ed. by Cathy Lynne Costin. Dumbarton Oaks, dist. by Harvard University Press, October 2016. 496 p. ill. ISBN 9780884024156 (h/c), $75.00.
Reviewed July 2017
Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World is a survey of the material culture of civilizations across Mesoamerica. The objects studied are wide ranging and include ceramics, burial masks, beads, figurines, murals, textiles, metal objects, and public monuments from Inka, Mayan, Olmec, Moche, Tiwanaku, and Paracas civilizations. Artifacts are from many sites across Mesoamerica including Teotihuacan, Cacaxtla, Palenque, and San Bartolo (present day Chile). The authors are archaeologists, art historians, material scientists, and anthropologists based at museums and universities in the United States and Mexico.
The essays in this book approach material culture through the lens of techné, a Greek concept that explores how the production process of skilled craft making created an object’s social value and meaning. To get to the techné, authors assess artifacts based on how meaning was imbued and imparted through the decisions of the artisan. For example, materials harder to gather whether because of distance or size are more meaningful than those easily at hand. The symbolic elements of color choice are examined through the choices made in material selection and application as well.
Each essay contains detailed maps placing the culture being discussed in geographical context. There are ample color photographs of objects and excavation sites as well as microscope and x-ray details showing material composition and placement. The bibliographies are extensive and, while the essays assume a familiarity with the Pre-Columbian societies being discussed, the language is approachable enough for non-specialists.
While it is too soon to know if Colin McEwan, Director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, is correct when he posits in the foreword that “the diverse media and approaches embraced by the essays featured here will ensure that the volume becomes required reading for a wide interdisciplinary audience that, perforce, includes art historians.” One can assume that this volume’s “application of new analytical techniques and methodologies to a wide range of Pre-Columbian materials, objects, and settings will stimulate a renewed interest from further afield in the sites, cultures, and material production of the prehispanic Americas” (vii).
Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World is a recommended addition to libraries that collect works on Pre-Columbian art and history, in particular those libraries serving upper level researchers. It presents a unique approach to the material culture of Mesoamerica that is well described, illustrated, and supported.