Urn Marajoara | Emílio Goeldi Paraense Museum
Joanes style Marajoara urn. Original size replica of a painted Joanes style Marajoara funerary urn, with polychrome painting in black, red and white engobo and rich detailing of shapes, colors and graphics, mixing human and non-human elements. Collectors of the original play: Betty Meggers, Clifford Evans and Peter Hilbert

During the visit to the Amazon Biennial, in November 2023, in Belém, Pará, we had the opportunity to enter an almost magical world, built by the work of teams dedicated to the research and conservation of a substantial part of Brazil's history, not just supported by documentation , as well as hundreds of remains collected by specialist archaeologists – excavators, which revealed an ancient wealth.

O Emílio Goeldi Paraense Museum is a research institution linked to the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communications. It is located in the city of Belém, State of Pará, Amazon region. Since its foundation in 1866, its activities have focused on the scientific study of the natural and sociocultural systems of the Amazon, as well as the dissemination of knowledge and collections related to the region.

The institution holds one of the largest and oldest collections of Amazonian archeology in Brazil and the world and has already lent several fundamental pieces to international museums, such as the British Museum of Archeology or the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin.

Upon welcoming us, Dr. Helena Pinto Lima – archaeologist, senior researcher at the museum, where she also works as curator of the archaeological collection and professor of the postgraduate program in Sociocultural Diversity – contextualizes Emílio Goeldi's challenges and objectives for us:

“In the mid-1950s and 1960s, the idea was created that the Amazon was empty, a forest ready to be occupied, a place to be colonized. Under the argument that the forest here would not be able to support, from the point of view of protein, great civilizations such as those of the Incas, or those of Central America, for example. From the point of view of anthropology and archeology, the communities and indigenous peoples of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when they began to be better documented, were at one of the most critical moments in history, with many epidemics, colonial and post-colonial violence . At that time, communities were dwindling.

With an ethos in which perspectivist ontologies and shamantic practices of bodily transformation predominate”

What is certain is that the forest, as we know it, biodiversity is the result of human occupations, the result of socio-biodiversity, the interactions between these communities, these people and the forest. The black lands, Terra Preta de Índio, are extremely fertile soil, still sought after today for agriculture and farming.

They are results of intentional production. And this was a process of generations and generations. There are 13 thousand years of history of people, forests and rivers. We have the oldest ceramics in the Americas in the Amazon, which are in the Santarém region, which are capelinha ceramics, including in Sambaqui. Today we study a history of cultural innovation, technologies, technology creation, forest management, earth engineering management, construction of texts, etc. Evidence from different parts of the Amazon reveals sophisticated technologies for transforming nature. With our research today, we have the work, the task of dismantling, recreating and retelling this story.”

In the 2016 joint publication by Iphan and MPEG, Archaeological Ceramics of the Amazon – Towards a new synthesis, the organizers – Cristiana Barreto, Helena Pinto Lima and Carla Jaimes Betancourt – describe the history of ceramics from the Amazon, the most abundant class of archaeological remains, going up the Amazon River, bringing studies and reflections from different ceramic sites in each region and trying to understand their different technologies to later work on reconstructing these ancestral traditions. The museum has highly trained restoration and reproduction workshops.

“All art imposes a form on a matter. But among the so-called arts of civilization, ceramics is probably the one in which the transition between the raw material and the product takes place more directly, with fewer intermediate steps between the raw material and the product, leaving the hands of the artisan. already formed, even before being subjected to burning.” (Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1985:235) (page 20)

The vessels had different roles: consumption of drinks and food, media for sharing and transmitting ideas through images painted, engraved or modeled on their walls, funerary urns capable of preserving human remains or representations of a symbolic place, such as the demarcation of territories sacred. They all bring differences in the pastes and clays used, in burning, roasting or oxidation, as they belong to different territories and social groups.
Today it is known, through this and other research, that remains found by excavators date back up to 13 thousand years ago. In the case of ceramics from the Amazon, they are among the oldest in the Americas. “If we consider the dates of Taperinha, in the Lower Amazon (dating back to ca. 8000 BP), and Tradição Mina, on the coast of Pará, (dating back to ca. 6000 BP).” (page 23)

Among the different groups, Marajoara ceramics were among the most studied in the Amazon. Unlike Andean or Mesoamerican ceramics, in which representations of crops are common, the iconography of Marajoara ceramics emphasizes animal and human bodies. “With an ethos in which perspectivist ontologies and shamantic practices of bodily transformation predominate (Viveiros de Castro, 2002).”

Replicating the past, courtesy of the Goeldi Museum
Replicating the past, courtesy of the Goeldi Museum

These ceramics belonging to the Polychrome Tradition – which expands over 6.600 km in different points of the Amazon basin and, chronologically, for more than 1000 years – have decorative techniques, a huge repertoire of symbols, the determination of certain parts of animals such as snakes and scorpions in place of eyes and arms, constituting clear examples of the cosmogonic, man-nature experience of the Amazon.
There are an infinite number of stylistic groups, with different particularities: those of the Guianas; those in the Amapá complex; the Mina do Pará ceramics, those from Maranhão; those of the Tupi Guarani in Lower Amazonas; of the Lower Xingu Guarani, Middle-Lower Xingu, Volta Grande do Xingu, Foz do Xingu, Upper

Among many, those of the culture of Santarém and Baixo Tapajós belong to indigenous societies that inhabited the region between the XNUMXth or XNUMXth centuries until the XNUMXth, in the post-colonial period, marking, from then on, hybrid cultures. More recently studied, they have a substantial difference from the others, presenting, for example, in the so-called caryatid vases, iconography and sculptures of zoomorphic elements (vulture heads) and anthropomorphic (seated female figures) drawn and adhered to their edges.

