Pre-Columbian Art

Nude Man Peg-base Sculpture

Costa Rica, Diquís region, A.D. 1000-1500

Clastic andesite tuff

34 x 12 7/8 x 7 ¼ in.

Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1995.428

This rigidly frontal sculpture likely once stood atop a chiefly house mound or in the plaza of a town in the Diquís region of southern Pacific Costa Rica. Both male and female figures, always nude, were carved and displayed. Archaeologist Michael Snarskis believed that this example represents a prisoner destined for sacrifice. If so, the sculpture was likely commissioned by a victorious chief and displayed as a symbol of dominance. Stone sphere sculptures carved of hard volcanic stone also served to mark architectural spaces in Diquís sites.

Costumed Figure Jar

Costa Rica, Greater Nicoya region, A.D. 700-1350


8 ½ x 4 ¼ x 4 7/8 in.

Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1993.616

This tripod jar portrays a human being wearing an elaborate costume and mask, probably for a ritual performance. The fundamentally human character of the figure is evident in his upright pose, five-fingered hands, and ears. The face has a crocodilian protruding snout with interlocking teeth and raised nostrils, but incisions and ridges around the edges show that this is a mask. A grinning animal head positioned below the rump forms a tail and also serves as one of the tripod supports. Like the mask, the tail must be a component of the human being’s costume or disguise. Incised into the surface of the body are intricate patterns representing costume elements with decorative borders.

The very large eyes and short, narrow snout of the mask are not naturalistic features of either crocodiles or caimans. Perhaps these traits are intended to emphasize watchfulness or vision, rather than attacking or devouring.

Jaguar Pendant

Costa Rica, Central region, A.D. 1-500


3 3/8 x 1 x 1/34 in.

Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1994.836

Carved from a thick, substantial block of blue-green jade, this pendant depicts a feline seated upright on its haunches. The heavy body, long thick tail, and bared teeth reveal that the animal is a jaguar, Costa Rica’s most powerful mammalian predator. The mottling of the jade with paler green on the muzzle, belly and legs recalls the cream to orange color shading of the jaguar’s pelt. The individual who owned the pendant was likely associated with the feline in some fashion; perhaps his alter ego or spirit companion was a jaguar, or the animal was a clan or family emblem. In any case, the pendant surely advertised the wearer’s power and ferocity.

The pendant was probably worn as the central component of a spectacular two-tiered necklace. The main suspension hole is drilled through the feline’s neck; a secondary strand passed through the loop formed by the tail’s curled tip. Both strands would have been strung with additional beads of jade or other materials.

Bell Pendant with Animal Motifs

Costa Rica, Diquís region, A.D. 500-1550

Gold alloy

2 ¾ x 2 7/8 x 13/16 in.

Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1996.109

At the center of this large gold pendant is a composite deer-bird creature whose rounded belly is a bell. The legs are replaced by four smaller deer heads, and at the base is a flared bird tail. Encircling the deer-bird is a braided arch, and an outer frame composed of seven four-legged creatures with curly tails and birdlike heads.

The pendant was made using the lost-wax casting process, which involves making a wax model of the desired object, then encasing it in clay to form a mold. Heating the mold melts the wax, and molten metal is then poured into the mold. After cooling, the clay mold is broken away. Objects produced in this manner are thus unique.


Panama, Azuero Peninsula, A.D. 1200

Hammered gold alloy

5 ¼ in. diam.

Department acquisition funds, 1965.196

Hammered gold breastplates from central Panama are decorated with intricate embossed images of supernatural beings with claws, bared teeth, and serpentine appendages. Closely similar beings, often in dynamic poses, are painted on polychrome pottery from the same region. Long known collectively as the Crocodile God, such creatures actually combine traits from many creatures, including iguanas, sharks, and even deer.

The highest ranking members of ancient Panamanian society were buried with numerous human attendants and lavish offerings. These included polychrome pottery and gold ornaments such as helmets, breastplates, wrist guards, pendants, and beaded necklaces. Other valuable materials placed in graves include turtle carapaces, stingray spines, whale teeth, shark teeth, boar tusks, carved bone, agate, quartz, emerald, and serpentine.

Figure Seated on a Bench

Colombia, Cauca River Valley, before A.D. 1500

Earthenware with slip

14 x 12 ½ x 9 ¼ in.

