Painting the Visual Vocabulary of Mesoamerican Archaeology

Adela Breton was apparently “a nuisance” to the men who couldn’t quite figure out what to do with a 50-year-old single woman in Mexico in 1900. Happily, Trowelblazers worked up a short profile on this fantastic artist and scholar and followed up their profile with this tweet:

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 2.42.18 PM

I don’t know about you, but when I’m writing something or have other heavy head-work to do, I like to browse through digital museum archives when I need to take a break. Maybe it’s just me. But it paid off big time.

The Breton Collection has 1301 entries, maybe 1/5 of these entries have images online. I can only imagine what else is in their storeroom, because the images that they have online are a glorious feast of archaeological visualization.

Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. (Bristol Museums)

Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. (Bristol Museums)

Adela Breton is probably one of the most gifted archaeological illustrators that I’ve ever seen.

You see, I was working on a co-authored piece with Holly Wright on analog vs. digital archaeological field illustration, and so going through this collection was even more exciting. Breton didn’t just draw loooovely watercolors of ruins though…her works covered several of the other visual outputs of archaeology.

Map of section of Teuchitlan Hill Fortress, Jalisca, Mexico. Black ink sketch showing mounds halfway up the mountain and the summit.

Map of section of Teuchitlan Hill Fortress, Jalisca, Mexico. Black ink sketch showing mounds halfway up the mountain and the summit. (Bristol Museums)

This hachured plan of an archaeological site would be familiar to any landscape archaeologist, and I love imagining Breton tromping across this mountainside in her Victorian lady-boots, sketchbook in hand, gnawing a pencil, thinking about contours, the relative distances between buildings, and the direction of slope beneath her feet.

Watercolour of two pottery figures. One shows an animal with its back in the form of a bowl. The other is shows two men carrying a canoe like object between them. Costa Rica. (Bristol Museum)

Watercolour of two pottery figures. One shows an animal with its back in the form of a bowl. The other is shows two men carrying a canoe like object between them. Costa Rica. (Bristol Museums)

Breton painted artifacts with such grace that you feel like you can touch their smooth curves. Can you see the chip in the rim of the animal pot?

Watercolour showing three fragments of red pottery with designs incLuding a running dragon-like figure in white, and one fragment of buff pottery with design in brown. National Museum of Mexico City. (Bristol Museums)

Watercolour showing three fragments of red pottery with designs incLuding a running dragon-like figure in white, and one fragment of buff pottery with design in brown. National Museum of Mexico City. (Bristol Museums)

She also drew more pottery in ways that are more familiar to archaeological illustrators, not quite as painterly, a focus on hue and shape. I love that this painting appears to be on the back of stationery from the Palace Hotel.

In addition to the archaeological illustrations, Breton drew ethnographic sketches, geological formations, and…earthquakes?

San Francisco Earthquake of  April 1892, 58 seconds.

San Francisco Earthquake of April 1892, 58 seconds.

Breton put pen to paper during a massive earthquake, even indicating north on the page! The first seismograph wouldn’t even make it to America until 1897. I flagged it up to Karen Holmberg & Elizabeth Angell, both of whom do exciting work on anthropology and natural disasters and can add much more nuance to the analysis of such an incredible visual artifact.

Thank you to Bristol Museums who have kept & digitized this glorious collection! Support your local (and digi-local) museums!

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s