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Mesoamerican pottery has some great traditions. Not only did the various Mesoamerican cultures make and use very utilitarian vessels for food storage and cooking, but they also made more ceremonial vessels, funerary urns, and figures.
The term "Mesoamerica" itself gives a clue to the interrelated styles and motifs we will find. Pre-columbian archeology sees Mesoamerica as a culturally-related area comprising the southern states of Mexico and the countries of Guatemala, Belize, El... Salvador, western Honduras and Nicaragua, and northwestern Costa Rica.
We are used to seeing artifacts from ancient cultures in museums...cleaned up, put back together, and labeled with the best information expert archeologists and curators have to offer. Rarely, if ever, do we think of what it must be like to see these same artifacts as they would have been found...jumbled, broken puzzles waiting for someone with that expertise to unravel their mysteries.
These are the shards of Mayan pottery. Basic utilitarian pots, yet look at the craftsmanship of these pot's walls. These thin walls and symmetrical forms were attained without the use of a potter's wheel. Just in these few shards we can glimpse a mastery of clay and a level of craftsmanship that is truly anything but "primitive".
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Mayan Pots Found in Belize
Over 600 archeological sites are known just within the borders of Belize. Even today, it is possible to find ruins, artifacts and even burial sites if you explore the depths of the country's forests and caverns.
How excited would you be if you had discovered these pots in a cave? These are simple utilitarian pots, but they speak of a people long ago and a culture that probably is not the one in which you were born into and live in.
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Mayan Pot Found in Cave
The Mayans believed that vessels had a kind of spirit and they broke most of their pots when offering them as sacrifices or in burials. You can see a possible "spirit hole" in one of the pots in the previous photograph, however, this pot was found intact. Says photographer, Tony Beeman, it is "pretty crazy to find artifacts that you normally see in museums still in their original settings."
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Two Chupicuaro Figurines, ca. 5000 BC
These are two small earthenware figurines from the Chupicuaro culture, ca. 5000 BC, now residing at the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame.
The Chupicuaro culture was located in the mountains of central Mexico and is named for the area in which the artifacts have been found. These figurines are probably from the earlier phase of the culture and may have been used in funeral rites that emphasized the fertility of the soil and the annual hibernation (death) and reawakening (rebirth) of... the earth's seasons.
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Tlatilco God and Goddess, ca. 1200-400 BC
God and goddess figures from the Tlatilco culture of central Mexico. These figurines now reside at the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame.
The name "Tlatilco" comes from the Nahuatl language, in which it means "the place of hidden things". Like the name "Anasazi", "Tlatilco" was the name given by a later people who found ruins and artifacts from a people who had already disappeared.
Tlatico, Chupicuaro, and related early cultures are closely associated... with the Olmec culture. Many of these early cultures have become well-known for their distinctive clay figurines of nude women, often sporting fantastic hairstyles. Certainly, there are resemblances between the Chupicuaro figures in the previous page and these figurines.
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Olmec Vulture Jug, ca. 1200 - 800 BC
The Olmec culture is considered the first Mesoamerican civilization. Olmec influence can be seen in nearly all subsequent cultures, up to and even after the conquest of the area by the Spanish. They appear to be the first to practice ritual bloodletting and Mesoamerican ballgames, both of which are hallmarks of subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations.
The Olmecs are well known for their arts, especially their monumental stone carvings of human heads. This Olmec-style jug in the shape of a vulture,... ca. 1200 - 800 BC, shows a sophistication of three dimensional form that is unsurprising in a culture that prized sculpture. This vessel is ceramic, painted black with traces of red ocher. It is 6.5 inches (16.5 cm) in height.
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Olmec Fish Vessel, ca. 1200-900 BC
This Olmec fish vessel is ceramic, painted black after firing, There are also traces of cinnabar (red mercury sulfide) on it. Although the form itself is not as complex as that of the Olmec vulture jug seen previously, it is unmistakably done using the same techniques and in the same tradition. We will see that same tradition later in a non-anthropomorphic bottle form.
Also note that the main portion of the decoration is done through incising. Although the vulture previously seen did have some... incised details, much of it was modeled instead.
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Olmec Figurines, ca. 1100-800 BC
This group of Olmec figures were created between 1100 -800 BC. Some of these figurines are quite artistically savvy in their modeling, for example, the seated figure at the far right. Note the care given to the limbs and how the body posture is leaning forward with a curvature as the figure looks over to the side. The reclining woman on the left has much the same feel.
