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Music played an important role in ancient American art and thought before a.d. 1521–1534 when European conquest began. The ethereal quality of sound, whether produced by musical instruments or the human voice, was believed to be an appropriate ritualistic medium to communicate with unseen realms, the focus of the shamanic religious practices of ancient American cultures.1 Because of its significance, the ability to produce sound was also integrated into works of art not primarily considered to be musical instruments, such as vessels with rattle-filled hollow legs or necklaces that doubled as flutes or whistles.

Many of the instruments in the Michael C. Carlos Museum’s recently reinstalled galleries of the Art of the Ancient Americas have been played under controlled circumstances by Mexican ethnomusicologist Antonio Zepeda. The bat flute illustrated here emits particularly beautiful, breathy notes. With its tail serving as a blowhole, the four holes on the reverse are fingered to play the multiple notes of a flute. The clear tones prove that such instruments are as well made on the inside as they are on the outside, an example of the internal point of view favored by ancient American artists.

This bat flute is a remarkably well-preserved, a premier example of the Marbella style of brownware from ancient Costa Rica’s northwestern region, dated to circa 300 b.c. to a.d. 500. It epitomizes the style’s characteristics: a velvety brown slip color, burnished panels outlined by incised lines, matte areas with punctuation (little punched dots made by rocking the edge of a shell into the surface), and white detailing of the lines and dots. The artist has created a marvelous evocation of a leaf-nosed bat (phyllostomidae), of which vampire bats are a subspecies, by capturing its velvet brown fur, upturned nose, prominent ears, and tautly spread wings.

Worn on a string threaded through the suspension holes that run through the neck, the flute conveys the ability of vampire bats to walk on their hind legs when approaching their sleeping prey. Its open-wing position portrays a bat in flight, while the two V-shaped burnished plain sections manage to connote the bat’s folded-wing position as well. This closed-wing position of a bat hanging upside down in a cave or roost becomes even more apparent when the flute is played and the bat assumes its characteristic inverted position. Admittedly, this is also true of Marbella flutes whose imagery is not that of the bat. However, it remains significant that the design accommodates different uses: a walking or flying bat when a necklace, a roosting one when a flute. Typical of the art of ancient Costa Rica and its neighbors, multivalent functionality was a common preoccupation of ancient American artists for whom no element was haphazard or symbolically extraneous.

In terms of significance, the bat has always been a prime animal subject in shamanic cultures, being a nocturnal hunter with a special ability to locate prey by echolocation. The ancients would have thought that their prodigious hunting skills were a result of magically being able to see in the dark. Bat vision makes a perfect metaphor for what an ancient American shaman experienced in a nocturnal trance: not seeing this world with normal sight, but using another visual mode to become an effective hunter of souls, spirits, and truth.

Dr. Rebecca Stone-Miller is an Associate Professor of Art History at Emory University and faculty curator of the Art of the Ancient Americas for the Carlos Museum. Her most recent publication is Seeing with New Eyes: Highlights of the Michael C. Carlos Museum Collection of Art of the Ancient Americas (2002).

1 Imagery from ancient American cultures indicates that music was broadly ritualistic in nature and generally associated with spiritual performance.

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