This week: Signature style

Maya stelae from Guatemala. IMAGE: Sailko/Wikimedia Commons

With no contemporary written record to guide us, we cannot know the precise meaning behind the many depictions of human hands featured in prehistoric cave art around the world – the oldest known examples of which are believed to have been created more than 40,000 years ago on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia.

According to some, however – including the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in his best-selling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – these ancient handprints may have been an early form of signature, a way simply of saying ‘I was here!’.

Over time, of course, new methods were used by artists and craftspeople as proof of authorship and intent: a Sumerian clay tablet from 3100 BC, for instance, bears the mark of the scribe Gar Ama – believed to be one of the earliest surviving instances of a person using symbols to record their identity.

Signatures grew in prominence in Europe during the Renaissance – when Albrecht Dürer famously fought court cases in Nuremberg and Venice to protect his celebrated ‘AD’ monogram. But in many parts of the world, artists – even great artists – would continue to be regarded simply as anonymous artisans until as late as the 19th century.

As we discover this week on The Past, this was certainly the case among the major civilisations of the pre-Hispanic Americas – where even the names of the most accomplished painters and sculptors are lost to history.

But there was one exception: for a few short centuries, between AD 250 and 900, the artists working on the spectacular depictions of gods and lords in the royal cities of the Maya civilisation (in what is now Guatemala and southern Mexico) did take the unusual step of signing their work – giving us the only names we have from thousands of years of artistic production in the Americas before European colonisation in the 16th century.

In the latest issue of Minerva magazine, Joanne Pillsbury and Laura Filloy Nadal explain how recent study of Maya hieroglyphs has allowed us for the first time to learn more about these artists and their identities, and to shed light on their place in the royal courts.

Elsewhere this week, we have also been delving into the archives for more about the Maya civilisation: we travelled back to 1907 to celebrate the rediscovery of a spectacular ancient frieze; we visited the British Museum to learn more about the monumental carvings recorded by Alfred Maudslay during his travels around Mesoamerica in the 1880s and 1890s; and we even looked for evidence of the influence of pre-Hispanic art in the work of sculptor Henry Moore.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around Mesoamerican civilisations. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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