Mesoamerica

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Mesoamerica is that area defined by related contiguous cultures from the arid areas of northern Mexico to the tropical areas of Guatemala and Honduras in the south.  The area encompasses great ecological, linguistic and cultural diversity.  It is one of the regions of the world where the agricultural revolution arose independently, and the great civilizations of Mesoamerica were built upon foods such as maize, beans and squash.

Beginning about 6,700 BCE in the highlands and river valleys of central Mexico, selective harvesting and then purposeful planting of teocinte, a wild early relative of maize, led over time to the cultivation of corn and development of agriculture.  Similar selection and cultivation of beans, squash and other plants led to one of the world’s great agricultural revolutions.  The origins of village life led to population increase, specialization of labor, craft production, religious hierarchies, architectural traditions, writing systems, astronomical observations, calendars, and long distance trade.  Ultimately, complex, stratified urban societies developed in various regions of Mesoamerica, including Central Mexico, West Mexico, the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca, and the Maya area.  Each made distinctive contributions to Mesoamerican civilization, and to the heritage of all humankind.

All dates are BCE (Before Current Era, or BC) and CE (Current Era, or AD).

 

Faces of Mesoamerica

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Perhaps the most ubiquitous artifact in the Americas is the figurine. Made of ceramic, stone and wood, these fascinating sculptures represent both real and mythological people and animals.  From about 1500 BCE onwards, figurines are found individually and in sets, laid out to represent scenes of daily life.  The earliest figurines were solid, some with applied detail, and later some were mold-made.  From about 1200 BCE finely crafted hollow ceramic vessels appear in human, animal and vegetal shapes.  Some scenes depict the Mesoamerican ballgame complete with the ballcourts, the players and the spectators. Other figurines are found individually in public places and private residential areas. They appear to have functioned as talisman or good luck charms, as offerings and as representations of departed ancestors.
 
This remarkable assemblage of figurines represents various periods and locations in Mesoamerica.  They reflect the long tradition of figurine production in Mexico.  These faces of Mesoamerica dramatically illustrate the variety of features, hair, jewelry and other adornment among many diverse cultural traditions.  They illustrate the diversity of the peoples of Mesoamerica then and now.

Gift of Loraine and Earle Knowles

Central Mexico

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Teotihuacán:  Pyramid of the Sun from the Pyramid of the Moon

One of the great agricultural revolutions in human history took place in the valleys and river drainages of central Mexico, beginning in the 7th millennium BCE.  By 1500 BCE village life based on agricultural food production spread in the Valley of Mexico and communities began to grow.  Sites such as Tlatilco in the west and Tlapacoya in the east yielded a great variety of ceramic forms and figurines.  Artisans decorated bowls, jars, bottles and other forms with incised and sculpted naturalistic forms such as birds, fish and mammals.  In this Formative Period artisans produced thousands of small figurines made of clay with applique decoration.  After about 1200 BCE, strong Olmec influence from the Veracruz-Tabasco area is prevalent in the Middle Formative of Central Mexico.
 
After the rise of complex societies in the Valley of Mexico, by about 200 CE one emerged supreme.  Teotihuacán was founded about 100 BCE, but by about 300-700 CE it had grown to become one of the world’s preeminent cities in size and culture.  Teotihuacán was arranged along the mile-long Avenue of the Dead, at the north end of which stands the Pyramid of the Moon and on the east the massive Pyramid of the Sun.  To the south was the Ciudadela, within which is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl with its facades of alternating feathered serpents and rain gods.  Beyond the city’s monumental axis sprawled the neighborhoods of Teotihuacán, with areas of craft specialization and homes of elites with beautifully painted murals.  At its height about 600 CE, Teotihuacán, with a population of up to 150,000, might have been the largest city in the world.  Its influence extended broadly across Mesoamerica.  Following the fall of Teotihuacán about 750, subsequent civilizations in the Valley of Mexico included the Toltec at Tula, Hidalgo, ca. 900-1200, and the Aztecs, 1325-1520, at Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City.

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Mask of Translucent Serpentine
Teotihuacan, 150-450 CE
Central Mexico

Carved stone masks have rarely been found in documented, scientific excavations, but they might have been ‘death masks’ found in burials of the elite leaders of Teotihuacan.  Archaeologists recovered one mask from a burial in the Avenue of the Dead.  The most recent discovery was made beneath the center of the great Pyramid of the Sun itself.  Archaeologists tunneling into the center of the mound in 2012 discovered a cache of ceremonial and ritual items that included a stone mask like this one. The cache is a ritual offering made as construction of the great pyramid began and not related to a burial.

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

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Chupícuaro Figurines
500 BCE-200 CE
Guanajuato, Mexico

Chupícuaro culture centered in the Acámbaro Valley and Lerma River area of Guanajuato, Mexico, from about 600 BCE until about 200 CE.  Its location in northwest Mexico made it a possible route for the exchange of ideas among West Mexico, Central Mexico and the American Southwest.  Although the culture is not well known, Chupícuaro artisans created an early, distinctive ceramic tradition on the periphery of Central and West Mexico.  Distinctive red figurines are decorated in geometric step motifs in yellow outlined in black lines.  Males and females with bulbous legs wear pantaloons and have chest and facial decoration.  The distinctive red color and geometric decoration sets apart Chupícuaro ceramics from other Mesoamerican artistic traditions.

