1 Grieder’s Theory of Symbols in the Discourse of Art History

Rex Koontz



In 1975 Terence Grieder published a theoretical reflection on ancient pictorial symbolism and its interpretation called “The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols” in the journal American Anthropologist (Grieder 1975c). As the title indicates, the article aspires to be a general treatment of the process of ascribing meaning to ancient motifs. This was to be his first and only intervention in art historical theory published by a major journal. As such, it gives us another vantage point from which to analyze Grieder’s theoretical foundations. That the author was loath to reveal those foundations outside this article makes such an examination vital if we are to understand the arc of his work.

The fact that Grieder was not interested in publishing a full account of his method and theory beyond this article raises the question: why do it at all? The sustained theoretical argument was never Grieder’s favored form. Perhaps a more precise question would be: why do it at this point in his career? As James Farmer discusses elsewhere in this volume, Grieder was prone to a style of argumentation that valued succinct declarative statements over theoretical justifications. Even when Grieder allowed for a theoretical statement in other works (see, for example, Grieder 1978: 6ff.), that statement is brief, pointed, and specifically targeted to the matter at hand. “The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols” is an exception to all these habits of exposition. This chapter will explore the scholarly context of the piece as well as the goals—stated and unstated—in order to propose some possible answers to the questions of why Grieder would write such a piece, and why he would do it in 1975.

Throughout the article, Grieder was focused on those pictorial symbol systems that were not accompanied by texts. The focus on symbols without texts is an unstated premise but is absolutely central to his definition of the problem. One could imagine another article with the same title that also included ancient symbols accompanied by hieroglyphic or cuneiform texts, for example, but such examples are not treated as part of Grieder’s argument. Instead, through this theoretical intervention, Grieder wanted to create an analytical process that could effectively join a verbalized meaning with the pictorial symbols that lack accompanying texts or any contemporary descriptions of the semantic systems to which these symbols belonged. Here we see Grieder taking on a challenge that has  vexed art history since its inception: how to account for the meaning of ancient things that have no related texts.

If Grieder’s circumscription of “ancient art” meant privileging objects without texts, it also had a specific geographic focus not clearly laid out in the title or abstract. Although the author cited “traditions of every society” as his field of inquiry in the introduction, he was obviously focused on the possibilities of interpretation for ancient American (Pre-Columbian) art. It is unclear why this was not made more apparent, given that the journal American Anthropologist generally published articles on anthropology treating cultures from around the world and, thus, an Americanist focus for the audience cannot be assumed. One reason for this Americanist focus, despite the announced wider subject matter, could be that Grieder was preparing his own future work in ancient American art history through this theoretical essay. It is not a strange idea that a scholar would prepare a theoretical statement to launch a new phase of their own work, but if Grieder was indeed preparing the rationale for his next research phase, he does not make this clear in his abstract or general framing.

There are other reasons to suppose that Grieder was focused on the art history of the ancient Americas. In addition to most of the examples being taken from the Americanist literature, the structure of the article is based on what was a key cleavage in ancient Americanist scholarship at the time. Grieder breaks the scholarship on ancient pictorial symbolism into two competing camps: the configurational and the ethnological methods, the outlines of which are based in the historiography of ancient American archaeology and art history, as we discuss further below.

In Grieder’s telling, each of these primary methods of interpreting ancient symbols in the Americanist tradition, the configurational and ethnological, has its exemplary scholar. The chief proponent of the configurational method is the ancient Americanist art historian George Kubler, and the key text is a work on period and style published just a few years before Grieder’s own account.1 The configurational method may be briefly described as the study of ancient iconographic clusters occurring in single, defined periods. In this system there can be no interpretations of iconographic motifs that hold over long time periods. Later documentation on similar cultures is not admissible as evidence for ancient meanings. Given these strictures against any continuity of meaning over the long term, Kubler argued that the verbal meaning given to each cluster and its relationships in a truly configurational analysis must be supplied by the scholar working exclusively with the visual materials of the period in question.

Kubler’s rejection of any later documentation on a motif’s meaning descends from Erwin Panofsky’s iconographic explorations of European art, where the continuity of form and content over a thousand or more years could not be assumed. Panofsky noted that during the medieval period, classical (ancient Greco-Roman) figure types were often given Christianized meaning, such as when the pose of an ancient Venus figure was recuperated by the artist to serve as a figure of Christian Prudence. In this way the ancient meaning was divorced from the ancient form for later medieval artists. Panofsky elevated this to an historical principle: the “principle of disjunction” that later served Kubler in his arguments with those who found  post-conquest documents to elucidate pre-conquest meaning in the Americas. Kubler carried European disjunction to the Americas and replaced the ancient/Christian dichotomy with a pre-European invasion/post-European invasion one.

The ethnological method, the second of Grieder’s methodological dyad, uses the material found in documents created since the European invasion of the Americas to create analogies for the meanings of symbols found in pre-conquest art. The verbal meaning given to any symbol is thus developed out of documents that have some relationship to indigenous meanings, but are not of the same period. Peter Furst, an Americanist anthropologist who studies the art of the shaft tomb cultures of West Mexico, is the scholar Grieder associated with this mode of analysis (see Grieder 1975c:850), although Furst’s work is not the focus of anything like the detailed analysis that Grieder reserves for Kubler’s work. Even though one of the authors is backgrounded, using Kubler and Furst as his main antagonists assures an Americanist focus for the article.


