Ancient Latin American Art | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

On view from our storage in the Level 2 Visible Vault exhibit: more than 600 of the most fascinating artifacts and treasures from Ancient America illustrating the sophistication and diversity of the civilizations that thrived throughout the Americas prior to European exploration.

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Curator’s Cupboards

These special weekend events are your chance to meet members of our curatorial team, ask your own questions, and get a first-hand, up-close look at many amazing curiosities of our collections that aren’t on display. Learn more >

Featured Object from Our Collections

This item is a stick chart or map from the Marshall Islands of Micronesia. It was used as a navigation aid, working like a subway map for the ocean. The webbing of criss-crossed pandanus strands represent wave patterns and possible boat courses. The cowrie shells indicate locations of land. Looking at the piece, it is easy to see the dominance of the ocean to the inhabitants of the vast Pacific Ocean.

This item was collected in the 1940’s by Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Zost, a couple that both spent their later years working at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Most of the Oceanic collections that were collected in the 1940’s come from donors who were in the military. Micronesian and Polynesian territories served as strategic locations during World War II. Several sites in the Marshall Islands were also designated Pacific Proving Grounds, or sites used by the United States to conduct nuclear testing between 1946 and 1962.

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Visible Vault: Archaeological Treasures From Ancient Latin America

When the Spanish arrived in the New World during the late 15th century, vibrant Native American civilizations were flourishing throughout North, Central, and South America. Huge empires — the Aztec based in the Valley of Mexico and the Inca from the highlands of Peru — had transformed ancient America and the Andean region into economically powerful nations ruled by massive and efficient governments. We invite you to visit our Visible Vault exhibit to view a selection of unique objects displayed from among a collection of hundreds of other treasures produced by the ancient peoples of the Americas.

To give visitors a better sense of the Museum behind the scenes we’ve displayed the exhibit’s objects in a non-traditional way. For example, artifacts are protected for safekeeping as they would be in our actual storeroom. The exhibit hall also features dim, dramatic lighting so that the artifacts, which are largely ceremonial in nature, can be viewed today as they might have been in the past — within the confines of temples for instance.

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Curators' Favorites

Incense burner

This ceramic sculpture is an incense burner carved in the image of a deity commonly associated with death. He wears a headdress and ear spools and may be an early version of the Aztec Mictlantecuhtli, god of the underworld. This large incense burner may have been placed at a ceremonial temple or plaza.

Stirrup-spout vessel

In Phase IV of the Moche style, Moche artisans increasingly depicted anthropomorphized, supernatural creatures such as this demon-fish. This character was often shown alone or in combat with some other supernatural creature.  In his human hand, he holds a tumi, a type of carved blade. The tumi signals an impending decapitation.

Tripod vessel

This stucco-painted vessel from Teotihuacan was most likely made to carry food for ceremonies or for burial with the deceased. The figure represented is wearing a headdress and goggles, most likely referring to Tlaloc the Rain God. Not only was Tlaloc an important deity symbolizing water and agriculture, but he also stood as a symbol for the political elite.

Coyote effigy

This humanized coyote may depict the Tarascan goddess Xaratanga. Mexican deities often possessed both male and female attributes. Carved from basalt, this statue is similar to others discovered at the archaeological site Ihuatzio, which means “Place of the Coyotes,” near Lake Patzcuaro in present-day Michoacan.

Wheeled Figurine

Although pre-Columbian cultures never used the wheel as an agricultural tool, this monkey figure clearly demonstrates they knew of the technology. Anthropologists speculate that these cultures did not possess either the draft animals or the terrain suitable to support the use of wheeled carts. This object may have been designed for ritual or ceremonial use, or as a toy.