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

SeatedFigurePlumendHeaddress

Seated Figure with Plumed Headdress
500-700 CE
Central Mexico

This seated figure may be part of a larger ensemble, and might be from Teotihuacan, the great prehistoric metropolis in the northeastern Valley of Mexico.  Accoutrements include the plumed headdress, earspools, wrist and ankle bracelets, shoulder decoration and loincloth.  The right hand is missing, and the left is oversized.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin


West Mexico

The Shaft Tomb Tradition: The Archaeology of an Area Unknown!

 
In the 1930s a few large pre-Columbian figurines of a previously unknown style surfaced in the world art markets.  The style showed similarities with the general art styles of Mesoamerica but it was not for several decades that archaeologists were able to identify the area where these incredible works originated. 
 
The figurines were coming from a cultural area now known simply as "West Mexico" which includes the modern Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima.  They were taken from tombs buried deep in the ground which were connected to the surface by long vertical shafts which varied from 9 to 60 feet in depth.  Local people, looking for any way to make money in an impoverished area, looted the tombs and sent the figurines into the world’s art markets. 
 
Unfortunately, information was lost that professional excavation would have provided, and it was not until 1993 that archaeologists had an opportunity to investigate an intact tomb.  The tombs, typically buried below an elaborate public room, were only used to bury the elites or leaders of the society.  The ceramics that accompanied these shaft tomb burials were therefore associated with persons of high status and not necessarily those of more modest means.

 
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Hunched-Back Figure
200 BCE-200 CE
Colima, Mexico

This finely made figure depicts a hunched-back person leaning forward on bulbous upper arms and legs.  The spinal deformity is pronounced and the figure is possibly a dwarf.  The horn, particularly associated with physical deformation, may suggest the figure is a shaman.  The ceramic is burnished brown, with only the single body ornament, the crescent-shaped pectoral, and the spout painted red.  The black splotches are manganese dendrites, manganese oxide minerals on the surface of the ceramic from long exposure underground.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Dog
200 BCE-200 CE
Colima, Mexico

The ceramic sculptural traditions of West Mexico often feature dogs, such as this superb example rendered with a highly polished surface.  The chubby dog sits alertly with its ears up.  The wrinkles are characteristic of the Mexican hairless dog indigenous to the area.
 
In some areas of prehistoric Mesoamerica dogs were considered guardians of the dead and guides to the afterlife, which would explain the frequency of ceramic dog figurines in ancient West Mexico burial contexts.  The hollow figurine held liquid, filled or emptied from the spout on the dog’s head.  Was it used in everyday life, or filled at burial for the journey into the spirit realm?  Recently, archaeologists working in the Aztec area of Central Mexico excavated a number of dogs buried together, a kind of canine cemetery.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Large Seated Male Figurine
Chinesco Type "A", Lagunillas style
Proto-Classic, ca. 100 BCE-250 CE
Nayarit, Mexico

This large seated figure of a nude male leans forward with his arms crossed onto his knees.  A polished red slip covers the body.  The face is cream colored with dark wash around the carved out eyes and on the cheeks, chin and neck.  Nose rings are applied decoration.  The area above the forehead depicts coiffured hair, and the figure is vented at the top of the head.
 
The tattoos and body paint may represent a form of portraiture in West Mexican Lagunillas style figurines.  The unique designs may indicate social status, and the figurine might have played a role in ancestor worship.  Type "A" Chinesco figures are a rare category of the Lagunillas style.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Large Female Figurine
Chinesco Type D
Proto Classic, 100 BCE-250 CE
Nayarit, Mexico

This large seated ceramic figure holds her arms at her hips and has her legs splayed.  The fabric is a tan earth, with a red slip covering the torso and legs.  The surface is polished.  She has four-element ear ornaments, also painted, two nose rings, and four bands on each upper arm.  A single cord is slung low around her waist.  Her hair is carefully incised above her forehead, and there is a large vent hole in the back of her head.
 
Placement of the breasts near the shoulders and the bulbous and dramatically tapering legs give the figure an abstract appearance, and the stance might suggest fertility or childbirth.  The jewelry and coiffure indicate high status.  Women are well represented in the shaft tomb art of West Mexico, reflecting their roles in the family, marriage, childbirth and the community generally.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

 

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Hunchback Shaman in Tunic
200 BCE-200 CE
Colima, Mexico

This magnificent seated figure holds his head in profile, and his right arm is raised into a fist as if clutching something or gesturing.  The left arm holds something that extends into the mouth.  The figure wears a tunic decorated in incised registers, which covers his hunched-back.  A strap over the shoulder secures the tunic.  Similarly decorated bands around the face and head hold a horned headpiece in place.  The figure has decorated ear spools and a gorget covers the upper chest.  A spout comes out of the back of the head.  The surface of the sculpture is slipped red and polished, and splotched with manganese oxide blooms.
 
In the sculptural traditions of West Mexico, hunchbacks are often interpreted to indicate a shaman, as are horns on the head.  The tunic, gorget and headgear might also have warrior associations.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

  

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Matched Couple
100 BCE-250 CE
Colima, Mexico

This matched pair of figurines was probably crafted by the same artist.  Characteristics shared by both figures include: red band painted around the waist, which on the female extends between the legs; spouts on the back of the heads painted red; pierced ears; and an incised line depicting the hair line or perhaps a head covering.  A red pectoral hangs from the shoulders of the female, and the male sips from a bowl.  From his forehead protrudes a horn, symbolic of the male or perhaps shamanistic powers.  He has crescent-shaped protrusions on each side of his head, perhaps also depicting horns.  This matched pair of figurines may represent a "marriage pair", or an "ancestor pair" (honoring those from the past).  As part of a marriage pair, his sipping may suggest the feasting associated with marriage ceremonies. 