The Year 1975 in Grieder’s Scholarship

Although Terence Grieder is often considered principally an Andeanist, it was only around 1975, at the same time that he published “Interpretation of Ancient Symbols,”  that the publication record began to bear this out. The theoretical statement found in that piece appeared as Grieder was committing more time and energy to the history of Andean art. By 1975 he had several extensive archaeological seasons at Pashash, Peru, behind him, but he had yet to publish those results. In that same year, he published the results of a modest excavation at the early site of Las Haldas, on the Peruvian coast (Grieder 1975a). In the Las Haldas piece, Grieder wanted to examine connections to the Chavín style that were not pictorial. Rather than working with objects as he had in the great majority of his previous output, here he mapped architectural sequences during the Chavín style horizon that had “implications for the social history of the Chavín period” (T. Grieder 1975a: 99). Grieder was able to map the sunken circular architectural features that he related directly to the Chavín horizon.2 He was also able to gather and seriate the ceramic evidence needed to anchor these architectural features in time and relate them to Chavín horizon developments on the coast. In focusing on architectural features of Chavín style, he noted that he was explicitly rejecting Gordon Willey’s advice to study Chavín style through its representational aspects (Grieder 1975a: 105–6). This focus on Chavín stylistic emergence and duration, begun in this 1975 article, was to be a staple of Grieder’s Andeanist work for much of his career. As I argue below, “The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols” may have been a prelude and theoretical foundation for what Grieder saw as a chief question of Andean prehistory: What were the roots of Chavín style and how did that style’s history play out after the abandonment of Chavín de Huántar?


George Kubler’s “Period, Style and Meaning in Ancient American Art” as the Point of Stasis

While Grieder glances at the archaeologist Gordon Willey’s framing of early Andean history, his real gaze is elsewhere, specifically in the construction of an art history of the early Andes. In his “Interpretation of Ancient Symbols,” Grieder inherits much of the article’s structure, and especially its configurational/ethnological dyad, from the art historian George Kubler, as alluded to earlier. Grieder cited Kubler, then the dean of Pre-Columbian art history, more than any other scholar in the text and at the most critical moments in the argument. His main focus was Kubler’s 1970 article on the nature of period and style in ancient American art history (Kubler 1970). It is interesting that Grieder chose this article, and not one on iconography or more general methods of interpretation. It is especially puzzling that given Grieder’s interest in Kubler’s configurational analysis he does not focus on the 1967 work that defines configurational analysis via an iconographic analysis of Teotihuacan (Kubler 1967). Grieder’s choice to background Kubler’s major work in configurational analysis while foregrounding a work that deals mainly with art history’s traditional interest in style periods is one of the more interesting analytical strategies in the 1975 article.

Grieder’s focus on Kubler’s 1970 article may be key to understanding Grieder’s agenda. Unlike in the 1967 piece on the configurational analysis of the art of Teotihuacan, Kubler does not set out in his 1970 article to theoretically circumscribe the interpretation of ancient symbols. Instead, Kubler wanted to refine the idea of an historical period by first recognizing the contingency of all periodizations and then more firmly relating any contingent period to its key trace, that of style. In this way he hoped to construct a firmer basis for the analysis of style and the creation of historical periods based on styles in ancient American art history.

As outlined above, during the mid-1970s Grieder had already been working on problems of Chavín style and its history. How did the focus on stylistic periods and the problem of duration in Kubler’s work, as opposed to more traditional (and seemingly more pertinent) discourses on the interpretation of symbols, attract Grieder in this context? One looks in vain for an answer in the Kubler article itself: for Kubler, the problems of iconography are largely contained in the problems of period style. This relationship between the interpretation of symbols and period style requires a certain amount of exposition. Before we proceed to the argument on Grieder’s motivations in borrowing heavily from Kubler’s 1970 article on style, it is helpful to go over Kubler’s main concerns and conclusions in that work from the vantage of our current interests.

Kubler argues that style must be thought of as basically synchronous. Any period based on stylistic criteria, then, should be thought of as a synchronous creative duration that can be measured chiefly in its spatial extension. “The idea of style is best adapted to static situations, in cross-cut or synchronous section. It is an idea unsuited to duration…” (Kubler 1970: 140). He contrasts a period based on style with the idea of a stage or horizon based in part on worldview or other extra-stylistic features. These latter  rest on unverifiable assumptions of cultural coherence, so that “An intuition alone binds these diverse strands” (Kubler 1970: 132). Kubler argued that any period based on cultural content but resting on style is trying to do too many things at once. If style is to be the basis for periodization, then style must be allowed its singular integrity across space and time. In the horizon style or cultural stage models of periodization, style is not allowed this integrity, but serves simply as a handmaiden to theories of cultural content identified with the style.

