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Friday, April 19, 2024

Image, body, botany in ancient South America

Lisa Trever, assistant professor in the History of Art Department at UC Berkeley, will be giving a lecture on Oct. 29 from 4:10 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Everson 157 to discuss her research on the representations of botany and the human body in ancient South American art.

The lecture will focus on her current field research project in Pañamarca, a mid-to-late Moche site (ca. 600 to 850 CE) on the north-central coast of Peru. The Moche civilization, which was agriculturally-based, is known for its ceramics, gold work and architecture.

“Unlike many other ancient Andean art traditions that tend toward abstraction and schematic representation of people, plants and animals, Moche art is very naturalistic. Moche ceramicists paid great attention to rendering natural forms with great subtlety,” Trever said in an email.

What fascinates Trever is that the cultures of ancient South America developed complex cultures and artistic traditions, without some of the characteristics that have been considered necessary for the rise of a complex civilization.

“There is no alphabetic or syllabic writing system in ancient South America. But this fact did not hinder achievements in the arts, metallurgy, engineering, agriculture or governance. Within these South American traditions, the visual arts perform a very important role,” Trever said.

In the past, scholars have drawn parallels between modern forms of visual documentation, such as photography, and the artwork of ancient civilizations. But Moche artwork served a different function than documentation. Instead, their artwork conveyed associations with corporeal sacrifice through botanical metaphors.

In the representation of human heads and bodies, potatoes and camotes (a type of sweet potato) are alluded to, suggesting a metaphoric connection between human sacrifice and agricultural methods for planting potatoes.

“Each fragment of a potato can be sown to produce a new plant. So, metaphorically, the sacrificial bodies might be considered to have the same potential to create new life through their fragmentation,” Trever said.

Trever, who received her Ph.D. in history of art and architecture from Harvard University, has worked on several archaeological projects in Peru over the course of the last 15 years. Her most recent fieldwork was for her doctoral research, which was a project to excavate, document and conserve mural paintings at Pañamarca.

“Lisa Trever comes to the Berkeley History of Art faculty as our first ever pre-Columbian and Latin American specialist. She is an experienced field archaeologist who has worked on Mayan and on Andean sites, and who already has some sensational discoveries to her name,” said UC Berkeley’s art history department chair Christopher Hallet in an email.

Because pre-Columbian art isn’t as thoroughly researched and studied as, for example, medieval art, historians and researchers believe there are many things that have yet to be discovered. In this still-virgin field of art history, Trever’s research has been described as both ground-breaking and innovative.

“We’re very excited to have Professor Trever speak here, because this topic has not been taught at UC Davis for more than a generation, and she is a rising expert in this field,” said UC Davis Professor Seth Hindin.

Hindin, who invited Trever to speak, believes lectures like these aren’t just for professors to learn what kinds of projects their colleagues are working on, but they’re also for students to see what the latest research is.

“It’s important for students to hear things that people on working on right now and maybe problems that haven’t even been fully resolved. Art history is a rapidly changing discipline like the sciences and what you find in your textbook or in published articles isn’t always the latest information,” Hindin said.

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