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

 
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Tall Seated Ceramic Figure
Comala Style, 100 BCE-250 CE
Colima, Mexico

The demeanor of this stately figure suggests a man to be reckoned with.  Crafted of beige clay, with sections painted red, and perhaps traces of a darker color, this imposing figure has the characteristic Colima stance of bulbous foreshortened legs on which rest the arms.  The horn on his forehead is held in place by bands divided into registers infilled with incised points, and he has spools in his earlobes.  A robust necklace of five elements hangs around the shoulders.  Are these leather, shell, jade, stone or something else?  Were they decorative, protective or both?  The spout on top of his head indicates he could be filled with liquid.
 
The horns often on the foreheads of shaft tomb figures from West Mexico have two interpretations.  One is that the horn signifies a shaman, who uses the horn to battle malevolent spiritual forces, and perhaps represents the shaman’s vital essence or spirit power.  The other view is that the horn is symbol of social hierarchy and rulership or at least political rank.  The horn symbolism may derive from the prong cut from a conch shell, an item associated with rituals of sacrifice and warfare in Mesoamerica.  Conch shell trumpets were blown on ceremonial occasions.  Actual conch shells are often found in shaft tomb burials in the area of the deceased’s pelvis.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

 
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Fighting Warriors
Comala Style, 100 BCE-250 CE
Colima, Mexico

These rare conjoined figures show two warriors engaged in combat.  The victor stands; the vanquished sits.  The standing figure displays regalia or a shield on his back, and stands on the leg of the sitting figure.  The winner grips the head of the loser and prepares to deliver a blow with a mace head or similar weapon.  Both figures wear headdresses with flaps on the side and horns emerging from the center.  In Colima sculpture, the horn is symbol of shaman or ruler; in either case someone of distinguished status.  The victor’s grasp of the loser’s horn adds symbolic authority to the former’s domination.  Is this a scene from the real world, a struggle conducted by warriors, or of the spirit world, a contest of shaman?

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Large Warrior Figure
Ixtlán del Rio Style, 200 BCE-200 CE
Nayarit, Mexico

This large warrior figure holds a complex mace, perhaps an effigy, in his right hand and a shield in his left.  He wears a helmet with studs, rings in his nose and three rings in each ear.  He wears a necklace and four bracelets on his upper arms.  Ponderous legs and feet are sometimes characteristic of Ixtlán del Rio figurines.  The figure is sculpted of a red clay slipped white and painted with dark vertical lines on the torso as if body armor, and solid dark areas elsewhere.  Manganese dendrite deposits add to the overall dark effect and aura of antiquity.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

BirdmandFigure

Birdman Figure Playing a Drum
Comala Style, 200 BCE - 200 CE
Colima, West Mexico

This magnificent ceramic sculpture shows a birdman figure playing a tortoise-shell drum.  The face has a prominent beak and round eyes.  He wears a substantial helmet with a central spout, protrusions front and rear, and small circles painted in black under the rim.  The sides of the helmet are striped in red and white paint.  Body accoutrements include shorts with a frontal sash, a crescent on the neck, and wrist, elbow and knee bracelets.  He has a kind of tail over his rump, perhaps suggesting feathers in concert with his birdman appearance.  In a burial context, would this figurine represent something the deceased did in life, or is it a spiritual accompaniment for afterlife in the underworld?

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

LargeFigurewJar

Large Figure Holding a Jar
Ameca-Etzatlán Style, 200 BCE - 200 CE
Jalisco, West Mexico

Size, color, finish, and subject matter make this an extraordinary work of art.  West Mexican figurines present a great variety of activities, but this man sitting with a large jar secured between his legs is unique.  He wears a simple headpiece with a crest, with beads around the rim of the cap and around upper arm bands.  His face is long, with a serious look, and his ears are large.  The creamy grey surfaces are highly polished.  The whole appearance suggests portraiture, and perhaps an activity of the deceased in life.  Often there are two such figures, a marriage group, each in different postures, showing activities such as feasting.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

SeatedFemale

Seated Female
Coahuayana Style, 200 BCE - 200 CE
Colima, West Mexico

This redware figurine from Colima exhibits the fleshy, stubby extremities characteristic of the style.  The features of the face are sharp and slipped white.  She wears a torque around the neck and a loin strap abound the waist.  The welts on the shoulders may represent scarification or some sort of worn shoulder decoration and thus, along with body shape, are an aesthetic expression of beauty.  The flaring mouth of the vessel would receive liquid for placement as an offering in a shaft tomb.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

maternalfigure

Maternal Figure
Autlan Type, 200 BCE—200 CE
Colima, West Mexico

This Colima figurine depicting a woman covered with children is a very rare piece; only a handful is currently known to exist from prehistoric Mesoamerica. This type of figurine can have as many as 87 small children. Typically three larger children sit around a bowl in the mother-figure’s lap. This is the only example where the bowl is filled with food, the others are empty. A large figure typically straddles the shoulders and holds onto the head.  Single figures perch on each arm, shoulder and breast, and one clings to the back.  All eleven smaller figures wear loincloths and turban-like headdresses. The assemblage appears to represent motherhood, nurturing and sustenance.  
 
Today, pueblo potters in the American Southwest make a similar type of figure called a “storyteller,” a man or woman covered with children and often telling a story. While it is surprising given the similarities in form, there appears to be no connection with these past Mesoamerican art forms. The first Puebloan storyteller was made by Helen Cordero of Cochiti Pueblo in 1963. The first “storyteller” was a ceramic representation of her grandfather, who was the storyteller for Cochiti and who passed down the oral histories of the people. The “storyteller” figures have spread to modern potters in almost all of the Pueblos today and are a highly respected and prized art form. 

