Review | Flower World: Music Archaeology of the Americas, Volume 2

Flower World: Music Archaeology of the Americas, Volume 2. Edited by Matthias Stöckli and Arnd Adje Both. Berlin: Ekho Verlag. 2013. [198 p., Individual €59; Institutional €92.] illustrations, photographs, references, index.

The field of American music archaeology has developed dramatically since the 1968 publication of Robert Stevenson’s Music in Aztec and Inca Territory, which, for better or for worse, remains one of the most referenced sources on pre-Columbian music in the Americas. At present, the field has moved increasingly towards exploring identifiable regional variations and historical transitions in form and function––a shift away from the tendency to make sweeping generalizations that marks Stevenson’s generation of scholarship. The recent publication of the second volume of Flower World: Music Archaeology of the Americas offers an exciting glimpse into the new methodological questions and considerations arising as a result of this transition to regionally specific and culturally informed archaeological musical studies. Each of the eight studies in the volume provide a unique framework for archaeological research tailored to a particular set of research challenges, including limited ethnographic records, scant surviving archaeological data, and a lack of playable instruments. Collectively, the studies highlight the growing flexibility of musical archaeology in the Americas, and its capacity to contribute to both historical and contemporary research questions in archaeology and ethnomusicology.

Henry Stobart and Daniela La Chioma Silvestre Villalva author two studies utilizing innovative research questions and methods. Stobart’s integration of architecture and space in his analysis of the Inca ushnu platforms is one example of how musical archaeologists are reexamining performance environments in conjunction with ethnographic sources. Through his analysis, Stobart suggests that the acoustic conditions of the platforms lend themselves more towards visual rather than auditory performances. His analysis of space and function provides a useful set of considerations for future historical studies of performance at historical sites. The study by Villalva also draws on contextual clues regarding the function and significance of musical performance. In her study of music and fertility, she analyzes the iconography of the antaras that appear on Nasca vases, and relates these to what is known of Nasca music and the Nasca cosmos. By connecting iconography and function, she compellingly hypothesizes that the images include two categories: a supernatural depiction and an earthly counterpart. Her study utilizes a research methodology that demonstrates how musical meaning can be unearthed from unlikely sources, including “non-musical” ceramics.

Egberto Bermúdez and Grazia Tuzi provide another set of ethnographic source options for historical research, blurring the line between archaeology and ethnography. Tuzi’s study surveys the historical Voladores dance and how it has evolved into the current contemporary performance. Tuzi presents a number of illustrations of Voladores, ranging from depictions in the early colonial sources, like the Duran Codex, Bobonicus, and Fernández Leal Codex, to later depictions from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Tuzi then examines the transformations in the Voladores tradition, including its more recent adaptation for tourist entertainment, as well as how the UN designated status of “intangible cultural heritage” has affected its performance. Tuzi keenly demonstrates how ethnomusicology can integrate musical archaeology to illuminate the significance of current performance practices through her refreshing mix of ethnographic fieldwork and detailed historical investigation of Colonial sources.

Bermúdez also draws on Colonial sources in his ethnographic study of Columbian sacrificial music performance, in which he examines a particular case of Spanish policing from the early Colonial Era. He draws from an extensive body of Colonial era literature in his research, including the Cantares, and the Florentine Codex, and he argues that the processes of cultural exchange hypothesized by Reichel-Dolmatoff support these broader connections. Bermúdez’s willingness to seek larger connections is commendable, but also raises the question of how and when culturally specific works like the Florentine Codex can be applied to other American cultures. Hopefully this will continue to be explored in future publications.

In addition to the diverse methodologies and data employed by the studies mentioned above, the Flower World collection also includes organological studies that explore instrument usage, classification, and distribution. Organological studies in the collection include a study of Nasca whistles by Anna Gruszczyńska-Ziólkowska; a study of ceramic instruments from the Greater Nicoya region by Carrie L. Dennett and Katrina C. Kosyk; a study of poli-globular flutes by Vanessa Rodens, Arnd Adje Both and Gonzalo Sánchez Santiago; and a study of the Hopewell panpipe by Mark Howell.

Several of the studies propose methods for categorizing the highly diverse ceramic instrument collections by typology and historical period, including the studies by Gruszczyńska-Ziólkowska and Rodens, Both and Santiago. Gruszczyńska-Ziólkowska identifies two categories of construction among Nasca whistles that she postulates correspond with two historical periods. The study finds that the changing aesthetics were likely tied to changing functions, although what these functions were is currently indiscernible. The study by Rodens, Both and Santiago endeavors to tentatively classify poli-globular flutes into four types with eleven sub-variants. The chart of poli-globular flutes in this study is exemplary, and includes the known providence of the instrument, approximate dates, dimensions, observations, an image, publications that have discussed the artifact, and the name of the artifact’s current collection. This chart should be a model for future studies. Additionally, the study includes an excellent literature review of recent Mesoamerican organological studies, which is highly overdue.

Rather than addressing classification, the study by Dennett and Kosyk and that by Howell focus instead on larger thematic relationships within the instrument collections. Dennett and Kosyk alternatively find overarching themes that transcend the identified chronological and political boundaries in the Greater Nicoya. The study postulates that the consistent appearance of animal iconography indicates a continuing function of the instruments that transcends the identifiable historical periods and regional political boundaries. The study by Mark Howell offers a glimpse of another creative archaeological methodology. With little data available, Howell instead focuses on the relationships between construction materials, potential sounding capabilities, and the sacrificial contexts in which they were found. He aptly demonstrates how asking broader questions can lead to meaningful musical analysis in contexts with limited surviving data.

In sum, the collection offers a refreshing acceptance of the diversity of the pre-Columbian Americas. Future publications might consider how to put these studies in dialogue with each other. For instance, how do the studies by Gruszczyńska-Ziólkowska and that by Dennett and Kosyk overlap in their respective findings regarding the intersections between historical periods and larger overarching themes? What are the next anticipated steps for classifying the many other ceramic instrument collections that defy classification, as initiated by Rodens, Both and Santiago in their study? And how should recurring themes, such as the overlap between iconography, material, meaning, function and organological classification, be negotiated going forward?

Although some readers might lament that there are few overarching conclusions to be drawn from the present volume, each study represents an important step toward piecing together how these musical cultures operated as separate entities and participants in larger regional networks. The collection continues to build upon a growing body of literature moving analysis from generalizations to a more informative specificity.


Stevenson, Robert. 1976. Music in Aztec and Inca Territory. Los Angeles: University of California Press.


Kristina Nielsen is currently a doctoral student at UCLA with an interest in pre-Hispanic instruments and modern reinterpretations of pre-Hispanic music. Kristina received her MA from UCLA after completing BM in piano performance at Western Washington University and an additional year of studies in the Mesoamerican Languages and Cultures program at Copenhagen University. She founded and now manages the Historical Perspectives subsection of the Sounding Board.



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