New Walters exhibit explores the art of the ancient Americas

Dog Effigy Vessel from the Walters Art Museum exhibit Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection Gift. David Stuart Gallelries [date and mode of acquisition unknown]; John G. Bourne, 1980s, by purchase; Walters Art Museum, 2009, by gift.

Except for the spout sticking up from its backbone, the reddish-brown clay dog bears a striking resemblance to the Chihauhau curled up in front of your fireplace.

There's the whiplike tail that's been temporarily stilled, the ears cocked sleepily in the direction of a faraway sound. An observer would almost expect that pup's nose to be moist and its tongue warm.


Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? This drowsy canine just leaped over 18 centuries.

One of the delights of "Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas," the new exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Museum, is that it creates common ground between contemporary humans and the ancestors from whom we are separated by four millennia.


The anonymous craftsman from an area in the present-day Mexican state of Colima who carved the jar sometime between the first century B.C. and the third century (and without the benefit of metal tools) clearly loved that dog.

A tiny figurine of a female athlete from about the same period wears protective knee and elbow-pads. Her eyes are fixed on the goal she just scored, while a triumphant smile lights her face.

And a lovely little pot from about A.D. 250 to 550, sculpted in the form of a native tree, attests that, much like modern Americans, ancient Mayans had a weakness for cocoa.

"Chocolate was a special drink in Mesoamerica from as early as 1000 B.C.," says Dorie Reents-Budet, who curated the exhibit, adding that then, as now, the frothy drink was a special treat.

"Chocolate was very expensive," she says. "Only the nobility could afford it."

The exhibit consists of 135 artworks, or about one-third of the collection donated to the Walters last September by New Mexico collector John Bourne.

Bourne's gift, which also included a promised $4 million bequest, was one of the largest presents in the Walters' history and went a long way toward filling in a gap in the museum's collection.

The Walters always has had rich holdings of ancient artworks from Europe, Asia and the Mideast. But its collection from the pre-Columbian cultures of South and Central America was comparatively skimpy, in part because these statuettes, pottery and jewelry weren't considered legitimate artwork until relatively recently.


Though Bourne spent much of his life in the Southwest, he was persuaded to donate his collection to Baltimore by close friends, Walters' trustees Julianne and George Alderman. Reents-Budet says his gift immediately elevated the Walters' holdings in ancient American artwork into the top 15 among U.S. museums.

"This gift from John Bourne marks a great milestone in the Walters' 70-year history," museum director Gary Vikan says. "In the decades to come, the museum will be at the national forefront in exploring and sharing with the public the rich cultural history of the great ancient civilizations of the Western Hemisphere."

The exhibit spans at least 4,000 years, from about 2600 B.C. to 1500. Because Bourne did most of his collecting in the area known as Mesoamerica, about 60 percent of the artifacts hail from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and the Honduras.

Ten percent comes from the Central American nations of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, while the remaining 30 percent were obtained from the South American countries of Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and Peru.

Though visitors may well be entranced by those habits we share with early man, Reents-Budet says it's just as important to trace the differences between their cultures and our own.

Dogs, for instance, weren't primarily pets. They were used to hunt, to escort the dead and, as some tubby pooches indicate, for food.

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Cocoa wasn't the hot, sweet drink that we consume today. Instead, it was prized for its strong and bitter flavor, and it was served at room temperature.

And that proud ballplayer wasn't merely entertaining her Mayan countrymen.

"Just as we have everything from sandlot softball to the World Series, so too the ballgames in Mesoamerica," Reents-Budet says. "Some of the games were pure sport, and the Spanish explorers in the 16th century were really upset because everyone was betting on them.

"But we do also know that there were highly ritualized games between warriers that are re-enactments of cosmic events. These ceremonies were thought to be crucial to maintaining the life force in the universe. Those are the ones in which a person would get sacrificed."

If you go


"Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas" runs through May 20 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Tickets are $6-$10. Call 410-547-9000 or go to