Further, Kubler believed that with the ascent of evolutionary theory in archaeological thought each of the supposedly coherent blocks of cultural time took its place in an evolutionary sequence (see Steward 1956 for a synthesis of such evolutionary thinking). For Kubler, a series of historical periods based on evolutionary stages that are viable and meaningful must not only be coherent in themselves, but must also exhibit some coherence in the development of the series of stages that matches with evolutionary theory.  In short, stage coherence must be matched by coherence in the developmental trajectory of the series of stages. Kubler noted that for the Andes the canonical stages and their sequencing had already been defined by Bennet and Bird as Cultist, Experimenters, Master Craftsmen, and so on (Kubler 1970: 136). A variant of the evolutionary paradigm had spread to the scholarship on Mesoamerica as well. These evolutionary periods carried significant and, for Kubler, largely intuitive assumptions that were unwarranted. Such evolutionary developments could not be read into the development of style, and yet the evolutionary sequence was based on stylistic analysis. Again, style was asked to bring order and coherence to cultural assumptions that Kubler felt were unwarranted and even misleading for ancient American studies. Thus the question of periodization was not idle theorizing for Kubler, but something he thought was at the heart of the scholarly problems in ancient American history. By the end of this section of his argument, Kubler had established his basic critique of periodization in that history: periods based on style were firmly grounded while periods based on coherent worldviews or evolutionary trajectories were unverifiable and intuitive. Neither of these latter traits was positive as far as Kubler was concerned.

After establishing the fundamental problems with ancient American periodization as worldviews or stages, Kubler then yoked ethnological analogy to the problems in evolutionary thought he just laid out with periods as coherent horizons or stages. For Kubler, ethnographic analogy compounds the errors in the assumptions of cultural coherence and continuity that doom the stage and horizon (Kubler 1970: 140–41). Although made to seem logical and inevitable, Kubler’s vision implies a radical synchrony as the only viable method on which to construct historical periods. Taken to its logical extreme, Kubler argued that the historical integrity of the synchronous group of objects is the optimal–perhaps the only–way to honestly apprise the meaning of such objects.

If periodization built on cultural assumptions is undesirable, then is Kubler’s alternative truly limited to the synchronous group? Perhaps the most telling paragraph in Kubler’s article, at least for our purposes, lays out the choice between analogizing approaches and those that get at the “total visual configuration” (Kubler 1970: 142). Kubler states: “As long as entire configurations of evidence are under study, then the fragmentation of analogizing is minimized.” Kubler’s reference to “entire configurations” here refers to pictorial elements created in a specific period. Again, it is important to remember that for Kubler a period is a synchronous unit. Thus a configuration of evidence is a body of artistic objects that were created in the same region at approximately the same time. Without distorting Kubler, one can define time here as elastic enough to include clear and discrete archaeological units of time, but it is not the time of cultural units that are posited to cover large time periods. In other words, Kubler privileges the place of production (the regional synchronic period style) over the sequence of objects extending in time (Miller 2009:71). This conception of a synchronic configuration of artistic traits is the basis of what Grieder refers to as configurational analysis, which is the latter’s alternative to ethnological analogy.

Kubler had, by this time, limited the viable corpus for a style period to the clear and discrete archaeological unit. He was not yet finished with delimiting the proper sphere of art historical research, however. The entire configuration referred to by Kubler does not include aspects of material culture and other cultural elements not included in the image systems studied by art historians. Recall the Kubler quote above that the configurations under study here have more to do with iconographic clusters—a reference to mainly elite pictorial objects and monuments–than pottery types, the latter largely aniconic, less focused on the elite, and more fundamental to archaeology than art history. Kubler is here carving a space for art history practice with just enough input from archaeology to get a discrete archaeological unit of time, but without the noxious cultural assumptions contained in evolutionary social theories. The pictorial materials are those over which the art historian has the most control and disciplinary mastery, especially when compared to the archaeologist.

After establishing the legitimate corpus of objects for any study, Kubler then goes on to argue that Panofsky’s principle of disjunction holds more firmly when we are dealing with cultures lacking extensive primary documentation, even when form and meaning are seemingly related over long periods of time: “On the contrary, prolonged continuities of form or meaning, on the order of thousands of years, may mask or conceal a cultural discontinuity deeper than that between classical antiquity and the middle ages” (Kubler 1970: 144). It would be difficult to find a more direct dismissal of Americanists who believed there were important long-term continuities in Indigenous American cultures that survived the European invasions. Kubler’s argument against continuity in American materials constantly returns to the analogy of the rift between classical antiquity and the Middle Ages in the West, as in the quote above. For Kubler, one cannot assume continuity of meaning when moving across the divide between Pre-Columbian/ancient American cultures and those after the European invasions. Further–and this is where disjunction becomes a “principle”–one should assume disjunction when dealing with objects on either side of the divide. Grieder had little interest in such prescriptive and rather rigid approaches to the archaeological record in general, and to the history of Chavín style and its aftermath in particular.