Souza Lima (2020), constructed the life story of a Marajoara urn that was historically individualized and decontextualized

The challenge and strategies for dialoguing with memory
In Devires for diversity in the museum field, an article that is part of the project Archaeologies, materialities and landscapes among the peoples of the forest, Helena Pinto Lima raises one of the biggest concerns of academics and curators in contemporary times:
“What is the role of the museum in current times of crisis, times of transformation? This is a discussion that is not only pertinent, but latent in the field of museums, worldwide. Products of Eurocentric logic and colonial enterprise, museums have historically operated in collective remembrance and selective forgetting in the service of such a national enterprise. Despite the important social advances led by the new museology of the 1970s, only more recently has the issue of decolonization gained more space in practices, in line with identity demands in vogue today. Together with the International Council of Museums (ICOM), we as a society are searching for a new definition of museum that better fits this context. The public consultation with the global museum community expresses a glimpse of this new place for museums, now and for the future. The new definition of Museum, approved in Prague in 2022, expresses this idea well:

“A museum is a permanent, non-profit institution serving society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits material and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums encourage diversity and sustainability. With the participation of communities, museums operate and communicate in an ethical and professional manner, providing diverse experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and sharing of knowledge. (ICOM, 2022)

(…) “Archaeological curation is, by definition, an interdisciplinary investigative field. It integrates archaeology, museology, conservation, education and other areas, for us, of safeguarding, research, teaching and dissemination of collections. I emphasize that curation is also potentially a fertile field for intercultural research. And this is the idea, that of interdisciplinary and intercultural fertilization of archaeological curation, that I intend to address in this text. The focus of reflection is on the interrelationships between communities, materialities, and museum archaeological collections.”

(…)“With a view to “awakening” the objects in the technical reserve to new possibilities for generating knowledge, studies to reconnect collections (three-dimensional and documentary) and subjects have guided our initiatives as a guideline for research and management. For the Maracá funerary urns, Lucas Silva, a museology student at UFPA (Federal University of Pará) developed research in order to reconnect funerary urns with human remains, and the contexts in which they were originally found (SILVA et al., 2021) . Here (at MPEG), the ceramic bodies are being reunited with their biological (osteological) bodies, returning the individuality of each of these Maracá subjects who today inhabit the technical reserve”. (PR: Here Dr. Helena refers to one of the special rooms built in the museum, closed to the public, properly air-conditioned, prohibited from being photographed, where more than 200 funeral urns are exposed on a platform and, below, in cataloged drawers , the osteological remains relating to each one lie”

(…) “With Marajoara ceramics, the approach yielded important reflections on the dispersion, or exodus, of huge Marajó collections distributed across several museums, as well as on the act of displaying these funerary items to the general public.” (…) In this same context, Simas provokes us to reflect on complex issues related to the conservation and management of these collections, donations and decontextualization of collections, loan policies and sharing of collections of objects formed by fragments under the care of different institutions.” (IDEM).

Anita Ekman: Tupi or not Tupi.
Anita Ekman: Tupi or not Tupi. How we should (re)write the history of Brazil. 2022. Ocre Marajó Series – Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. Photograph by Edu Simões. The series is part of the curatorial research of the project Ore ypy rã – Tempo de Origem, by Sandra Benites and Anita Ekman. Carried out with the Visual Arts Scholarship -2021 granted by the Goethe Institute and French Consulate in Rio de Janeiro. The work was exhibited at the exhibition “Deep Marajó: Contemporary Marajoara Ceramic” at the Americas Society in New York (Jan-Jul 2023) and was exhibited at the Bienal das Amazônias in Belém (Aug-Nov 2023).

Souza Lima (2020), constructed the life story of a Marajoara urn that was historically individualized and decontextualized (SOUZA LIMA, et al., 2020), as well as analyzing the process of reproducing its image on various supports in Marajó and the making of a handmade replica of it in the technical reserve (SOUZA LIMA, 2023). In fact, the proposal to build life stories (of people and objects, both understood as subjects) from the collection has shown enormous potential.
Here, for example, the photographs of Anita Ekman's Performance (body painting with marajoara and ocher stamps) with Urna Marajoara (Joanes style) at Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, 2022.

“Beyond the walls of the technical reserve, I see it as equally important to explore, in situ, the sensitive experience of the material world of objects and constructed landscapes, as meaningful places, to get closer to the complex webs of relationships between these materialities and human societies, in the present and the past. To this end, the conventional methods of archeology and science alone are insufficient to reveal latent elements of the material universe that are, in some cases, essential to understanding the knowledge, concepts and practices of indigenous peoples and other peoples of the Amazon rainforest.”

It must be said that ceramics, and other archaeological remains, speak and have a lot to tell us. It's up to us to know how to listen to them.

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