Artwork of the Week

Pre-Columbian, Mayan (Costa Rica)
Late Classic Bowl with Double Kidney and Dots in Glyph Bands, 550-850
Ceramic, 15 cm. diam.
Loan of Dr. J. Philip Keeve ‘48

The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during the Early Modern period.

The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. Initially established during the Pre-Classic period (c. 2000 BC to AD 250), according to the Mesoamerican chronology, many Maya cities reached their highest state of development during the Classic period (c. AD 250 to 900), and continued throughout the Post-Classic period until the arrival of the Spanish.

Maya art of their Classic Era (c. 250 to 900 CE) is of a high level of aesthetic and artisanal sophistication. The carvings and the reliefs made of stucco at Palenque and the statuary of Copán, show a grace and accurate observation of the human form that reminded early archaeologists of Classical civilizations of the Old World], hence the name bestowed on this era. We have only hints of the advanced painting of the classic Maya; mostly what has survived are funerary pottery and other Maya ceramics, and a building at Bonampak holds ancient murals that survived by chance. A beautiful turquoise color (‘Maya Blue’) survived through the centuries due to its unique chemical characteristics. Late Preclassic murals of great artistic and iconographic perfection have been recently discovered at San Bartolo. With the decipherment of the Maya script it was discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations where artists attached their name to their work.

Mayan ceramics are important in the study of the Pre-Columbian Maya culture of Mesoamerica. Through the years, the vessels took on different shapes, colors, sizes, and purposes. The intense artistic mosaics that grace the walls of the ancient masterpieces reveal stories of rulers, the underworld (Xibalba), Mayan creation, and even the particular function of the vessel. Used for a plethora of daily activities, such as the storage of food and beverages, ceramics were also a canvas of commemoration. The utilitarian ware of the common people usually possessed only modest decoration. The funerary ware of the elite was often more elaborate. Strategic Mesoamerican ballgames, rituals, and death were key subjects painted or inscribed on the vessels.

Middle Preclassic (900/800-250 BC) Late Preclassic (250 BC-250 AD) Early Mayan ceramics stemmed from a past that began even years before the Maya became a group. Originally, the early Maya used gourds cut into useful shapes to create vessels to carry liquids and foodstuffs. These portable and durable gourds made excellent containers. The first ceramics closely resembled gourds and many were decorated with rocker stamps and simple slips. During the Late Preclassic period, many of the ceramics took on appendages of tetrapod mammiform supports. These supports were four legs underneath the pot holding it up. Characteristic cream-on-red stripes colored these unique vessels.

The pottery of the Maya Early Classic dated from 250 to 550 AD. The Maya soon began using polychrome slip paint, meaning they used many different colors to decorate the pots. This method of decoration became almost homogeneous for Mayan potters, thus signaling the beginning of the Classic Period. The Classic Period of the Maya provided beautiful ceramics in many forms. The lidded basal flange bowl was a new style of potter to add to the already growing repertoire. This type vessel usually had a knob on top in the form of an animal or human head, while the painted body of the animal or human spreads across the pot. Many of these pots also had mammiform supports, or legs. These unique vessels are usually found in great condition signaling a ritual function.

The Maya late Classic Period (600-900 A.D.) marks the high point of Maya culture. Powerful city-states like Tikal and Calakmul dominated the regions around them and art, culture and religion reached their peaks. The city-states warred, allied with, and traded with one another. There may have been as many as 80 Maya city-states during this time. The cities were ruled by an elite ruling class and priests who claimed to be directly descended from the Sin, Moon, stars and planets. The cities held more people than they could support, so trade for food as well as luxury items was brisk. The ceremonial ball game was a feature of all Maya cities.

Ancient Maya pottery classification, analysis, and interpretation / Gainesville : University Press of Florida, c2013.
Arnold, Dean E., Social change and the evolution of ceramic production and distribution in a Maya community Boulder, Colo. : University Press of Colorado, c2008.
Maya iconography / Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c1988. F1435.3.A7 M27 1988

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