A clear problem with Kubler’s principle of disjunction is its claim to universality coupled with a lack of verifiability in any particular instance. Beyond the analogy of the rift between the ancient and medieval worlds, the scholar is left with no mechanism to check Kubler’s principle of disjunction: there is no systematic way to use patterns (iconographic, settlement, material culture, or other cultural patterns) to check if forms or meanings are disjunctive or not in any specific context. As an example of what one should not do in order to verify disjunction, Kubler argues against using pottery to check for disjunction or any other cultural development (Kubler 1970: 132). To paraphrase Clement Greenberg, for Kubler, pottery was about crafting pots and could not be used as evidence of other large-scale cultural phenomena. If pots and other material culture patterns are not allowed to indicate moments of historical change or disjunction, then the principle of disjunction systematically takes precedence over other assumptions in explanatory paradigms and does not permit comparison with the common data of archaeology such as pottery sequences. Grieder would have none of this; pottery sequences were key indicators of cultural change, and it is through pottery that “one can learn a good deal about the cultural history of whole societies” (Grieder 1975c: 851).

Grieder and Kubler are diametrically opposed on the value of material culture patterns and their relationship to the study of meaning in art. Kubler’s 1970 study negates the value of material culture patterns, such as pottery types, and in so doing minimizes one fundamentally productive relationship between art history and archaeology. Grieder quotes Kubler’s admonition to the student of style in art objects to be …”concerned more with iconographic clusters than with pottery types and chronology” and then vehemently disagrees yet again, stating that “Contrary to Kubler…it is hard to find a material product in any period that provides more immediate and exact information about the state of society than does pottery” (Grieder 1975c: 849–50). While Grieder follows much of what Kubler has to say on style, the argument regarding pottery and its role in culture is a striking and telling disagreement. In the 1975 article, Grieder is situating himself with those who would combine as much data as possible from both art history and archaeology to build a case for meaning. He argues against those (especially Kubler) who want to cleave off a certain corpus (for Kubler, objects studied under the rubric of style) and divorce it from other forms of data and other disciplines so that it may be studied in its pristine patterning. Grieder had no interest in carving out such an isolated sphere for art-historical expertise in the larger context of Americanist studies. On the contrary, as we will see, this article prepares the reader for the next two decades or more of Grieder’s work, in which his own archaeological projects produce the majority of his evidence for the art-historical arguments he makes.

At the time of Grieder’s article, it was the most serious commentary by an art historian on Kubler’s 1970 work. The iconography of Olmec sculpture had taken note of Kubler’s treatise (Clewlow Jr. 1974: 6) and literary theorists had noticed Kubler’s talk on periodization, but no art historian had dealt systematically with Kubler’s 1970 article as a coherent theoretical statement on the interpretation of ancient American art. That said, the fact that no scholar had systematically taken on Kubler’s 1970 article as a theoretical paradigm does not mean that the principle of disjunction was not widely discussed. In Mesoamerican studies, the 1970 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Before Cortes, and an accompanying symposium, provided an important venue for the discussion of the principle of disjunction, ethnographic analogy, and, to a lesser extent, configurational analysis (Bernal et al. 1973). In that venue, the senior archaeologist Gordon Willey argued for a Mesoamerican oikumene with significant continuities and directly against the principle of disjunction, citing Kubler’s 1970 piece as the definitive statement on the latter (Willey 1973: 154). Grieder would have been well-attuned to the importance of the argument on disjunction as he composed his own theoretical work.


Kubler, Grieder, and Ancient American Art History

While we have examined the Kubler 1970 article and Grieder’s stance towards it largely in terms of the art history of ancient America, this was not the original focus of Kubler’s article. The larger context of Kubler’s 1970 piece was its publication in the journal Critical Inquiry.  That particular journal number was not limited to an ancient American conversation, but instead engaged a wider discourse on style in art history. This discourse was carried out by eminent art historians mainly examining the Euroamerican sequence (Schapiro, Janson, and Gombrich 1970). Kubler’s article was constructed as a counter-argument to the concerns of western art historians: where the Western art historians saw the art-historical problems of ferreting out classical and non-classical elements–problems given to them by their historiography–Kubler saw the more fundamental problems of duration and sequence in the American materials. As Western art historians rested lightly on their assumptions, Kubler aggressively interrogated his.

In the end, however, Kubler had found a more rigorous “principle” for the interpretation of ancient American symbols—the principle of disjunction–in the earlier experience of Western art history. Erwin Panofsky, the dean of iconographic studies of the European tradition at the time, coined this principle specifically for the chasm that separated the ancient world from the late medieval and Renaissance periods, as alluded to above (Panofsky 1960). Panofsky questioned the existence of any real continuities between the medieval and Renaissance periods, suggesting that all quotations of ancient form and meaning in the later periods of European art history were rebirths or recreations that did not draw upon a continuous cultural tradition, because the ancient world had been “cut off” from the Renaissance and later periods by the intervening medieval period. In a simple sense, Panofsky argued that the ancient world was dead as far as the Renaissance was concerned. The ancient world had to be reanimated artificially through a scholarly process—the process we know as Classical Studies and Ancient Art History. Kubler was essentially saying the same for ancient American culture: any direct connection to the American world before the Spanish invasion was irredeemably lost to us. The iconographic motifs that undergirded the Pre-Columbian system were extinguished soon after the Spanish invasion, as were Pre-Columbian artistic styles (Kubler 1961). In this way, the classical scholar and the scholar of Pre-Columbian cultures are in similar situations, at least as far as Kubler was concerned. While we may recoil at a profound lack of engagement with descendant cultures in this view, it is important to note that the target relationship for Kubler was not primarily with indigenous descendants, but rather with the scholarly peers of other “dead” cultures.

