The Most Complete Guide of Ecuador

The Untranslatable language of stamps

Text: The Pre-Columbian Art Museum Casa del Alabado

Perceiving a pre Columbian art piece requires facing a completely unknown language for our time. The material, technique, and physical qualities of a work of art, plus the social environment under which they were created, are culturally and temporarily far away from us.  

Beyond the physical component of the piece (the part that we can see, touch, listen) there lies and unseen dimension. The intentions of the artists of the past and even the ones of some of the present, are unknown to us. When thinking of the material heritage of the pre Columbian cultures, we do not only ignore the intentions of the artists but the development of their creative process, and the social dynamics that influenced the symbology in their work. 

The untranslatability in the languages of art, is indeed that unseen dimension, as the difficulty to fully understand the thought and cosmovision of societies from another time.  

The stamps are a part of the ceramic corpus of several aboriginal coastal cultures within the periods of Regional Development and Integration, such us Jama Coaque, Tolita-Tumaco, Guangala and Manteño Huancavilca. These instruments served to ornament the skin and possibly textile, by the use of natural pigments such as achiote seeds. They contain shapes and representations that transcend to the imitations of nature, to an abstraction process. These geometric creations in stamps hide iconographical codes that could have being part of an intercultural net of communication (Fernandez-Salvador, 2014).  

Despite the fact that some of the symbols are frequently represented (like the espiral), the graphical compositions created from the sequences and forms that give shape to those symbols, are unique and unrepeatable in each of the stamps. 

The most frequent hypothesis about the function of the stamps, is directed towards economy and politics of the cultures, since the skin imprints are considered to be distinctive signs of different hierarchy ranks. Even though this proposal should not be discarded, it’s necessary to question that possibly, the stamps were used as part of a ritual, as war emblems, in ceremonies of natural substance consumption, in rites of passage between facets a ages determined by the society, or as a part of daily activities. 

There also is a relationship between the symbols of the cylindrical and flat stamps, and the ones found in the skin of some women ceramic representations (represented by the technique of incision and painted in white and blue). The fact that both of these type of objects contain the same symbols, tells us that the iconic figures were not represented randomly, and that their variated positions towards the lines and figures, created sequences with different messages. 

The significance with in these stamps remain unknown to us and untranslatable to our language, the possibilities about what they represented to the artists of the past and theis societies, are infinite.   

Visit us and engage the paradoxes and untranslatable conversations of art in our temporary exhibition “The spoken textile”, curated by the internationally recognized contemporary artist Tamar Guimarães. 

Saralhue Acevedo.  

Investigation assistant 

  • Fernández-Salvador, C. (2014). El ornamento: entre la imitación y la abstracción. En J. G 
  • Carmen Fernández Salvador, El Ornamento. Quito: Universidad San Francisco de Quito, 

Place: Museo de Arte Precolombino Casa del Alabado.

Address: Cuenca N1-41 and Bolívar, Quito – Ecuador.  




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