Mayan Carved Polychrome Cylindrical Vessel - PF.5620
Origin: Guatemala/Honduras
Circa: 300 AD to 900 AD
Dimensions: 9.75" (24.8cm) high x 5" (12.7cm) wide
Collection: Pre-Columbian
Style: Mayan
Medium: Terracotta


Much like we can conceive of spirits haunting the earth after their bodily demise, ancient spiritual powers, accumulated after centuries of reverence, continue to inhabit certain sacred object long after the civilization that created them has faded away. This cylindrical container, originally used for the consumption of a Mayan concoction of chilies and cacao, is certainly one such object. The symbolism behind the decorations on this vessel is mysterious, yet there is a relation. A bird has been painted onto the uppermost band. The feathered wings are quite clear, as is the long swooping beak. This long beak reappears in the carvings that adorn the majority of the exterior. Although now, the beak extends from the mouth of a human who stands, arms crossed, wearing a thick belt and elaborate headdress almost the size of his entire torso. Perhaps this figure is a shaman who has transformed into the bird. To the left of the figure, two rows of repeating glyphs, one in the form of a face, the other a feather, have been carved. There is a clear relation between these two figures, between these images. The rest of the vessel has been painted with concentric rings against a black background. Perhaps this pattern represents the plumage of the bird. This masterpiece contains a level of sophistication in the iconography and symbolism that is greater than our own comprehension. - (PF.5620)

Pottery vessels of this type with their distinctive orange hues and shiney surfaces are known as plumbate-ware. During the height of the Toltec civilization, plumate works were produced at only one place: on the Pacific slope of the Soconusco region in modern Guatemala. Furthermore, the process by which it was made seems to have been a closely guarded secret. Such wares were highly valued throughout Mesoamerica and were traded along commercial networks that extended as far as Panama. Plumate was so desirable in part because it maintains an exceptional hardness that can be scarcely scratched with steel.

This cylindrical plumbate vessel has retained its beautiful orange hue and sculptural detail, which inlcudes a prominent head that emerges from the side. Featuring deeply incised circular eyes, a fringe beard, and tasseled earrings, this face, although it may appear to be the head of a human, can be recognized as the visage of the mighty rain god, Tlaloc. Tlaloc was one of the most important gods of the ancient Pre-Columbian pantheon who worshipped from Mexico to Costa Rica. Such a vessel, honoring this powerful deity, would have likely served a ceremonial purpose. Perhaps Toltec priests once drank from this vessel while standing high atop a pyramid in a temple dedicated to Tlaloc. - (PF.6276)



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