Viewed against the categories of living and dead cultures, Kubler may have been positioning ancient American scholars in the academy in the “dead cultures” group at the same time that he was arguing about periodization. Much like his strategy in that same 1970 article to carve out a place for art historians to reign supreme in ancient American studies (that of iconographic clusters and synchronous stylistic units), Kubler is here declaring his academic affiliation with other “ancient” cultures and their studies. It is interesting to note in this context that Kubler was the major scholar to insist on the term “ancient American” for the periods before the Spanish invasion. This may be seen most clearly in the title of his earlier Pelican/Penguin survey The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples (Kubler 1962). The use of “Ancient American” in the present article, instead of the more common “Pre-Columbian,” descends in part from Kubler’s argument that Pre-Columbian studies is another ancient studies area (as opposed to that of living cultures, and rather clearly distinguished by the events associated with the arrival of Columbus). Grieder, contra Kubler, does not agree that for scholars there is no meaningful connection between the ancient Americas and the culture, practices, and arts of current indigenous peoples. This belief grounds Grieder’s earliest work in the area, and never leaves him. As James Farmer points out elsewhere in this volume, one of the first arguments Grieder made in his dissertation was an ethnological analogy.

While not a convert to complete historical disjunction, by 1975 Grieder was not immune to arguments against the promiscuous use of contemporary indigenous beliefs to explain art from a thousand years earlier. What Grieder sought with his 1975 piece is a theoretical statement that would provide a justification for using an ethnographic analogy in one case while admitting disjunction as a possibility in another—a critical but balanced sense of when continuity might be posited. The criteria posited for such a balanced assessment of continuity and disjunction included a capacious sense of cultural materials and their relationships: styles may be seen in relation to other aspects of material culture like pots, buildings, body decoration, and/or lithics, to take only a few of the elements Grieder later used in combination in his scholarly arguments.

Although Grieder argues specifically against Kubler’s radical insistence on disjunction and his prohibition on ethnographic analogy in the 1975 theoretical article, in the end Grieder leaves this part of Kubler’s argument on style unremarked on in most, if not all, of his own later work, as if the solution to the disjunction problem posited in the 1975 article was definitive. While disjunction was rarely remarked on later, other aspects of Kubler’s article continued to interest Grieder over the next decades. Over the long term, what was interesting to Grieder in Kubler’s 1970 article was not Kubler’s radical historical cut at the Spanish Invasion and the principle of disjunction. Instead, Grieder was captivated by the problems Kubler was raising in his treatment of periods inside of ancient American history, and specifically the contingency of periodization and how ancient American style periods were defined and used by scholars.

Kubler was interested in the scholarly problems caused by reifying period styles that were created contingently. As a cautionary tale for scholars who do not realize the contingency of periodization and thus fall prey to the “hardening of the periods,” in his 1970 article Kubler briefly examines the notion of the Chavín style and its relationship to Cupisnique and later Moche pottery on the coast. Kubler notes the obvious, that stirrup-spout vessels–then a key marker of Chavín style–continue long after the extinction of the Chavín horizon. To take this duration seriously is to question the extent and duration of Chavín style (Kubler 1970: 128–29). For Kubler, such thinking is evidence for a reification of the Chavín style period to fit other, non-style criteria and thus a misuse of the period concept, as discussed above. The problem of Chavín style was to be key for Grieder for the next fifteen years and more. Kubler’s thoughts on this, and his stance as an art historian critiquing other avenues of stylistic analysis, were a powerful influence for Grieder when seen in this context.

The 1975 article may be evidence that by this time Grieder had identified a specific problem of stylistic duration in Andean prehistory: how to map the Chavín horizon style and its aftermath and respond to it, as well as critique Kubler’s less-grounded analysis. The Pashash materials he had already obtained, such as the tenon relief sculptures (Grieder 1975b: 179), were three years later seen in light of the earlier Chavín tradition and its language of power (Grieder 1978: 182–83), presupposing important continuities between the Chavín and Pashash materials. In this key passage, Grieder describes how the Recuay culture inherited the Chavín artistic language of power via the stone sculpture tradition. Pashash was for Grieder one key to how the Chavín style tradition played out after the abandonment of Chavín de Huántar, based on the materials he had recently unearthed and his interest in style periodization. He was less interested in arguments about ethnological continuity and disjunction than he was in defining ancient styles and their histories inside a larger history of human creativity and communication. In effect, unlike Kubler who largely eschewed the concept of horizon style, Grieder was interested in earlier concepts of a Chavín horizon style seen from the point of view of communicative culture–or art history, in Grieder’s telling (Grieder 1978; see Lau 2011: 116 for a more recent assessment and historiography that takes issue with Grieder’s interest in continuities in Chavín style).