This type of non-frontal modeling is quite sophisticated from a sculptural standpoint. It is similar to the difference between a... child's or untrained adult's unsophisticated default drawing of a person (which is almost always in a stiff, full frontal pose), as opposed to the trained and visually sophisticated drawing of a person in a pose showing movement and done from a perspective other than full-frontal.
The Olmecs themselves resided in the lowlands of south central Mexico, in an area which is roughly comprising the modern Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. It is an area of tropical, swampy lowlands with occasional hilly areas and a few volcanoes. La Venta is probably their best known complex, but they also had city-temple complexes at San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlán, Potrero Nuevo, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros.
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Olmec Bottle, ca. 1100-800 BC
An Olmec-style bottle attributed to be from the Las Bocas area, ca. 1100-800 BC. The attribution is somewhat suspect, since many artifacts were labeled as "from Las Bocas" by less-than-reputable dealers in pre-Columbian artifacts in an attempt to add to their allure.
It is true, however, that Olmec influence spread throughout the region. It is thought possible that Olmec artistic and craftsmanship styles were considered very impressive and were sought after by the elite of many non-Olmec... groups. Olmec trade was very widespread, which also would have encouraged the dissemination of their artistic traditions and styles.
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Plate from El Mirador, ca. 300-150 BC
Blackware plate from El Mirador, in the Peten Department (state or province) of Guatemala. The plate is incised with two bird figures and probably had a ceremonial function. Thankfully, it was left behind by tomb robbers. Unfortunately, other artifacts were not.
El Mirador was occupied starting about 500 BC and reached its height from 200 BC to 100 AD. At its peak, it had a population of approximately a hundred thousand people. However, by about 150 AD the city-state (and its neighbors) were... abandoned.
Portions of the site were repopulated around 700 AD. This was a by far more modest occupation, however, with much smaller buildings being placed between the much more impressive ruins. This reoccupation was relatively brief, only lasting until the site was once again almost completely abandoned around 900 AD.
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Tomb Tree from Nayarit, ca. 300 BC - 600 AD
A pottery tree from the western Mexico shaft tomb tradition and found in the Nayarit area, currently residing at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. The tree is 11 inches (28 cm) tall and is estimated to have been created between 300 BC to AD 600.
Note the loose but clear renditions of birds on the branches and the number of objects cluttering the ground around the trunk, including what appears to be a plate of food.
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Mesoamerican Ballgame Tableau ca. 300 BC - 400 AD
Even with the loose rendering of the players, the ancient potter caught the intensity of the ball players in this ceramic tableau. It is from the shaft tomb tradition of western Mexico (specifically the Colima area for this piece) and now resides in the Museo Rufino Tamayo of Oaxaca.
Dating the figures from this tradition is difficult, since there has been extensive looting if the tombs. Pieces quite often have no real provenance detailing where they were found and in what context.
Ceramic... tableaus occur frequently and often show groups of people engaged in various activities that seem fairly representative. They provide a window into the people's funerary practices, the Mesoamerican ballgame, and architecture. Some tableaus are so detailed that they are almost certainly representations of identifiable architectural ruins that have been discovered.
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Duck from Colima, ca. 100 BC - 200 AD
Another example of the highly burnished style of grave goods found in shaft tombs in western Mexico. Note the pleasing abstraction of the body, without the idea of "duck" ever diminishing. If anything, the abstraction and globular distortion of the body add to a sense of buoyancy.
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Dog from Colima, ca. 100 BC - 200 AD
This lovely burnished ceramic dog also comes from a shaft tomb in western Mexico. In many Mesoamerican cultures, dogs are the guides of the dead. Several of the ceramic dogs have been found with human masks over their heads.
However, if you look at this dog you can see it is very well nourished to the point of being fat. Dogs were often the major source of animal protein in ancient Mesoamerica and this one may have been included in the grave goods as a way to provide meat for the departed.
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Zapotec Funerary Urn ca. 300-650 AD
A Zapotec funerary urn from the Monte Alban Period III, now at the American Museum of Natural History. It is either in the shape of a bat god or a jaguar and is 9.5 inches (23 cm) tall.
The Zapotecs lived in the Oaxaca Valley in southern Mexico; their most famous ancient complex is Monte Alban. Their culture began at least 2,500 years ago and there are still 300,000 to 400,000 Zapotecs living in their ancestral region.