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

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Gadrooned Parrot-Legged Vessel
200 BCE-200 CE
Colima, Mexico

This large gadrooned vessel is a superb example of its type.  The ridging along the sides, called gadrooning, mimics naturalistic forms.  Three parrots uphold the vessel, which is slipped red and burnished to a fine surface.  The rim is widely flared.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ 

 

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Gadrooned Dove-Legged Vessel
200 BCE-200 CE
Colima, Mexico

Gadrooning refers to the channeling on the sides of the vessel reminiscent of squashes, melons or perhaps cacti.  In West Mexico, gadrooned vessels typically have restricted mouths, like jars.  They often have some sort of naturalistic animal feet, in this example, three birds, possibly doves.  The ceramic is slipped and burnished red.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

shellpendants
Shell Pendants and Serpent Ear Spool
200 BCE - 200 CE
Colima or Jalisco, West Mexico
spinyoyster
Spiney Oyster (Spondylus sp.)

 

Ornaments made from shell are found through the New World. This is a rare set of pendants and an ear spool from Colima or Jalisco, West Mexico. The pendants may be in the shape of claws, such as the claws of the jaguar, and they may have been attached to a larger shell carving. The circular pendant may be a serpent form. Made from the Spiny Oyster, sharp stone tools were used to cut, etch and drill the shell into the desired form. Several of the round drilled holes were also cut on the front side into the shape of diamonds.  Ornaments such as these were worn by elites in formal or ceremonial circumstances.

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

FigurePlayingFlute

Small Figurine Playing Flute
200 BCE - 200 CE
Colima, West Mexico

This amorphous human figure plays a flute.  Musical instruments played a great role in Pre-Columbian life in Mesoamerica, which is reflected in sculpture and painting.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

SeatedFigure

Small Seated Figure
Ixtlán del Río style, 350 BCE-200 CE
Nayarit, West Mexico

This engaging little figure is significant for the painted representation of a textile wrapped around the body.  On the basic red-slipped surface, the artist painted a tan textile with rectangles and triangles detailed in white and dark lines.  The figure has a pointed hat, also painted, as is the face.  Is this what a person wore in Jalisco two thousand years ago?

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

WarriorFigure

Warrior Figure with Helmet and Club
200 BCE - 200 CE
Colima, West Mexico

Warriors are celebrated in West Mexican ceramic sculpture.  This warrior is posed with club at the ready, and his headgear protects his cranium, forehead and jaw.  The rack on his back in real life was probably feathered and painted, and may have indicated his membership in a warrior association.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 
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"Pretty Lady" Figurine
Chupícuaro, 200 BCE to 200 CE
Michoacan, Mexico

Among the more stylized figurines in Mesoamerica are the "Pretty Lady" figurines of early Michoacan.  The unique "double eyes" on this piece are typical of this time period as are the splayed legs-legs divided in two extensions, front and back, to allow the figurine to stand on its own. This piece contains an interesting headdress, multiple earrings in each ear and a necklace. Typical of this style, the figurine was once painted with light blue and white paint. Traces of the paint still remain in areas that were protected from weathering and human hands. 

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

MichoacanSmallFigure

Small Standing Female Figure
200 BCE - 200 CE
Michoacan

Michoacan had a tradition of crafting simple female ceramic figurines in the Late Formative (200 BCE - 200 CE).  This lady has hair, headpiece, ear spools, and necklaces.  The maker managed to render very delicate teeth.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

            
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Ceramic Flutes 
200 BCE to 200 CE
Colima, Mexico

Colima ceramic flutes produce a beautiful sound and are often reproduced today.  These are very early examples of double chambered flutes, similar to Native American flutes.  The two air chambers are separated by an internal wall or "plug." Air blown into the mouthpiece enters the slow air chamber, also known as the compression chamber.  It then passes through a small hole (the flue) into the sound chamber or pipe body. This chamber contains the sound hole which can be seen on the outside of the flute just forward of the mouth piece.  It also contains the finger holes which are used to change the tone of the flute.  The slow air chamber acts as a second resonator and gives the flute its distinctive haunting sound. 
 
One example here is two flutes connected together and two tones can be achieved at the same time.  The single flutes often have animal or human figures applied to the ceramic.  This single flute has an applique of a face on it. 

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

 
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Redware Vessel with acute Angle at Shoulder
200 BCE to 200 CE
Colima, Mexico

This distinctive jar form is called, not unsurprisingly, a flying saucer jar.  It has a very acute angle that creates the shoulder of the vessel. The reason for the shoulder may have to do with the stability of the jar.  It lowers the center of gravity of the vessel making this jar very difficult to tip over.  This beautiful ceramic is created using a slip. A slip is a soupy mixture of water and clay. This jar was dipped into a slip, coating it with a thin layer of iron rich clay. When fired in an oxygen-rich fire, the iron in the clay turns this distinctive bright red color.  The jar is then burnished by rubbing it with a smooth polishing stone.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

                             
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Ceremonial Stone Axes, Mace & Effigy Axe
300 BCE to 300 CE
Colima, Mexico

Ceremonial stone axes are carved in the shape of an axe and have a groove for hafting (attaching the handle). However, they do not have functional cutting edges and cannot be used to cut wood. They appear very early in Mesoamerica and are a typical object found in the Olmec culture. It has been suggested that they functioned in rituals or that they indicated a high status or office in West Mexico culture. They have also been identified as "votive offerings," objects left in a sacred context. Looking closely you can see that the axe on the far right was carved in the shape of a dog, a common motif seen in Colima axes. In Mesoamerican ideology the dog was associated with the underworld. 

