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Pre-Columbian Art in Argentina: A Recent Visit

March 5, 2011

I just returned from a month in Argentina and Buenos Aires, a remarkable city well-worth visiting.  The ancient art and sites of Mexico, Guatemala and Peru are of course well known to many, but I suspect few could name a pre-Columbian  culture or identify pre-Columbian art from the area that today comprises Argentina.

Unfortunately, despite its wealth and sophistication, Argentina does not have a museum dedicated solely to its rich pre-Columbian past.  (this is the case with most Latin American countries, Mexico being the exception with its superb Museum of Anthropology and numerous regional museums of the highest standards.)  However, there are several museums in Argentina well-worth visiting to see superb pre-Columbian art.

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA) in Buenos Aires has one small but excellent gallery dedicated to pre-Columbian art.  The stone sculptures of the Aguada culture are sensational and very accessible to 21st century Western eyes.  The Aguada culture existed in NW Argentina from approximately 700 AD- 1000 AD.  Also in the same gallery are the amazing bronze bells and plaques of the Belen/Santa Marla culture,(1000 AD – 1450AD) also of NW Argentina on the eastern slope of the Andes.  These bronze objects represent a significant technological advance in metallurgy and like the Aguada stone sculptures are remarkable for their aesthetic affinity with a contemporary art vocabulary.  I also recommend viewing the series of panels depicting the conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortez. They were executed in the 18th century by two Mexican brothers and are both beautiful and important.

The colonial city of Salta, in far northwest Argentina at the confluence of Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay, has, arguably, the most sophisticated museum dedicated to pre-Columbian art in Argentina, specifically the Inca child sacrifices discovered on the peaks of several of the highest mountains in the Andes.  The museum, Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana (MAAM), is beautifully designed, climate and light controlled and with excellent labels, albeit only in Spanish.  In the 15th century the Inca, in supplication of their principle deities, sacrificed very young children and placed them in burials complimented by remarkably preserved artifacts, mostly exquisite miniatures. There is also an excellent section of the museum dedicated to the Inca road system that extended into Argentina. The Museo de Antropologia, also in Salta, just above the Sheraton Hotel, is also worth a visit.  Despite needing a face life and good cleaning it has an excellent display of Santa Maria urns (described below) and reproductions of several of the important cave art sites in the area.

South of Salta, via the sensational Quebrada de Cafayate, is the attractive town of Cafayate.  While most visit this beautiful area to sample the superb wines there is a small private museum worth visiting.  It is indicated on most maps of the village but is just down the street from a charming hotel, Hotel Killi.  The Museo Arqueologico Rodolfo Bravo is in a ramshackle old house and run by a bit over-the-hill and rather rude widow of the amateur archaeologist who assembled everything. Despite this, the collection is astonishing if horribly displayed and cared for. The Santa Maria culture, which flourished in the Salta/Tucuman region during the 14th century, buried their dead in large, elaborately decorated urns, which are quite spectacular.  This strange museum has hundreds of them, precariously perched on a long flimsy wooden shelf that runs the entire circumference of the building.  If there is ever an earthquake all will be lost.

Lastly, and my favorite of all the museums I visited in Argentina, is the Museo de La Plata, in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires, about an hour’s drive south of Buenos Aires. This museum is the oldest museum in Latin America and happily, for those of us who lament the changes in many American museums of natural history (The Field in Chicago for example) has not changed much at all since it opened in 1899.  It is one huge cabinet of curiosities, dusty Victorian cases of dark oak and faded labels, wonderful halls of stuffed animals, denizens of exotic Patagonia, glorious public spaces of iron tracery, romantic murals, beautiful tiles floors, and a spectacular gallery of skeletons – hundreds and hundreds staring out of glass cabinets.  Wonderful.  Highlights, for me; the pre-Columbian hall dedicated to Argentine material, the ethnographic gallery (recently updated and very good), the ‘bone room’, and the fragment of skin from the prehistoric giant sloth that featured as a central element in Bruce Chatwin’s masterpiece In Patagonia.  It’s there.

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One Comment
  1. Thank you for this post. In your travels throughout Argentina, did you ever have the opportunity to meet an ethnobiologist/horticultural expert who specialized in Pre-Columbian tribes of Northwest Argentina? I am working on a book about squash (I am a Denver, CO based writer) and I would like to correspond with an expert. Thought you might know!

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