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward M. Strauss in memory of Alan Lapiner, 1977.62

One of the most impressive known examples of Colombian ceramic art is a seated male figure from the Popayán region of west-central Colombia. Stools were important symbols of rank among the pre-Columbian societies of Central America, northern South America, and the Caribbean. The figure’s commanding pose, elaborate headdress and shield, and gold necklace together suggest an individual of wealth and power. The huge hands and firmly planted feet imply strength, solidity, and capacity for action. His swollen calves reflect the use of ligatures (bands) tied tightly below the knee and at the ankle. Amazonian peoples today use ligatures to strengthen muscles. The crested, lizard-like creature clinging to the figure’s back recalls the animals that often rise behind monumental carved stone figures at the site of San Agustín, in Colombia’s Magdalena River valley. Such creatures may represent protective spirits or alter egos.

Female Figure

Western Venezuela, Trujillo, A.D. 1000-1500

Earthenware with colored slip

9 11/16 in.

Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 2005.94

This exceptionally large Trujillo style figure portrays a curvaceous young woman. Her arms akimbo stance and facial expression project saucy confidence. Both face and body are elaborately painted, probably for a social or ritual event.


Marajó Island, Brazil, A.D. 400-1300

Earthenware with colored slip

16 ¾ x 11 3/8 in.

Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 2006.15.

Much of Marajó Island, located at the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil, is flooded during each year’s rainy season. The island’s inhabitants built large earthen mounds to elevate their homes, ceremonial areas and cemeteries above the floodwaters. Marajó people manufactured elaborately decorated ceramics for use as burial urns, storage and serving vessels, stools, and female public covers.

This large jar may have served as a burial container for cleaned human bones, or it may have stored food and beverages for elite or ceremonial usage. The decoration, carved through the red slipped surface, is intricate. Two repeats of two motifs alternate around the vessel’s cylindrical body, their complex boundaries interlocking with one another. One motif consists of a vertically oriented creature with two rectangular heads and a long, slender body. The other motif incorporates a central square from which radiate two rectangular heads and two triangular heads. Aquatic creatures such as caimans, turtles and snakes were commonly carved on Marajó ceramics.

Large Cup

Peru, North coast, Chimú or Sicán, A.D. 800-1450

Hammered silver

6 x 5 ½ in.

General acquisition funds, 1969.302

This cup is the most iconographically complex artwork from ancient Peru’s north coast region. It was formed of sheet silver, and has repoussé decoration created by pushing out from the inside surface of the metal. The imagery, which covers the cup’s walls and bottom, includes a giant serpent filled with fish that may represent a river. Architectural compounds, gardens, boats, deer hunters, and supernatural beings are all included in what may be the episodes of a mythological story.

Peru’s north coast is a desert, but advanced irrigation technology and ocean resources allowed the Sicán and Chimú peoples to support large populations. Master metalworkers from both cultures manufactured spectacular ornaments and vessels of hammered gold and silver.

Large Jug

Peru, Inca, A.D. 1400-1532

Earthenware with colored slips

30 x 21 ½ in.

Funds from the Burgess Trust, Walt Disney Imagineering, Alianza de las Artes Americanas, and Jan and Frederick R. Mayer, 1993.25

In the space of little more than a century, the Inca, an ethnic group from Peru’s southern highlands, conquered a vast territory extending from Ecuador in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south. The numerous ethnic groups and independent political entities within these lands were not only conquered, but effectively integrated into a centrally administered political and economic system. Inca-style goods carried great prestige throughout the empire. Distinctively shaped and painted Inca ceramics were visible symbols of cultural and political affiliation. The arybalo jug is an emblematic Inca vessel form. This exceptionally large example is elaborately painted with motifs that include flamingos and insects.

Used for storing and serving liquids, including corn beer, arybalos functioned within a system of ritualized reciprocal obligations. At every level of government, leaders were expected to provide feasts for their subordinates, who in turn owed labor, military service, and allegiance. Corn beer was the most essential component of such feasts; serving it from a large and lavishly decorated arybalo emphasized the wealth and generosity of the Inca state.

Ear Ornaments

Peru, North coast, Chimú-Inca, A.D. 1450-1532


About 3 5/16 x 1 7/8 in.

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward M. Strauss in honor of Robert Stroessner, 1991.1018a, b

Within the multiethnic Inca empire, dress was strictly regulated and reflected both ethnicity and rank. Only nobles were permitted to wear ear ornaments. The Spanish called these nobles orejones (big ears) because of their stretched earlobes. This pair or ear ornaments has shafts decorated with birds and waves, while the round fronts feature male figures wearing short, wide tunics and large headdresses. The figures wear masks that dangle from hinges, suggesting that the figures are shown participating in a ritual. The ear ornaments were probably manufactured by a craftsman from the north coast Chimú kingdom, which remained an important center for manufacturing and exporting under Inca domination.

