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ART 311: History of Pre-Columbian Art: Background pResearch & Keywords

Where can I find background information?

Now that you've identified some areas of potential research- or at least areas where you know you need to start filling in some knowledge- you should start looking into finding background information by using reference sources. As you're already aware, it is important to gather background information on a topic (or object, in this case) before diving into doing research, as it can supply that contextual information you're missing to give a better understanding of a topic, and it can also be a great way to start developing keywords to use during the research process.

Background information on a topic can be gathered from a variety of reference sources, including textbooks, encyclopedias, and reputable websites. Reference sources aren't meant to give you all your research and will not count towards your source requirements; they're meant to give you quick facts and a basic understanding of a topic as you start on your research.

Some good places to start:

  • If your object is in a museum, start with the museum's website. It's likely there is a page dedicated to your object.


So you've done some background research. 
You've completed your concept map.
You've connected the dots and have an idea of a thesis you can argue in your paper.

But don't hop into researching your topic just yet! Take the time to develop a list of keywords to use throughout your research.

KEYWORDS carry some of the most important meanings that will open doors to vast amounts of information. You can develop keywords by using the sources you've already looked into, or pulling directly from the concept map you created. Keywords can include:

  • The object (if it's famous enough, i.e. the Mona Lisa)
  • Type of object (i.e. funerary monument or stele)
  • Artist or school
  • Patron
  • Themes occurring in the object or concerning its context
  • Historical events happening at the time
  • Etc.

Creating keyword lists are important in that you will use these terms to search library tools such as the library catalog and article research databases. 

Developing search strategies

As you create keywords, you should also begin piecing together those keywords to create "search strings," or search strategies. You can certainly plug these keywords into the catalog and databases to see what you can find on your narrow topic, or you can elevate and expand your searching by using boolean operators, nested searches and truncation.

Now what does this all look like?

Step 1: Use context (from Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection website) to create keywords :

"Snakes were important symbolic animals in ancient Mesoamerica and particularly in Aztec mythology. As such, they are represented frequently in Aztec art. While some artists created veristic snake sculptures, others produced stylized versions representing hybrid supernatural creatures. Commonly known as a Fire Serpent, this coiled snake represents a Xiuhcóatl, a mythical creature whose Nahuatl name translates as “turquoise snake.” To the Aztecs, turquoise denoted preciousness and was related to time, the calendar, fire, and celestial bodies. Fire Serpents carried the sun on its journey across the sky, bringing light to the world each day. They were also associated with several Aztec gods, including Huitzilopochtli, who carried a Fire Serpent as a weapon, and Xiuhtecuhtli, the fire god at the center of the world."

  • Snake
  • Aztec art/sculpture
  • Fire serpent
  • Xiuhcoatl
  • Aztec religion
    • particularly Aztec gods- Huitzilopochtli and Xiuhtecuhtli (what kind of gods were they?)

Step 2: Create search strings using the keywords

  • (snake OR serpent) AND Aztec art
  • (snake OR serpent) AND Aztec religion
  • Xiuhcoatl AND art