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Mayan Polychrome Cylindrical Vessel - AM.144
Origin: Guatemala
Circa: 300 AD to 600 AD
Dimensions: 4.75" (12.1cm) high x 4.6" (11.7cm) wide
Collection: Pre-Columbian
Style: Mayan
Medium: Terracotta

This beautifully-painted polychrome vessel was designed and executed by a specialist artist who was a member of the Maya Empire, which sprawled across southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, western Honduras and the Yucatán Peninsula. Despite being intensely vulnerable to natural disasters, this notoriously changeable area produced one of the foremost civilisations of the New World, with technological and cultural advances that far outstripped their neighbours and contemporary societies much farther afield. The Classic period, to which this piece belongs, dates from the mid third to the ninth centuries AD, based on intensive agriculture, specialist production and trade (in obsidian, pelts and jade) between neighbouring city-states and across the American continents. They erected the tallest buildings that would be seen in the Americas till the 19th century AD, as well as architectural monuments that commemorated social notables and kings.

This timeframe saw a flowering of artistic and scientific endeavour, including the development of a glyph-based literary system that has allowed academics to precisely date historical events, as the Mayans also developed the only reliable calendrical system in the New World. The stories of creation, beliefs and social information we have for the Maya allows us to reconstruct many of their rituals and practices, combined with archaeological information about economy and the people themselves – for instance, they were much given to the habit of deforming the skulls of their children using strapping and wood boards, in order to produce an elongated shape. They were also enthusiastic about blood-letting, which they used as a gesture of obedience to new rulers, sometimes letting so much blood from their tongues and genitalia (using ropes strung with stingray spines) that entire cities became anaemic.

This vessel is painted in ochre as a ground, topped with brown (and banded with black) and the base section in black. The centre painting beautifully portrays a nobleman sitting in state, in mid gesticulation. His skull has been flattened in the aforementioned manner, and is surmounted by a headdress made from the tails of quetzals and various geometrical elements. He is comparatively corpulent, denoting high status, and is elaborately dressed in a tunic that is tied in the back with a large bow. He also wears jewellery on his wrists and in his ears, and stares forward from heavy-lidded eyes, presumably at his courtly retinue. Mayan potters were distinct from the painters, who occupied an exalted status in social circles due to their power in rendering the likenesses of important people of the time. In the current case, the vessel would have been made for an aristocratic household in lowland Guatemala, probably to be used as a drinking cup. The paint remains in good condition; the quality of the rendition of court life is a credit to the artist who created it one and a half thousand years ago. - (AM.144)


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