Human Figure Drum

Peru, South coast, Proto-Nasca, about 100 B.C. – A.D. 200

Earthenware with colored slips

16 ¾ x 9 ¼ in.

Funds from the Marion Hendrie estate, 1972.189

Early Nasca decorative ceramics have incised design outlines filled in with colored slips applied before firing. The colors are limited: black, brown, tan, and cream. Forms include bottles modeled as birds, animals, fruits, and human beings. Ceramic drums are quite rare. An animal skin was stretched over the large mouth of the vessel, which would have been played in an inverted position. This drum’s simply modeled chamber portrays a masked ceremonialist wearing a headcloth with embroidered borders, and carrying a small baton and a wand with dangling elements. Later Nasca decorated pottery has painted rather than incised outlines and a much wider range of slip colors.

Vessel with Human Figures

Peru, Northern Highlands, Recuay, A.D. 1-650

Earthenware with colored slips and resist decoration

8 ¼ x 7 in.

Gift of Rose Kushei, 1961.87

Recuay culture arose in the upper reaches of Peru’s north coast river valleys and the adjacent highlands. Usually manufactured with fine white clay, Recuay vessels were painted with red, orange and black slip Additional patterns were created after firing by painting with a resist material, then smoking over a fire. Fancy Recuay vessels were often modeled in the form of animals of people, or as multifigural scenes. This bottle depicts an event centered on a male figure whose importance is signaled by his frontal pose, scepter, patterned tunic, elaborate headgear, and jewelry. He is flanked on either side by cup-bearing female attendants. Another male figure serves as the vessel’s spout. The geometric painted patterns below the figures probably represent the decorated walls of the structure in which the scene occurs.

Tenoned Serpent Head

Mexico, Toluca Valley region, A.D. 700-1000

Volcanic stone

26 ½ x 13 ½ x 36 in.

New World Department Volunteer Fundraiser, 1971.360

This large stone serpent head was once incorporated into an architectural structure such as a pyramid. The tenon (shaft) behind the head fitted into a socket in the façade, or at the base of a staircase. Projecting serpent heads once ornamented the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacán, north of Mexico City. Later, the Toltecs and Aztecs of central Mexico carved great serpent heads to flank pyramid staircases. This head most closely resembles carved serpent heads now displayed in Teotitlan del Valle; their exact place of origin is unknown.

In pre-Columbian thought, snakes were associated with both the earth and the sky. Snakes often live inside holes in the ground; caves openings, considered entrances to the underworld, were often depicted as gaping serpent mouths. The sky was also conceived as a great starry serpent arched over the earth.

Seated Figure

Mexico, Guerrero, Zumpango del Río, Olmec, 1000-500 B.C.

Earthenware with slip and pigments

14 x 12 ½ x 9 ¼ in.

Funds from various donors, 1975.50

The Olmec created Mesoamerica’s first civilization. Their sites are concentrated in the warm, humid Gulf Coast region of Mexico, although Olmec architecture, sculpture, and cave paintings are also found in central Mexico. Olmec style objects have been discovered as far south as Costa Rica. The Olmec were masterful sculptors, carving massive stone monuments such as ruler portrait heads and thrones (also known as altars). They also created smaller scale works in jade and ceramic. This earthenware figure is easily recognized as Olmec by the elongated head, slanted eyes, and downturned lips. The body is sexless, with smooth, rounded limbs and small hands and feet. The pose is elegantly casual, with a slightly cocked head and asymmetrical arm and leg positions.

Vase with Palace Scene

Mexico or Guatemala, Maya, A.D. 600-800

Earthenware with colored slips

11 ¼ x 6 in.

Funds from various donors, Volunteer Endowment Fund, and department acquisition funds, 2003.1

This simply shaped vessel is a masterpiece of Maya ceramic painting, with a complex multifigural composition and beautiful calligraphy. The figures’ poses and faces are highly expressive, hinting at a now-lost human drama. The scene takes place at a noble Maya court. Inside a palace room with swagged curtains is a ruler who sits cross-legged atop a plastered bench. He leans forward, and appears to sniff a bouquet. Addressing him is a slightly smaller, younger man who touches his own shoulder in a gesture of respect. To the right of the ruler sit four profile men, while on the ground in front of the bench are an attendant and tribute goods, including sacks of cacao beans. Discretely hidden behind a partition, two beautifully garbed women look on.

