and the willingness to stand up and fight for family. The young Cheyenne girl’s act of resistance restores some harmony and balance in the face of atrocities. So therefore the depiction of the girl is with grace and respect. The oral histories, although not necessarily “pretty”, bind together generations of an extended families and tribes. Greeves is offering the public a window into the encompassing and protecting web of stories and relations that help shape her tribe and her own family.

Storied Beads will be on exhibit through June 30, 2011 at Shiprock Santa Fe, Old Santa Fe Trail, 2nd Floor on the Plaza.

06 June 2011

Review | Euphoric Recall: New Work by Daniel McCoy

Daniel McCoy, Jr. unveiled eight new works in his (mostly) solo exhibit, Euphoric Recall, at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts’ Lloyd Kiva New Gallery. Euphoric Recall happens when an addict remembers only the good experiences from her or his addiction.  The description is apt—as angst and heartbreak are portrayed, to quote Henry Rollins, "with a renewed vigor and enthusiasm not seen by many."

The Muscogee Creek-Citizen Band Potawatomi artist hails from Bristow, Oklahoma, attended IAIA in the early 1990s and 2000s, and moved back to Santa Fe after living at Lake Havasu. McCoy describes his work as a “visual time line” documenting his “past triumphs, current disasters.”

In his art statement, McCoy writes of his paintings, “I try to make them as busy as possible.“ That is no lie. Repetitive mark making and patterns set the pieces in motion, and his tragicomic narration buzzes, crackles, and pulsates with a simmering dynamic energy.

The largest piece in the show, The Letter, is also the most enigmatic. The acrylic-oil enamel painting is a collaboration between McCoy and Topaz Jones (Shoshone-Lummi-Kalapuya-Molalla). Bisected vertically down the middle, McCoy predominantly paints the left side and Jones takes the right, with an oversized heart drips blood from center stage. In a heavily outlined style reminiscent of R. Crumb or José Guadalupe Posada, a celestial woman surveys a mummified man in cowboy hat reading a letter. The clouded sky is populated by classic tattoos: swallows, daggers, scrollwork emblazoned with the phrase “Impending Doom.” The sky shifts to night on the right, with a map of Turkey and a projected Bat Symbol over a purple pueblo scene. A loose leaf notebook paper is a scrawled letter, with the words “Daniel, I forgive you” and “Love always, Topaz Jones.” Below is a yeti-like form on a pillow. This chaotic soiree leaves one with more questions than answers.

The Letter, Daniel McCoy and Topaz Jones

In the drawing Forbidden Art #1, a bright-eyed and plucky Deerlady, ala Veronica Lodge from Archie comics, stands with arms akimbo in a shiny pool of blood. A stompdance skirt and turtleshell dance shackles reveal her hairy cloven hooves, as she cheerfully presides over the grasping, screaming faces of her male victims, and she beams with pride over her accomplishments.

The show’s centerpiece, The Indian Taco Made by God, an acrylic painting on canvas, is quite beautiful, with a sky is stitched together from slashes of paint. Heavily articulated hands reach out for absolution from the perfect Indian Taco. Showcasing McCoy’s flair for visual puns, the clouds resemble bubbles in hot lard.  Taco can be taken as a lightly, as a clever joke, but underneath the dazzling colors and masterful graphic strokes lies questions. Why does Indian Country fetishize a food so unhealthy, born of poverty and privation? Nostalgia for comfort food is a running theme in McCoy’s work — Frito pies, Spam, commodities — but we are what we eat.

What refreshing about McCoy’s approach is that he is more questioning than didactic. His work is socially conscious but occupies a universe filled with possibility and contradictions — a young schoolgirl hauling an oversized Bible dreaming about Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra — comic book style with theological implications.

Euphoric Recall will be up through July 31st.