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

Guerrero: Mezcala Culture, Upper Balsas River 

Mezcala culture arose in the Middle and Late Formative periods (c. 1200-200 BCE) in the upper reaches of the Balsas River (also called the Mezcala River).  The Balsas crosses the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero in a mostly east to west direction, and the Mezcala basin drains much of the northern part of the state.  Central Guerrero is directly south of and not very far from the Valley of Mexico, which itself developed a robust tradition of Formative cultures after 1500 BCE.   The upper Balsas was home to an extraordinary tradition of carving and polishing sculptures in green stone (andesite/diorite/serpentine).  These sculptures are in the forms of masks, human figures, temples and animals.  Unique in Mesoamerica, the Mezcala style might have developed out of an earlier Olmec (c. 1200-600 BCE) horizon in Guerrero, and the style has affinities to Teotihuacan as well (200-600 CE).

StoneMask
Stone Mask
Mezcala Culture, 200 BCE-200 CE
Upper Balsas River, Guerrero

Masks in Mesoamerica accompanied burials, were used to honor ancestors, functioned as pendants, or, with eye openings, were used in performances or ceremonies.  This marvelous example is serpentine with brownish streaks that give the sculpture great character.  Eyes, mouth and ears are rounded, well-formed and simply rendered.  The nose is sharply triangular.  Holes drilled at the top of the mask were for attachment, in this case as a death mask.  Masks of stone occurred in the Olmec area of Veracruz and Tabasco from about 1200-600 BCE, and others appear later at Teotihuacan in the northern Valley of Mexico, 200-600 CE.  This large and heavy Mezcala stone mask is an extraordinary example of its kind.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

StoneFigure

Stone Figure
Mezcala Culture, 200 BCE-200 CE
Upper Balsas River, Guerrero

Mezcala stone figures are characteristically abstract in form with features accentuated by simple lines.  On this large example of serpentine, single cuts delineate the neck and legs, and the torso is distinguished from the legs by simple diagonal lines.  There are no hints of eyes, but headgear identified by T-shaped cuts frames the face.  Sculptures such as this could have been ancestor figures or placed in tombs.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

StoneFigure2

Stone Figure
Mezcala Culture, 200 BCE-200 CE
Upper Balsas River, Guerrero

Another type of sculpture from the Mezcala culture area is amorphously formed human figures.  On this black and crème example of speckled diorite, the eyes, nose and mouth are vaguely formed, there is just a suggestion of the torso, and the legs are mere stubs.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

StoneMask2

Stone Mask
200 BCE-200 CE
Guerrero
 This mask is granitic rock, perhaps diorite.  It is sculpted with heavy brow ridges and sharply featured nose.  There are high cheekbones and a rounded mouth.  Sometimes the eyes of these masks were inset with shell.  Holes were drilled on the rear of the mask for suspension.  Such masks were most likely used in funerary situations.

Gift of John and Patricia Torbett, Jamul, CA

 

SandstoneMask 

Sandstone Mask
200 BCE-200 CE
Guerrero, Southwest Mexico
This small sandstone mask has a long, prominent nose and eyes cut through the stone.  The mouth displays teeth created by drilling round holes into the mouth.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

Mexican Gulf Coast

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El Tajín, Veracruz

The Olmec, one of Mesoamerica’s earliest civilizations and one that profoundly influenced later complex societies, arose in the Gulf Coast states of Tabasco and Veracruz.  The Olmecs built pyramids as components of formal ceremonial centers, sculpted monumental heads and altars of stone, created a distinctive sculptural tradition of broad influence, and participated in early writing and calendric systems.  At sites such as San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes, Olmec culture flourished approximately 1500-400 BCE.

Following the collapse of the Olmec, high civilizations influenced by the Olmec arose in other areas of Mesoamerica, such as Teotihuacán in central Mexico, Monte Albán in Oaxaca and Tikal and numerous other locations in the Maya area.  In Veracruz, a classic tradition also arose, exemplified by the sites of El Tajín and Remojadas.  Classic Veracruz is known for its distinctive architecture and sculptural traditions relating to the Mesoamerican ballgame.

 
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Large Jaguar Incensario
200-700 CE
Veracruz, Mexico

Jaguars, the beautiful, strong, deadly and elusive predators, held a special place in the iconography and cosmology of Mesoamerica.  Political or religious leaders often had the epithet "Jaguar" attached to their name.  Jaguar images appear on sculptures and in paintings.  This magnificent ceramic sculpture is a jaguar in presentation pose.  It functioned as an incensario, a vessel in which fuel, such as copal, a tree resin, was placed inside through a hole in the back and burned to emit smoke and pleasant odors.  Smoke from the smoldering resin would emerge from openings in the paws, ears, nose and mouth, creating a powerful image in ceremonies or festivals.  Traces of stucco that may or may not be derived from burial appear on the surface.  Black bitumen paint fragments occur on the pupils and tongue.  A sculpture of this size would probably appear in public or ritual contexts rather than domestic situations.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Female Ceramic Sculpture
200-500 CE
Veracruz, Mexico

Veracruz developed a robust ceramic sculptural tradition in the Classic Period.  This standing female figure wears an elaborate feather headdress with complex headband; three strand necklace with beads, beans and spikes; ear plugs; arm bands and a wrist bracelet; and ankle rattles.  She wears pantaloons and an apron with a tie, and a snake slithers across her abdomen.  Her arms are up as if in supplication, and the right hand is open and the left grasps a band.  Her face is finely rendered.  The dark material on the headdress, necklace and rattles is bitumen, a tar-like petroleum substance.  Her identity is unknown, but her pose and accoutrements suggest a person of substance in her community with a significant role to play. 

