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Eternal Abstractions: Looking at the Burial Urns of Santa Maria

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This post is part of the series Excavating Archaeology, which features selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related collections, housed in the Geography and Map Division and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.

Abstraction is real, probably more real than nature. –Joseph Albers

Cognitive archaeology is the study of how objects shape the way we think and how over the millennia we have been changed by the things we use and create. Some of these objects, over the long course of time, become embedded in our myths and memory, and in the rituals that surround important events like birth, marriage and death. The meaning and purpose of others, some even great works of art, are forgotten and lost in the thick fog of the past.

In the Jay I. Kislak Collection there are two large burial urns that are thought to come from what, in South American archaeology, is called the Santa Maria culture. In archaeology, terms such as “culture” are sometimes used to designate collections of material where the surviving remains seem to be similar across a geographic area, but from which archaeologists lack the evidence to decide if what has been dug up constitutes a particular or unique group of people.

Author measuring the Santa Maria child burial urns in the Kislak Collection storage vaults at the Library of Congress.

In the case of the Santa Maria culture, one of those shared characteristics, from the archaeological record, is a funerary vessel used for children, called in many places the Santa Maria urn. Historically, the Santa Maria culture has been given many different names and, during the first part of the twentieth century, archaeologists related it to the Calchaqui or the Diaguita people.

The difficulty in understanding this particular group has its origin in the lack of consistent archaeological evidence and the fact that there is little known about northern Argentina’s earliest history. The linguist Rodolfo R. Schuller, whose papers and notes can be found in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, thought the Santa Maria culture was identical to the Diaguita. Schuller theorized that the group spoke Cacán, a very poorly documented language, which has been extinct for centuries, having disappeared in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Evidence for the language is scant and even though hopes for the discovery of a lost grammar or lexicon have been voiced by scholars in the past, it appears that the only documented colonial missionary to have spoken the language was Hernando de Torreblanca, whose Relación histórica de Calchaquí, from 1696, records a few words from the Calchaquian language .

The urns, a few of which have been found in archaeological context, usually contain the remains of children, and represent bold abstractions of the human form. The vessels themselves seem to have had a long history of creation and true artistic staying power. The first examples are thought to date from around 700 CE, with the later forms coming into being in the Inca period in Argentina, almost eight hundred years later.

Typology of the Santa Maria Urns based on the painted forms on the bottom of the vessels. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

The vessels in the Kislak Collection are stylistically part of two broad forms that have been identified by archaeologists. One of these occurs throughout the Santa Maria temporal sequence and is painted with circle-like zones on the lower part of the vessel. The second has this lower part of the urn divided in two by a vertical strip. The upper part of the urns display anthropomorphic abstract faces made from designs that form what can be easily recognized as cheeks, noses, eyes and mouths.

Comparison of the representation of the faces on painting on the Kislak urns.

Even though little is known about the culture itself, archaeologists have divided the production of these urns into five phases, or time periods, based on the style of the painting. These dates are unfortunately, not supported by a great deal of reliable carbon-14 or other scientifically based dating methods, and therefore remain speculative.

Examples of Phase II Burial Urns from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Drawing by Ronald Weber in An Analysis of Santa Maria Urn Painting, Field Museum of Natural History.


One of the largest collections of these urns is found in the Zavaleta collection housed at Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Like the examples found in the Zavaleta collection, which was taken from ground in the early 1900’s, the urns in the Kislak Collection lack adequate archaeological context. Comparing the Kislak vessels with the better studied Chicago examples, show them to be related to the Phase II period of the urn production, which possibly dates these remarkable works of art to between 1000-1200 CE.

These beautiful masterpieces of ancient ceramic, used for the burial of children, remind us that no matter how distant in time and space, every culture tries to mark in memory and in art those moments of life and death when we celebrate and when we mourn, and that through the great span of history, have remained cognitive markers, in cultures past and present.

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