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Pre-Columbian Monkey Bowl, Period Unknown
A pre-Columbian ceramic figure in form of monkey holding a bowl, about 8.5 inches (22 cm) high and 6 inches (15 cm) across at shoulders. Provenance is largely unknown but it is said to have come from Guatemala.
The Mayans of Guatemala and Mexico worshiped a howler monkey god who was the patron of the arts. The howler monkey is also associated with knowledge of history, rituals, and prophecy. In Aztec mythology, the monkey was connected to the sun. In Honduras there is supposed to be the... "Ciudad Blanca", a city dedicated solely to the Monkey God. Although its ruins have not been found, the city may actually have existed.
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Mayan Figure from Tikal, ca. 200 BC - 900 AD
Tikal is an ancient Mayan city-state located in what is now northern Guatemala. The site was occupied for centuries, possibly as early as 600 BC, but definitely by 200 BC on through to about 900 AD. Along with the monumental buildings, other architectural structures and stelae, thousands of art objects have been found in tombs and caches.
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Bird Deity Censer Stand, ca. 250-450 AD
This ceramic censer stand is created in the style of the Principal Bird Deity, defined as a supernatural creature with a "long-lip" face and a particular type of avian wing having the profile of a serpent head included around the shoulder. This may equate with the god Kukulkna of the Guatemalan Maya, from which this censer stand comes. (The Aztec name for this same god is Quetzalcoatl.)
The piece was created between 250 and 450 AD and is currently at the Los Angles County Museum of Art.... Its dimensions are 6.25 x 7.25 x 8.75 inches (15.88 x 18.42 x 22.23 cm).
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Conch Shell with Emerging Vulture, 400-550 AD
This ceramic piece of a conch shell with a vulture emerging from it is probably Mayan in origin. It is currently at the Los Angles County Museum of Art.
In Mayan religion, conch shells were associated with the underworld. Conch trumpets were used during rituals to recall ancestors or supernaturals. The knob on this vulture's nose tells us it is a king vulture. According to Mayan mythology, the king vulture represented a god which often carried messages between humans and the other gods. The... doubled symbolism seems to clearly indicate a desire to speak to or possibly draw guidance from those who are on a different spiritual plane.
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Mayan Seated Figure ca. 400-600 AD
This Mayan seated figure is from the Tiquisate region on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. It dates from 400 to 600 AD, and its dimensions are 13.75 x 8.75 x 9 inches (34.93 x 22.23 x 22.86 cm).
One of the more interesting points of this object is that the potter used a specular, mirror-like hematite pigment in its decorating.
The pottery and other arts of the Tiquisate region show the influence of Teotihuacan during the Early Classic period. Besides figures such as we see here, they also produced... cylinder pots using a gray clay body. Their cylinder pots were intricately incised rather than painted and often had three foot supports.
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Mayan Figurine from Jaina, 600-800 AD
Jaina is a small island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the present-day Mexican state of Campeche, separated from the mainland by a tidal inlet. Jaina is noted for for being an elite Pre-Columbian Mayan burial site and for the exquisite ceramics which have been found there.
This is one such figure. It was hand modeled, although many figures were also created using molds. Figures, especially from Phase I (600 - 800 AD) show a great deal of idiosyncratic detail. Although it may be a form... of portraiture, it does not appear that these were necessarily portraits of the people they were buried with.
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Mayan Cylinder Bowl 600-900 AD
This Mayan cylindrical bowl is from the highlands of Guatemala and currently is at the Los Angles County Museum of Art. It is slip-painted ceramic, and is 6 inches (15.24 cm) tall. The images depict people with bundled offerings.
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Mayan Plate with Metate Grinding Cocoa 600-900 AD
A Mayan serving dish showing a woman using a metate to grind cocoa. The plate now resides at the Choco-Story Museum Brugge (Belgium). This plate has an interesting juxtaposition of flowing, organic lines in the middle surrounded by very controlled geometric lines and shapes around the rim. Color and arrangement of the designs unify and balance the opposite visual flavors.
Cocoa was extremely important in Mesoamerican cultures. It had been believed that the Mayan were the first to cultivate the... cacao tree, but new evidence places that honor with the Olmecs. However, the Mayan civilization did worship the cacao tree and believed that cacao was the food of the gods. Cacao even had a specific deity, Ek-chuah, to watch over the trees, pods, and preparation.