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 
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Large Incensario, Huehueteotl, The Old Fire God
200-700 CE
Veracruz, Mexico

Huehueteotl was the Old Fire God of the Aztecs, but the god’s origins are much older and his images occur broadly across Mesoamerica.  Huehueteotl was depicted as a toothless elderly male with wrinkled skin.  As god of the home hearth, he is often associated with braziers.  This finely-crafted example has a shaft through the neck to allow smoke from burning incense such as copal to emerge through the mouth, ears and back of the head.  Note the detailed hair style with scaled headband, and the scales or protuberances on the lower body of the vessel.  Huehueteotl was publicly important in the New Fire Ceremony celebrated every 52 years by the much later Aztecs.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

SmilingHead

Smiling Head
600 - 900 CE
Veracruz

This is a variety of Classic Veracruz ceramic sculpture, often characterized by smiling faces with mouth open and large foreheads (Sonrientes).  This head was part of a larger sculpture molded in buff clay.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

SmilingFigure

Smiling Figure
Remojadas Style, 600 - 900 CE
Veracruz

This figurine is molded in red clay in the smiling form, with filed teeth.  Horns, sometimes associated with shamanism, emerge from the sides of the head, and the figure wears a necklace and earspools.  The body is otherwise undecorated, and the figure is posed palms out.  It is in the Remojadas style, named for an archaeological site in the southern part of the Classic Veracruz area.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

TlalocBowl

Tlaloc Bowl
600 - 900 CE
Veracruz

Tlaloc was the rain deity of ancient central Mexico, recognized by the rings around the eyes, fangs and an exaggerated upper lip. Like the eyes, the nose and mouth are modeled on the bowl, and lugs on the sides would serve to suspend it. Tlaloc influenced rain, lightening, fertility and agriculture.  In recognition, perhaps this vessel contained water.  In the Maya area, this deity was known as Chaac.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

Oaxaca

 

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Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca is in southern Mexico, southeast of Mexico City.  Oaxaca is the home of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, and is well known for one of the most significant prehistoric sites in Mexico, Monte Albán.  Located in central Oaxaca near the current capitol city, Monte Albán was founded around 500 BCE.  By the Early Classic period, Monte Albán was a powerful polity that controlled the Valley of Oaxaca and much of the Oaxacan highlands, and whose influence and actual physical presence extended to Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico.
 
The site of Monte Alban is strategically placed and magnificently developed atop a mountaintop with commanding views.  The site comprises pyramids, platforms and numerous structures arranged in plazas.  Ancient Oaxaca is known for its tombs and funerary artifacts, especially elaborate ceramic figurines, often of deities.  Ceramic sculptures and low relief sculptures in stone often display glyphs.  Other well-known sites in the area include Mitla, Yagul and Zaachila.  Sites in Mixtec areas are known for their extraordinary polychrome ceramics.

 

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Effigy Jar of a Deer
Redware with stucco
Zapotec, Oaxaca

The deer wears a necklace with three glyph-like shapes, and on each cheek is incised a similar square, these with a small crescent inside.  The legs show the cloven hooves of the deer, but the forelegs are raised in a position of supplication with the hooves reversed upwards.  The stucco on deer suggests a setting in masonry, but why stucco would be applied all over the animal is unclear. 

Gift of Vic and Chris Walther, Mesa, AZ

 

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Beaker with Applied Feline Head and Arms
Zapotec Grayware, c. 300-1000 CE
Oaxaca, Mexico 

This small beaker has the head of a jaguar and its front legs applied as decoration.  Traces of red paint survive on the head and arm.  On each side is a small ceramic strap to secure a cord.  As elsewhere in Mesoamerica, the jaguar appears often in the iconogaphy of Oaxaca.

Gift of Vic and Chris Walther, Mesa, AZ

 

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Fish Effigy Bowl
Zapotec Grayware, c. 300-800 CE
Oaxaca, Mexico

This shallow effigy bowl rises from a pedestal and is decorated in the form of a fish on the re-curved rim.  The features are simple, with raised eyes, snout and mouth and the suggestion of a tail fin on the opposite side.  Between the face and the fin are lightly incised registers suggesting scales.  The surface of the bowl is of coarse, unburnished clay.  A wide variety of animal effigies, including fish, occur in Zapotec ceramics.

Gift of Vic and Chris Walther, Mesa, AZ

 

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Jar with Tall Neck
Zapotec Grayware, c. 300-1000 CE
Oaxaca, Mexico

This jar is notable for its tall neck, flared rim, and applied human face with elaborate headdress.  The headdress has a central figure suggesting a glyph or god; below the ensemble descends to ear-spools.  The surface of the ceramic is smoothed but not polished.

Gift of Vic and Chris Walther, Mesa, AZ

 

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Gadrooned Jar with Armadillo Head
Zapotec/Mixtec, Post Classic, 900-1200 CE
Oaxaca, Mexico

Armadillos appear among the naturalistic forms on ceramics of ancient Oaxaca.  The head of the armadillo is applied to the neck of the vessel.  Below, the jar is gadrooned, another form derived from nature, possibly squashes.  The jar sits on a tripod base, the three legs of which are hollow and in which are rattles.  When the jar moves, it rattles.  The surface is slipped and polished brown, with three horizontal lines around the neck and three vertical lines and the flutes between the salient spaces painted black.