Grieder was not only exploring Chavín style duration through Pashash tenoned heads. In his introduction to that volume, Grieder explained that the entire Pashash project “…grew out of studies of the Chavín style…I was seeking a site which might reveal the “decline and fall’ of the Chavín style and the rise of its principal successor, the Recuay style” (Grieder 1978: 8). One can see the interest in Chavín style and its duration in the introduction to his Pashash volume published three years after the “Interpretation of Ancient Symbols.” Grieder begins that volume by rehearsing the basic points of the 1975 theoretical piece in the introduction to the Pashash materials (Grieder 1978: 6–7). He focuses on the productive interplay between archaeological information and “aesthetic re-creation,” the latter the purview of art history. He quotes Panofsky’s directive that archaeology and art history must be used together to forge a more complete historical synopsis (Panofsky 1955: 19), using the father of iconographical studies and the source of the principle of disjunction against Kubler’s reading of the same author. Although on some level Kubler may have agreed with Panofsky’s sentiment, the productive marriage of archaeology and art history is not the Panofskian “big gun” on which Kubler chose to focus his theory of style. Instead, Kubler focused on the “principle of disjunction” between form and meaning that Panofsky defined for the longue durée of European art history, as we saw above. Grieder’s use of Panofsky here in the Pashash volume is entirely consistent with his desire to effectively marry archaeological data and art historical questions, such as those on the duration and development of artistic style that can also be seen in “The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols,” and it is directly opposed to Kubler’s desire to cut off objects of study from archaeology and make them the property of art history.

To summarize the argument to this point, at this stage in his career, Grieder was interested above all, I believe, in the way we thought about the emergence and development of Chavín style. Grieder’s key 1975 theoretical work may be viewed most profitably not as a universal statement to rival Kubler’s 1970 work, but as a theoretical program crafted for a specific art historical problem: that of Chavín style history. Whether this context was communicated clearly in Grieder’s 1975 text is another matter. Given the title of the article and the avowed aim to consider “the traditions of every society,” it would seem that Grieder was trying to play two games at once: to defend and extend a capacious iconography for ancient American art historians working on objects and monuments without text (and thus the focus on the interpretation of symbols), while at the same time setting up theory and method for a further exploration of the emergence and duration of Chavín style (and thus the focus on Kubler’s problems of style period analysis as laid out in the 1970 piece quoted extensively by Grieder).


The Role of Art History in the Self-Identity of Terence Grieder

One may ask why Grieder would take on both interpretation and style periodization in the same theoretical statement without properly disentangling the two or even acknowledging the true scope of his project. Grieder felt a certain responsibility for the discourse of ancient American art history that may be difficult for us to imagine today. He was, after all, an early practitioner in a burgeoning and transforming field. Grieder took enormous pleasure and pride in the fact that he was the first PhD in Pre-Columbian art history in the United States.3 It was not simply a milestone; it was also an identity. The first sentence of his key 1978 work The Art and Archaeology of Pashash states “The study of the archaeology of Pashash has been made from the standpoint of the history of art” (Grieder 1978: 5). In this he and Kubler may have had some overlap in their mission: both self-identified as pioneers in the emerging field of ancient American art history with the ability (or responsibility) to set discursive boundaries and productive methods. As we saw in much of the discussion above, Grieder was carefully demarcating his own approach in relation (and sometimes opposition) to that of Kubler.


An Art Historian in “Archaeologyland”

A fundamental area where Grieder was clearly differentiating himself from Kubler was in the place of archaeology in his own work, as argued above. In seminars Grieder would often speak of why he did archaeology, given that he was invested in his identity as an art historian. In his telling, at some point he realized that he had to do archaeology when he found that no archaeologist was gathering the sort of data he needed. Grieder wanted to address the question of origins of ancient Andean culture and style generally, and more specifically the emergence and trajectory of the Chavín style. He felt the data obtained up to that point was woefully inadequate to address the question of origins. In this sense Grieder seems more aware of the problem of partial data and the contingencies of the archive. As Elizabeth Boone later explained, what we have left to us–what Boone calls “the defining sample”–“forms the very armature by which we conceptualize an ancient culture and explain it for ourselves” (Boone 2006: 22). The difference between Grieder and many of his fellow art historians then and now seems to be in his unwillingness to take the defining sample as a given.

The desire to actively participate in the archaeological work necessary to gather new data was, paradoxically, at the heart of Grieder’s thinking on art history. This is evident in the “Interpretation of Ancient Symbols.” Towards the end of his theoretical section, Grieder returns to the nature of induction and deduction in historical studies. He argues that historians (and archaeologists) formulate their research question based on earlier generalizations. Grieder then requires the historian to gather evidence which bears on the question, and to reach conclusions based on that evidence. But this inductive method only goes so far for Grieder. He asserts that “…art historians in particular, are nominalists at heart” (Grieder 1978: 7), believing in the end that each object and its context are the ground zero of our data as art historians. Art history cannot be a long march to confirm premises; it must be “full of surprises” as well as “full of answers one could not have asked until one saw the data” (ibid). How best to “see” the data in ancient American studies as an art historian? For Grieder, it was to do the archaeological spadework oneself.