Writings that have survived and many artworks show cacao pods being used in rituals and ceremonies. There were multiple ways of preparing the cocoa, depending on its intended use. Flavors, colors, and consistencies of all sorts were developed. For example, one concoction was a dark blood-red color and was used as an offering to the god Quetzalcoatl.
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Mayan Funerary Urn 600-900 AD
This Mayan funerary urn represents the solar god Kinich Ahau with an image of the departed in the lid. You can see vestiges of the paint used on the urn; when it was first created it would have been quite colorful. Although the information was not available, I would suspect this piece to have been decorated with stucco paint, rather than fired-on slips. This would account for the color fading.
Because of a limited color palette due to firing technology, many Mayan potters turned to painting ware... using a light stucco after firing. This allowed them to use a variety of colors unavailable otherwise. Stucco painting techniques began being used as early as the fifth century AD.
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Mayan Vase with Noble, 600-900 AD
This Mayan vase depicts a costumed noble and was used as a burial offering. It is from the Late Classical period of Copan, Honduras. Note the use of two dimensional negative space in the painted decoration. The "empty" areas banding the large pictures of the bottom and the upper rim design is an effective use of negative space and helps the design from becoming overly chaotic.
The place we now know as Copan is situated in western Honduras and was in the southeastern-most area of Mayan... territory. Copan had a class of lesser nobility as well as the ruling class. These lesser nobles lived in plastered stone homes near the major public buildings. It may be one such noble that is shown on this vase.
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Mayan Woman Figurine from Jaina, ca. 800-1000 AD
During Phase II (800 - 1,000 AD) at Jaina, figures were made with extensive use of molds, with pieces then being further decorated and differentiated by hand. Hand decorating usually took the form of incising or sprigging.
Jaina's third phase, the Campeche Phase, lasted from 1,000 to 1,200 AD. During this phase, figurines continued to be mold-made. These were usually whitewashed and predominately depicted a female figure with arms upraised.
This figurine of a Mayan woman was created with... molds, and is most likely from Phase II.
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Toltec Vessel with Mask 900-1150 AD
A rather expressive Toltec-style vessel from central Mexico, now at the American Museum of Natural History, NY.
When I was first studying pre-Columbian art history long ago, it was believed that the Toltecs were a defined, specific culture and civilization. This idea was derived from the artwork, inscriptions, writings and translations that were currently available. However, that has come under some debate as many scholars began to sense that the Toltecs were a mythological people.
Among the... Nahuatl-speaking peoples the word "tolteca" was synonymous with artist, artisan or wise man (specifically one who was a city-dweller and wise in the ways of urbanization). "Toltecayotl" (toltec-ness) meant art, culture, and urban civilization. Some of scholars therefore deemed that there was no separate and unique "Toltec" civilization.
Later, some Mesoamerican scholars began to believe that both of the above ideas might be true, in part. They returned to the source materials. Taking those materials as having at least some degree of real-world validity, these scholars postulated that there once had been a real, historical Toltec civilization. Over time, the real Toltecs may have moved into the realm of mythology, just as the Trojans did in Greek storytelling.
As if scholarly confusion wasn't enough, however, there was a further muddying of the waters when popular writer Carlos Castaneda used the word "Toltec" to refer to "spiritual warriors" or those who are deemed spiritually wise. This New Age usage is not scholarly but does seem to persist in some circles.
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Polychrome Bowl from Cholula, 900-1325 AD
This polychrome slip-painted bowl is from Cholula, Mexico, just a bit to the southeast of present-day Mexico City. It was made during Phase II, between 900 and 1325 AD.
Reportedly, some of the finest clay in the region was found near Cholula and the potters strived to live up to that fineness. It is said that the last Aztec emperor would eat his meals only off of the finest Cholula plates.
Weird Fact: The Cholula Pyramid of Tipanipa is 181 feet high and covers about 25 acres. It is also covered... completely by dirt, which apparently was deliberately placed to hide the structure. It was so well hidden that the Spanish colonialsz built a church on top of it.
How was it discovered? In 1910, the Pyramid was uncovered during the construction of an insane asylum.
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Slip-Painted Bowl from Cholula, 900-1325 AD
The mirrors allow us to see the band of glyphs that encircle this slip-painted bowl from Cholula Phase II. The decoration on this bowl seems more polished than that of the bowl on the preceding page; however, neither of them are examples of the best quality of work done by these potters. Unfortunately, I was unable to include any other examples of their potters' work.