Gift of Vic and Chris Walther, Mesa, AZ

 

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Shallow Bowl
Teotihuacan Grayware
Collected in Oaxaca

Tripod feet supporting bowls were a characteristic of Teotihuacan ceramics.  This bowl has clay pellets in its hollow, bulbous feet, which produce a rattle when the bowl is moved.  This plain undecorated bowl would have been for everyday use by the common people.

Gift of Vic and Chris Walther, Mesa, AZ

 

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Tripod Bowl
Teotihuacan Grayware
Collected in Oaxaca

This little bowl has a flared rim above its simple flat tripod feet.  These vessels may both be from Oaxaca, underscoring the wide influence or direct trade from Teotihuacan in the Classic period (250-600 CE).

Gift of Vic and Chris Walther, Mesa, AZ

 

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Jar
No Date
Collected in Oaxaca

This jar is slipped red above the shoulder and clumsily decorated with dark grey or black micaceous paint of horizontal lines and step-fret and hook designs.

Gift of Vic and Chris Walther, Mesa, AZ

 

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Jar with Flower and Leaf Motifs
Mixtec, No Date
Oaxaca

This jar has decoration painted red on the body, neck and rim of the vessel.  A band around the body of the jar is divided into registers with flower and vegetal motifs.  The bulbous feet are hollow and rattle.

Gift of Vic and Chris Walther, Mesa, AZ

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Necklace
Michoacán Green Stone
Oaxaca

The green stone of this necklace probably came from Michoacán in West Mexico.  It terminates with a vertical bead and jade finial.  Such a necklace would have proclaimed the status of its wearer.

Gift of Vic and Chris Walther, Mesa, AZ

OaxacaPaintPot

Paint Pot
Mixtec, 1300-1500 CE
Oaxaca

The two great prehistoric cultures of Oaxaca in southern Mexico are the Zapotec and Mixtec.  The Zapotec inhabit southern and eastern Oaxaca and are associated with the great site of Monte Alban in the Valley of Oaxaca in the Preclassic and Classic periods.  The Mixtec inhabited northern and western Oaxaca, the Mixteca.  Mixtecs obtained ascendency in Oaxaca after the fall of Monte Alban in the 10th Century, at sites such as Yagul, Mitla and Coixtlahuaca.  Both Zapotecs and Mixtecs had robust artistic traditions.  The Mixtecs are noted for their polychrome pottery and painted manuscripts.  This small object is a paint pot, where a scribe might have wet his brushes as he composed manuscript paintings.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

Maya

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Tikal, Temple I, Guatemala 
 Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico 

Maya civilization arose from farmers in small villages in the highlands of Guatemala and adjacent lowlands of Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Yucatan and Chiapas beginning about 1500 BCE.  As communities grew, so did social complexity and specialization of labor.  By about 200 BCE the elements that would characterize Classic Maya civilization were in place: monumental architecture, erection of dated stone monuments, and the beginnings of a writing system.

At hundreds of sites, like Tikal and Uaxactún in the Guatemalan lowlands, Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras on the Usumacinta River, Copan and Quirigua in Honduras, Palenque in Chiapas and Uxmal in Yucatan, the ancient Maya developed their distinctive civilization.  Temples topped high pyramids arranged around open plazas.  Builders constructed massive acropolises to level land for temples and palaces.  Carved monuments celebrated rulers and their accomplishments.  Complex calendric systems recorded time and the gods associated with each temporal period. 

 

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Codex-style Cylinder Vessel
Late Classic, 600-900 CE
Maya, Guatemala

Codex vessels are quite rare and named for the painting style, which resembles the fine-line painting of fan-folded, bark paper Mayan codices, or books. The vessel shows a pair of scribes, possibly the supernatural Hero Twins of the "Popul Vuh," the Mayan genesis story.  Rendered in dark ink on a cream background, the artist elegantly drew the scribes seated cross-legged on opposite sides of the vessel, delicately painting a codex in a jaguar-skin cover.  The scribes have elaborate feather headdresses.  From the front of the headdress extends the open mouth of Och Chan, the serpent of the otherworld.  On the upper arm, back and thigh are "god signs" indicating that they are supernatural.  The scenes are significant for the graceful lineation and elegant composition.  Although most codex vessels are painted with a red rim, this example is accented with a black rim.  Black is often a representation of the underworld in Mayan iconography.  Many codex style vases were found in burials below house floors or in palaces in the northern Peten in contexts suggesting offerings.  Justin Kerr K1257; Maya Book of the Dead vessel 62.

Anonymous gift facilitated by Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Polychrome Orange & Black Painted & Incised Tripod Bowl
Maya, 500-800 CE
Ulúa Valley Region, Northwestern Honduras

The exterior of this bowl has three painted and incised registers.  Step-frets, possibly symbols of hills or mountains, in alternating black and orange rectangles, flank a central black band with simple incised decoration.  On the interior, the sides of the bowl are painted red.  The tripod feet are hollow, with rattles inside.

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Orange Polychrome Four-Footed Bowl with Rabbit Figure
Late Classic, 600-900 CE
Maya Area

The central image of this extraordinary bowl features a rabbit in human form standing on two legs.  The rabbit is in a fluted circle, with mammiform fruit or vegetal images on both sides.  On the inside of the bowl, on the sides between the rim and the bottom, are black and orange rabbits seated alternately, two sets of three rabbits and one set of two.  Between the rabbits are three sets of vertical bars with three pods attached.  Between the central rabbit figure and the seated rabbits on the side of the bowl is a circular band of squiggles.  On the exterior of the bowl are three registers: the lower, double lines of two bars and five dots; a plain middle course; and the upper of swirling hook designs.  These registers are interrupted between two feet of the bowl to apply small face and forefeet of what may be a turtle.  Turtles, or other reptiles, suggest the underworld.  
 