The Rotary Wheel and Making–A Way Not Taken

I have argued above that Grieder took on a significant part of the ancient American art historian’s task in his 1975 article, even if the components of that work were not always well differentiated and defined. With the value of decades of hindsight, there are other opportunities that were missed in Grieder’s most important theoretical statement. In the same year that “The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols” appeared, Grieder also published a work on the use of rotary tools in ancient Andean art (1975b). Here he argued that tools had ritual uses that imbued the objects with symbolic meaning. Objects made from these meaningful tools partook in that meaning. Here he demonstrated a path to the “Interpretation” article that relies little, or not at all, on colonial documents or other upstreaming; instead, Grieder used a closely-observed application of slip to a ceramic vessel to show that it was applied while being spun; he also had a colleague recreate the effect of a cloth used on soft clay vessels as they spun, to explain specific marks on ceramic cups he found in a burial at Pashash (Grieder 1975b: 181).

In “Rotary Tools in Ancient Peru”, Grieder is exceptionally attentive to the traces of making as significant to the symbolism of the object. And yet, Grieder makes little of this avenue for generating meaningful interpretations of ancient symbolism in his more theoretical 1975 work.


The Afterlife of “The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols”

While we may wish that Grieder would have explored other fruitful analytical strategies that were well in hand by 1975, in the end it may be vain when doing historiographies to require that past scholars attended to issues we are now interested in. Rather than lament the things we think (with the privilege of hindsight) should have been there, it may be more interesting here to measure the effects, if any, that Grieder’s treatise had on his contemporaries and to speculate on why it had the effects it did.

Elsewhere in this volume, James Farmer suggests that the 1975 piece argued tenets that are now widely accepted in ancient American art history, although Grieder’s role in the establishment of these tenets is often overlooked. The citation record for the 1975 article—or the lack thereof–strongly suggests that Farmer’s insight is valid. This is the case even though, as I have argued above, the piece was fully in the thick of the scholarly argument at the time it was written. Although there is certainly no single reason for the article’s fate, one may speculate as to why it has been largely overlooked.

Earlier I noted that Grieder seemed to be playing two games with the 1975 piece: on one hand, he wanted to create a theoretical statement that covered “traditions of every society” while at the same time privileging questions in Americanist scholarship. Specifically, he may have been creating a more robust paradigm for the study of Chavín style. One wonders if a more focused treatment of the Chavín problem would have made for a more direct and transparent argument. The disjunction between the avowed subject, a universal symbolic analysis, and what I take to be the fundamental goal, the creation of a method for studying problems of Chavín style, may have to do with the article’s reception and its place (or lack thereof) in later theoretical debates in ancient American art history.4

A second reason for the article’s long sojourn in scholarly oblivion may be Grieder’s relationship with iconographical studies. Although the article was titled “The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols,” and many in his audience would have interpreted the title as basically an iconographic process, Grieder was never content with traditional Panofskyian iconography as the major method for the study of ancient American art history. The idea that visual experience should be interpreted mainly through documents and linguistic means was something he was never entirely comfortable with, and often pushed against in favor of a more capacious definition of the study of visual meaning. Throughout his career, Grieder argued and searched for visual meaning not only in symbols, but also in creative processes (such as the analysis of fiber art processes in Grieder et al. 1988: 155ff), patterns of technical equipment and problem-solving (such as the use of the rotary tool discussed above and in Grieder 1975a), the creation of illusionistic space (such as the examination of Maya spatial constructions in Grieder 1964), and other extralinguistic elements that can be said to impact a work’s meaning. In an ancient American studies environment during the 1970s and 80s in which newly deciphered hieroglyphic texts and the ever-increasing sophistication of ethnohistorical analysis were once again privileging the text in iconographical studies, interests such as those outlined above could seem less well-grounded, or even quaint and peripheral.

Yet a third reason that the article languished is the field’s general loss of interest in periodization. The contingent nature of periodization, while still stirring a controversy here and there, is no longer a major concern of most ancient American art historians. The emergence and duration of something that can be called Chavín style, while interesting, is no longer the central question it was when Grieder made his entrance into the professoriat.5 Instead of worrying over periodization, recent syntheses of the field tend to cite scholars such as Michael Baxandall and the importance of attending to indigenous visuality in our interpretive accounts (Klein et al. 2012: 13; Koontz 2009). As alluded to just above, the revolutionary impact of Maya hieroglyphic decipherment is one reason that scholars can speak seriously of ancient visualities and other emic cultural modalities. An increasingly sophisticated ethnohistoric discourse for regions across the Americas is another. Grieder’s work was not against using the evidence from hieroglyphic writing, ethnological analogies and conquest documents, but his vision for doing so was limited to reconstructing cosmologies and related symbolic identifications (see Shimada 1978 for the limits of Grieder’s iconographic approach).

Finally, it may be that Grieder’s approach to symbols in the 1975 work was simply too limiting for his own interests. Recall that in other of his works at the time, he was less interested in reconstructing cosmologies and the configurational/ethnological dyad and more interested in exploring other aspects of the creative process, such as early fiber techniques (briefly discussed above), or the effects of stone carving equipment, but these aspects of the creative process do not enter into the “Interpretation of Ancient Symbols.” And yet, in another publication from that year and alluded to above, Grieder states that “in Precolumbian America, mechanical devices were endowed with symbolic meaning” (Grieder 1975b: 178). Even with the dangers of hindsight acknowledged above, one must ask what stopped Grieder from bringing this type of consideration—grounded in facture and process–more effectively and enthusiastically on board in his theoretical statement. After all, Grieder was viscerally familiar with such considerations as a long-time practicing artist (see Farmer, this volume). Any reply to the question of Grieder’s motivation in leaving facture and process out of his theory of interpretation would be speculative, but perhaps some elements for an answer may emerge from the accumulation of thought on his work found in this volume.