Cholula is best known for its beautiful polychrome ceramics as well as its huge Pyramid. Cholula appears to have been a bit of... a melting pot, with Olmec, Mixtec, Mayan, and Aztec influences. This ceramic style is referred to as Mixteco-Puebla or the Mixtec Codex style.
Perhaps due to all these various influences, Cholula pottery employs a wide range of motifs and decorative techniques, including the use of multiple colors (polychrome). Common surface designs include geometrics (including stepped-frets), feathered serpents and other designs relevant to the worship of Quetzalcoatl, stylized humans and deities, and many other designs.
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A Collection of Pre-Columbian Pottery
This is a group of pre-Columbian ceramics in a private collection in Guatemala and photographed in 1979. The small bird pot in the foreground looks like it may be Olmec. The two figures in the background may be from the Early Classical period, and the tripod-based cylindrical pot may be from Classical to Post-Classical period.
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Mayan Sun God, 1100-1300 AD
This is an effigy urn with an image of the Mayan Sun God, Ah Kin. It is from the eastern Yucatan, probably the city-state of Mayapan, and now resides at San Francisco's de Young Museum. It was created in the Late Postclassic period.
Effigy censers and urns were mass-produced in Mayapan, using press molds for various parts. These parts would then be assembled in differing configurations to give more variety of forms. The upshot was that the effigies became affordable enough that common people... could and did purchase them for use. That affordability may also be a reflection of the apparent increase in buying pottery for the sole purpose of smashing it as a sacrifice.
Ah Kin himself (aka Acan Chob, Chi Chac Chob, Kinich Ahau, and God G) was a god who had both a good side and one not so good. He was both a bringer of doubt, but also a protector against the powers of darkness. His special number was four, which also gave him power over drought and disease. A god it was good to placate with offerings.
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Mayan Rain God Chac, 1200-1400 AD
This effigy urn is in the image of the Mayan rain god, Chac. It was made during the Post-Classical period in Mayapan and now resides at San Francisco's de Young Museum.
Chac wielded a lightening axe (one wonders what would have happened if he had gotten together with the Norse god Thor and his thunder hammer). When Chac hit the clouds with his axe, lightening, thunder, and rain would occur. Chac was also associated with agriculture and fertility.
Mayapan pots such as plates, dishes, vases, and... bowls were painted with parallel wavy lines in red and white slip over a fine-grained orange clay body. Pots were also burnished to a hard, shiny surface.
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Mayan Cylinder Vase with Deer
This pre-Columbian Mayan cylinder vase is in a private collection in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It is not certain when it originated, however it was probably within the Late Classic to Post-Classic periods. Note the deer heads protruding from either side to create handles.
The form itself is a good example of the polychromatic cylinder vase. One way in which polychrome pots were created was to cover the pot with dark brown or black slip. Once dried, the slip was scraped away to reveal the clay... body, often with cinnabar (red mercury sulfide) being used for additional color.
Another way of creating polychrome pottery was the stucco method. In this, the pot was covered with a thin layer of plaster, then carve out the design areas. The design was then filled in with colored clay.
Many polychrome pots were fragile and impractical for daily use. They were not created as functional pieces. Rather, they appear to have been prized more for the level of craftsmanship required even more than for their aesthetic value.
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Mayan Figure from Huichol
This figure is from Huichol, in what is now west central Mexico, and is reputed to be Mayan. The Huichol artisans from the past (as well as currently) are known for their intricate geometric designs.
This figure may perhaps be carrying pottery incense burners and taking burning coals to the necessary sacred locations for a religious ceremony. The incense, made from the sap of the copal tree, was believed to take the people's prayers to the deities.
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Aztec Vulture Vessel, 1300-1500 AD
This Aztec tripod vessel is done in striking red and black, with vulture attributes, including the head incorporated into the handle. Note the use of the clay body's natural color to emphasize the vulture's head and feet. For the Aztecs, the vulture represented long life, wisdom, mental stability.
About 1400 AD, Aztec potters moved from a more rigid geometric style of decoration to one based more on nature. They often represented animals and flowers in a naturalistic manner in... black-on-red or black-on-orange styles. They also produced a thin, finely made orangeware.
I hope you have enjoyed our tour of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican pottery. You may also be interested in the gallery of Ancient Greek Pottery.
Image Courtesy of unforth / Claire H.