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The Louis-Capitan Collection

Claire Guttinger et Sarah Rey
p. 110-111
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’enseignement des antiquités américaines au Collège de France

Notes de la rédaction

Source: La lettre, no. 39, March 2015

Texte intégral

1The Teaching of American Antiquities at the Collège de FranceThe digitized iconographic resources of the Collège de France Bibliothèque générale include a remarkable body of photographs and drawings that belonged to Louis Capitan (1854-1929). This collection is now available online on the Salamandre portal (archive catalogue and digital library of the Collège de France).

El Castillo (Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico) Photographic plate, 8.5 x 10 cm, n. d.

2Capitan, a physician by training and once a student of Claude Bernard, was interested in prehistory, archaeology and ethnography. His archives are a good reflection of this wide range of interests. After being a professor at the School of Anthropology, Capitan taught American antiquities as a chargé de cours, or teaching assistant at the Collège de France from 1908 to 1929, without losing sight of his research in the European and extra-European pre- and proto-historical fields.

3Many researchers with diverse competences were called upon to identify each print of the collection. Éric Taladoire, emeritus professor in pre-Columbian archaeology at the University of Paris I-Sorbonne, spearheaded this collective work, generously sharing his advice and surrounding himself with a team of people able to understand both the origin and the nature of these images. This group, which devoted itself to the collection for several months, included junior and experienced researchers, both French and from abroad. They were mainly Americanists: apart from Éric Taladoire himself, in alphabetical order there was Rosario Acosta Nieva (UMR 8096), Alexandra Biar (PhD student, Paris I), Robert Cobean (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico), Lucie Dausse (PhD student, Paris I), Nicolas Goepfert (UMR 8096), Patrice Lecoq (Paris I), Leonardo López Luján (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico), Pascal Mongne (École du Louvre), and Jane Walsh (Smithsonian Institution of Washington). Prehistorians such as Boris Valentin (Paris I), Gilles Tosello (UMR 5608) and Camille Bourdier (Toulouse II), as well as an Orientalist archaeologist Guillaume Gernez (Paris I), joined the team that carried out this identification work. The Louis-Capitan Collection is comprised of over 2,000 pictures from across America. Alongside Mexican and Andean Collections, a significant part of the collection concerns the American South-West and the cultures of the Mississippi Basin mound builders. Many high-quality archaeological objects are found alongside pictures of Mexican temples barely cleared of the vegetation that long covered them. The core sites of Mayan civilization are those photographed most extensively (Copán, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Palenque, etc.). These are precious images, in so far as they depict some of the monuments at the time of their discovery, before their restoration. Likewise, some reliefs appear in situ, before they were transferred to different archaeological museums. This collection reflects Capitan’s teaching, which often concerned the everyday lives of the ancient inhabitants of America. The iconographic repertoire did not only include ceramics (particularly from the Mochicas in Peru); it also abundantly featured fabrics, jewellery, mortars, and axes. While Capitan did not always observe the principle of archaeological series, he definitely strongly emphasized material culture. Photographs also reveal his comparativist perspectives, which range from Bochiman paintings to early shots from Polynesia and Easter Island, etc.

Discovery of the monumental statue of Tlaloc, Aztec god of rain. Coatlinchan (Mexico). Photographic plates and stereoscopy.

4In order to multiply and diversify the material he showed in his lectures, Capitan used glass plates to draw several figures or glyphs found in the main codices that provide information on the history of Ancient Mexico: the Mayan codex Troano, the Mendoza, the Ramirez, the Telleriano Remensis, etc. He also sketched, in black and white or in colour, types of housing, site maps, landscapes, and botanical or geological curiosities. This corpus of sketches sheds light on a little-known aspect of Capitan’s interests: he retraced the itinerary followed by the Légion Étrangère during the French intervention, which culminated in the Battle of Camarón.

5The Louis-Capitan Collection contains a few gems. For example, we find in it the images of an exceptional statue, found in Coatlinchan, representing Tlaloc, the Mexicas’ god of rain, before it was moved to the Museum of Mexico, where it holds a place of honour at the entrance. There is also a previously unknown portrait of Adela Breton (1849-1923), one of Capitan’s contemporaries, a great traveller who became an expert in Yucatan paintings, and a major figure among specialists on the Mayan world. The collection furthermore holds a series of photographs illustrating the discoveries of the Mexican archaeologist Leopoldo Batres in the las Escalerillas street in Mexico, one of the first collections relating to the archaeology of the Aztec capital. Special attention should be paid to a few pictures devoted to the objects taken back to California by Léon de Cessac (1841-1891): these collections are nearly unique worldwide, and documents illustrating them are truly rare.

6More generally, these photographic plates convey the state of Americanist science in the early twentieth century, at a time when Europeans still dominated the discipline, before passing on the torch to their American colleagues after the Great War. They help understand Capitan’s work notes and other course and lecture preparations. They are also available on Salamandre, since they were moved from the IMEC to the archives of the Collège de France.

The Louis-Capitan Collection has been digitized with the support of the Fondation de l’Orangerie and its generous donors.

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Table des illustrations

Légende El Castillo (Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico) Photographic plate, 8.5 x 10 cm, n. d.
Fichier image/jpeg, 260k
Fichier image/jpeg, 216k
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,3M
Légende Discovery of the monumental statue of Tlaloc, Aztec god of rain. Coatlinchan (Mexico). Photographic plates and stereoscopy.
Fichier image/png, 25M
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Claire Guttinger et Sarah Rey, « The Louis-Capitan Collection », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 29 septembre 2015, consulté le 24 juin 2018. URL :

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Sarah Rey


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