Pre-Columbian Art Seminar Travels to Guatemala

“Pre-Columbian Maya Art: Elite and Popular Discourses,” an undergraduate seminar taught by Lecturer Christina Halperin, focused on the stone monuments, hieroglyphic writing, and palatial material culture that are the quintessential manifestations of royal Maya power, but also re-examined them in relation to popular social practices and symbols that existed alongside, in tension with, and as contributing forces to elite Maya life.

As an integral part of the course, the students spent the fall recess in Guatemala, where they examined at first hand the architecture, monuments, and small-scale artifacts they had discussed in class. The trip was jointly sponsored by a generous gift from Richard Grubman ’84 and the Program in Latin American Studies.

At the archaeological site of Uaxactun, the class explored a Late Preclassic period (300 B.C.E.–300 C.E.) radial pyramid whose spatial configuration with a building complex directly to the east marked the passing of the solstices. Traveling to the ancient city Tikal, the dominant center during the Classic period (300–900 C.E.), students walked along roads and through buildings to get a sense of the social contexts of the artifacts they had studied in the classroom. The class then flew to the cooler volcanic highland region, where they visited museums, toured a jade workshop, and traveled to the archaeological site of Iximche, where Maya peoples and Spanish conquistadors clashed in the 16th century.

In both the tropical lowlands and highlands, the students also experienced everyday Guatemalan life, swerving through colorful markets, taking in the barrage of posters for the presidential elections, and savoring the taste of tamales.

A typically enthusiastic report on the trip came from Eleanor Elbert ’12, who wrote,  “Never have I experienced a field trip or out-of-class activity in which everyone was so consistently engaged and excited. It was one of the best weeks of my life, and I will never forget it!”

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