The hieroglyphic inscription identifies the vessel’s owner, from the site of Río Azul, who was the father of the ruler in the scene. The four figures to the right of the ruler may have been his sons (grandsons of the vessel’s owner). The secondary figure facing the ruler was likely an important courtier, probably involved in tribute collection.


Mexico, Teotihuacán, A.D. 1-700


4 13/16 x 5 3/16 in.

Gift of Exeter Drilling Company, 1976.58

Mexico’s greatest ancient city was Teotihuacan, located north of what is now Mexico City. The site has a long, straight north-south avenue and two immense stone-clad structures now known as the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. In later Aztec myth, Teotihuacán was the birthplace of the sun and moon. The site also incorporates hundreds of smaller temple mounds and enclosed residential compounds.

Numerous stone masks have been uncovered at Teotihuacán, although lack of archaeological context means that their function is still uncertain. Teotihuacán masks are idealized, with a standardized shape and serene expression. Their unpierced eyes and mouths indicate that they were not worn by living individuals. Instead, they may have been affixed to the bundled corpses of the dead in funerary ceremonies, or mounted on deity images made of perishable materials. Many of the masks probably once had inlays of shell, obsidian, or pyrite in the eye and mouth depressions, lending them a dramatically more lifelike appearance.

Seated Female Figure

Mexico, Nayarit, San Pedro Lagunillas region, 200 B.C. – A.D. 300

Earthenware with colored slips and resist decoration

11 ½ x 5 ¾ x 4 ½ in.

Gift in memory of L. K. Land, 1991.488

The West Mexican states of Colima, Nayarit and Jalisco were the home of an important early ceramic sculptural tradition. Some settlements in the region had a large, circular plaza with a ceremonial platform mound in the center. On rectangular platforms around the plaza were structures with high, thatched roofs. Ceramic sculptures show that music, dance, ceremonies and feasts took place in the plazas. Some sites also had ball courts – a version of the ancient game is still played in West Mexico today. Deep tombs dug near the plaza were used by multiple generations of families, who buried the dead with offerings of food, drink, shell ornaments, and ceramic vessels and figures.

Figures from the San Pedro Lagunillas region of Nayarit were once called “Chinesco” because their faces were thought to look Chinese. This woman has a large head, broad, heavy body, and slender arms. Her pose and facial expression are still and serene; the hands resting on the slightly rounded belly may indicate pregnancy. She is simply dressed, wearing only a skirt and nose ring, but her arms, torso and face are enhanced with painted patterns.

Jan & Frederick Mayer Galleries of Pre-Columbian & Spanish Colonial Art, Level 4, North Building

Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Study Gallery of Pre-Columbian Art, Level 4, North Building

The Denver Art Museum's pre-Columbian collection represents nearly every major culture in Mesoamerica, Central America, and South America.

The Jan and Frederick Mayer Galleries of Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial Art were installed in 1993. Included are paintings, sculpture, furniture, silver, and decorative arts from the Spanish Colonial period, as well as pre-Columbian masterworks in ceramic, stone, gold, jade, and textiles. One component of the installation is an innovative study-storage gallery, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Study Gallery of Pre-Columbian Art. The large glass-shelved display cases allow DAM to place nearly all of its pre-Columbian collection on permanent display for audiences to share and learn about the cultures of the Americas. The presentation permits visitors to view the full spectrum of pre-Columbian forms and media, and compare multiple examples of items such as figurines, cache vessels, stone sculptures, and jade ornaments.

The encyclopedic Costa Rican holdings, largely donated by Frederick and Jan Mayer, are the finest in the United States. Stone sculptures include large, elaborately carved metates (grinding platforms), figural sculptures, grave markers, and mace heads, often carved in the form of fantastic animal heads. Jade axes, imported from Guatemala in ancient times, were carved into elaborate pendants and beads. Hammered gold breastplates and intricate cast gold pendants in the form of animals or costumed human performers advertised the wealth and power of Costa Rican chiefs. Highly sculptural and often brightly painted ceramics are especially abundant in DAM’s Costa Rican collection.

The South American collection incorporates works from Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Generous donors include Mr. and Mrs. Morris Long, Mr. and Mrs. Edward L. Luben, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Mayer, Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Power, and Mr. and Mrs. Edward T. Strauss. Peruvian cultures, including the Chavín, Moche, Nasca, Wari, Chancay, Chimu, and Inca are well represented by ceramics, metalwork, textiles, and carved bone and wood. Ancient Colombian ceramics and gold include Calima, Popayan and Tairona. Chorrera, Bahia, Tolima, and Manteño style ceramic figures and vessels were manufactured in ancient Ecuador. The holdings of intricately carved, boldly painted ceramics from Marajó Island in Brazil are especially strong.