1. Kubler published examples of the configurational method in practice before and after the 1970 theoretical statement, but Grieder does not cite these in 1975. See especially the senior scholar’s work on Teotihuacan (Kubler 1967).

2. These sunken circular spaces were to become important for Grieder in his work at La Galgada, where he finds evidence for much earlier examples. For Grieder these sunken features, among other cultural elements, were good evidence for Chavín de Huantar as simply one step in a much longer and recognizably continuous trajectory (Grieder et al. 1988: 31ff.).

3. While I believe this to be the case, Grieder’s primacy is poorly attested in the literature. Klein (2013: 187) seems to refer to Grieder as the student who received his PhD at Penn in the early sixties but does not mention him by name. In another recent overview of the field, Grieder is noted as an early practitioner, but not as the first art history PhD. (Klein et al. 2012: 20).

4. A significant exception to the oblivion in which Grieder’s 1975 article fell is Vernon Knight’s Iconographic Method in New World Prehistory. Cambridge University Press, 2012. Knight structures his book much like Grieder does his article–with the configurational v. ethnological analysis dyad. He cites Grieder 1975 numerous times on this and other iconographic issues.

5. Rowe (1962) published his major inquiry into Chavín style and meaning the year that Grieder received his doctorate. That same year Willey (1962)  published his comparative and general account of the “great early styles,” the Chavín and the Olmec. Grieder (oddly) does not cite Willey. Three years later, Coe (1965) published his extended study of Olmec style. The definition of the great early styles was a fundamental preoccupation during the period around Grieder’s entrance on the scholarly stage.


Works Cited

Bernal, Ignacio, et al.
1973    The Iconography of Middle American Sculpture. New York : Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://libmma.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15324coll10/id/201658.

Clewlow Jr., Carl William.
1974    “A Stylistic and Chronological Study of Olmec Monumental Sculpture.”

Coe, Michael D.
1965    “Handbook of Middle American Indians.” In The Olmec Style and Its Distributions, edited by Gordon R Willey, 3:739–75. Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Grieder, Terence.
1964   “Representation of Space and Form in Maya Painting on Pottery.” American Antiquity 29 (4): 442–48. https://doi.org/10.2307/277979.

1975a   “A Dated Sequence of Building and Pottery at Las Haldas.” Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology, no. 13: 99–112.

1975b   “Rotary Tools in Ancient Peru.” Archaeology 28 (3): 178–85.

1975c   “The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols.” American Anthropologist 77 (4): 849–55.

1978    The Art and Archaeology of Pashash. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Grieder, Terence, et al.
1988    La Galgada, Peru: A Preceramic Culture in Transition. Austin, TX, UNITED STATES: University of Texas Press. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uh/detail.action?docID=4826193.

Klein, Cecelia, et al.
2012    “Theory, Method & the Future of Pre-Columbian Art History.” Journal of Art Historiography 7. http://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/klein.pdf.

Koontz, Rex.
2009    “Visual Culture Studies in Mesoamerica.” Ancient Mesoamerica. 20 (02): 217–20. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0956536109990046.

Kubler, George.
1961    “On the Colonial Extinction of the Motifs of Pre-Columbian Art.” In Essays in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, edited by Samuel K. Lothrop, 14–34. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

1962    The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples. The Pelican History of Art Z21. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

1967    The Iconography of the Art of Teotihuacán. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University.

1970    “Period, Style and Meaning in Ancient American Art.” New Literary History 1 (2): 127–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/468624.

Lau, George F.
2011    Andean Expressions: Art and Archaeology of the Recuay Culture. Iowa City, UNITED STATES: University of Iowa Press. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uh/detail.action?docID=843306.

Miller, Mary.
2009    “Shaped Time.” Art Journal 68 (4): 71–77.

Panofsky, Erwin.
1955    Meaning in the Visual Arts. University of Chicago Press Chicago. https://content.taylorfrancis.com/books/download?dac=C2018-0-83345-3&isbn=9781912453900&format=googlePreviewPdf.

1960    Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art. New York: Harper and Row.

Rowe, John Howland.
1962    Chavin Art, an Inquiry into Its Form and Meaning. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, distributed by University Publishers.

Schapiro, Meyer, H. W. Janson, and E. H. Gombrich.
1970    “Criteria of Periodization in the History of European Art.” New Literary History 1 (2): 113–25. https://doi.org/10.2307/468623.

Shimada, Izumi.
1978    “Review of The Art and Archaeology of Pashash.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 58 (4): 765–74.

Steward, Julian H.
1956    “Cultural Evolution.” Scientific American 194 (5): 69–83.

Willey, Gordon R.
1962    “The Early Great Styles and the Rise of the Pre-Columbian Civilizations.” American Anthropologist 64 (1): 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1962.64.1.02a00010.

1973    “Mesoamerican Art and the Integrity of the Mesoamerican System.” In The Iconography of Middle American Sculpture, 153–68. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://libmma.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15324coll10/id/201658.