Holdings of Mesoamerican art from Mexico and northern Central America include stone sculpture, jade, ceramics, and rare media like carved shell, turquoise mosaic, and obsidian. Important donors include Mr. and Mrs. Horace E. Day, Mr. and Mrs. Lindsay A. Duff, Mr. Douglas R. Hurlburt, Mrs. Lewis K. Land, Mr. William I. Lee, Mr. and Mrs. Morris A. Long, Mr. and Mrs. Edward L. Luben, Mr. and Mrs. Cedric H. Marks, Mr. and Mrs. Raphael J. Moses, and Dr. and Mrs. M. Larry Ottis.

The Olmec, Mesoamerica’s earliest civilization, are represented by jade figures and masks, and ceramic vessels. An elegantly modeled, completely intact Olmec ceramic baby is one of the museum’s most important masterpieces. West Mexican (especially Nayarit and Colima) human and animal ceramic tomb figures are well represented, while holdings from the great city of Teotihuacan are especially comprehensive—ceramic vessels and figurines, incense burners, greenstone figures and masks, and even carved stone mirror backs.

The Maya civilization is represented by several stone relief carvings that portray rulers wearing elaborate regalia. The Maya ceramic collection is also exceptional: rare pre-Classic vessels and figurines, Early Classic cache vessels and blackware containers, and Late Classic painted cylinders and figurines that depict both court life and mythological events.

Scholars wishing to access the New World Department collections and/or library holdings must contact the Mayer Center well in advance of a visit. If approval for study is granted, the collection/library will be made available as the staff of the DAM's schedule permits. Please contact for more information.

The Mayer Center Fellow Program

This program is designed to support scholarly research related to the museum’s collections of pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art and to provide curatorial experience to art historians.

The Mayer Center Scholarship

The scholarship, established in honor of Frederick and Jan Mayer and sponsored by Alianza de las Artes Americanas, is awarded biennially to a doctoral student. It includes a stipend and two weeks of access to the museum's New World collection.

Learn more about the fellow program and scholarship.

Recent Mayer Center publications on pre-Columbian art are available for purchase in The Shop and include:

The department of pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art at the Denver Art Museum was established in 1968, bringing together pre-Columbian (before 1492) and Spanish Colonial objects from Latin America. Curator Robert Stroessner worked with donors in Denver and beyond to acquire objects in all media. Dr. Gordon McEwan served as curator from 1991 to 1998. He was succeeded by Dr. Donna Pierce (Spanish Colonial) and Dr. Margaret Young-Sánchez (pre-Columbian), both of whom joined the museum in 1999.

Today the department’s combined collections cover a time span from about 1200 B.C. to the present. It is the finest collection of its type in the United States. In many areas, its holdings are the most comprehensive outside the countries of origin. At no other museum in the Americas can visitors appreciate and compare stylistic movements from all the major artistic centers of Latin America.

Current Staff

  • Donna Pierce, Ph.D., Frederick & Jan Mayer Curator of Spanish Colonial Art
  • Margaret Young-Sánchez, Ph.D., Frederick & Jan Mayer Curator of Pre-Columbian Art
  • Julie Wilson Frick, Mayer Center Program Coordinator
  • Jesse Laird Ortega, Curatorial Assistant
  • Anne Tennant, Research Associate
  • Heather Nielsen, Associate Director of Learning and Engagement

Mayer Center Symposium

Mayer Center symposia are held annually, alternating between pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art topics. The 15th Annual Mayer Center Symposium The Maya will be February 19, 2016.

Organized by Margaret Young-Sanchez. Sponsored by the Mayer Center and the Denver Art Museum. It includes public lectures, followed by a cocktail reception. Email or call 720-913-0156 with questions.

Recent pre-Columbian symposia topics:

  • Fabled Kingdoms: Luxury Arts of Peru's Northern Desert (2013)
  • Marajó and the Ancient Amazonian World (2011)
  • The Art of Teotihuacan and its Sphere of Influence (2009)
  • Costa Rica and the pre-Columbian World: Honoring the Contributions of Frederick Mayer (2007)
  • Tiwanaku: Ancestors of the Inca (2005)
  • Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial Art in the Collections at the Denver Art Museum (2002)
  • Andean Textile Traditions (2001)