In Maya cosmology, the rabbit is the offspring of the Moon Goddess, and the face that the Maya saw in the moon was a rabbit.  The rabbit’s father may have been the Sun God.  On this bowl, presenting the rabbit as alternately black and orange might suggest night and day, or above ground world and otherworld.  The rabbit has elsewhere been portrayed as a scribe, and he has the role of trickster in scenes on other Maya vase painting.

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Black Polychrome Tripod Jar with Parrots
Maya, 500-800 CE
Ulúa Valley Region, Northwestern Honduras

The great diversity of birds in the forests of the Maya area provided plumage for Maya dress and accoutrements.  Parrots, macaws and quetzals provided feathers for extensive use on headdresses, shields, capes, fans, staffs and canopies.  Maya carved monuments, wall murals and painted ceramics provide a view of the visually vibrant life of the Maya elite.  This black tripod vase has three orange parrots with detailing in red.  The body is spotted, which does not occur in the natural world and may be a jaguar reference.  The long tail feathers are more like those of the quetzal.  The circular image in front of the parrots’ beaks may be a bead, which in some Maya funerary rites was placed in the mouth at death, and in ancient Maya art references the expiring breath soul.  This imagery, along with the black color, may indicate death or the underworld.

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Polychrome Vessel with "Death’s Head" Imagery
Late Classic, 600-850 CE
Ulúa Valley Region, Northwestern Honduras

This polychrome cylinder vessel has three "Death’s Head" images on a black ground.  The black color suggests the underworld.  The monster has a feathered headdress and feathers coming off the back of the head.  The bead or offering in the mouth was part of the death ceremony and the three little ellipses at the front of the mouth may represent the expelled life’s breath.  The black stripe around the eye and the "darkness" infix in the forehead are further symbols of death.  A vertical line of five beads, similar to the bead in the mouth, separates each of the three Death’s Head cartouches and underscores the overall theme of death in the imagery.

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Wind God Vessel
Late Classic, 600-900 CE
Maya Area

The ancient Maya had a robust pantheon of gods, and a god might have more than one aspect or manifestation.  This vessel displays the wind god, evidenced by the full cheeks ready to blow a gale.  The lower register of the vessel is a series of vertical flutes such as on melons.  The upper band consists of crude glyph-like carved and incised images.  The jar is of brown clay, with red slip clumsily applied.  Wind Gods might have been associated with Chacs, the Rain Gods, and were associated with the cardinal directions.

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Maya Fire God
Late Classic, 600-900 CE
Maya Area

This is the image of the Fire God, shown as an old man.  His face is wrinkled, he has lost teeth and seems to have a mouth or lip plug.  His ears are pierced.  His arms and legs display the thinness of the elderly, and may symbolize firewood of the hearth.  There is a small handle at the back of the vessel.  Some of the burnished orange slip has worn away.  Naturally fire was important to the Maya, and everyone used fire in some way or other.  The importance of fire to community well-being was recognized in ceremony and ritual, and by placing the Fire God in the Maya pantheon.  The Fire God may be identified with Itzam Cab, the earth aspect of the powerful god Itzam Na.

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

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Maya Fire God
Late Classic, 600-900 CE
Maya Area

The red burnished surface with modeled features presents the Maya Fire God.  The chin of the god protrudes, suggesting the toothless shrunken mouth of the aged.  He has a sash tied around his neck.  Down each arm are four painted crosses.  Close inspection reveals a line of miniscule punctations around the shoulder of the jar, and three circles on the back about an inch in diameter defined by the same small dots, each with a single cross in the center, as on the arms.  The meaning of this symbolism is not known.  The Fire God represented the hearth, and the earth below the hearth.

Gift of Walter Knox, Scottsdale, AZ

 

LiddedCacheVessel

Lidded Cache Vessel
Maya, Late Classic, 600-800 CE
Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

The lower part of this lidded tripod vessel has a human face with large eyes, prominent nose and mouth, and one of originally two ears with spools.  A jaguar with large fangs splays across the lid of the vessel, which could have been tied to the base through the three matching lugs near the rim on the upper and lower pieces.  Perhaps the vessel contained an offering.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

 PlumbateJar

Plumbate Jar in the Form of a Toad
Maya, Early Postclassic, 900-1250 CE
Mexico or Central America

All reptiles, especially serpents and frogs, had special places in Maya cosmology.  Reptiles inhabit the area between the world in which we live and the underworld, a liminal space allowing them to travel in both realms.  This effigy vessel is a ceramic type called Plumbate, characterized by a glaze high in alumina and iron, fired in an atmosphere with reduced oxygen, which produced a shiny grey or grey-green surface.  Plumbate pottery was made in the area of the Pacific Coast between Mexico and Guatemala and became a widely circulated Mesoamerican trade ware in the Early Postclassic.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin

 

 JarwHumanFace

Jar with Human Face
Maya (Huastec), 300 BCE-300 CE
Northern Veracruz

Huastecs are Maya who live in northeastern Mexico, in northern Veracruz, San Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas.  Sometime between 2200 and 1200 BCE, the Huastecs split from other Maya groups in southern Mexico and Guatemala and somehow made their way to northern Veracruz, probably arriving between 1500 and 900 BCE.  This vessel has a human face sculpted on the shoulder of the jar, which also has a handle and spout.  The eyes are closed, perhaps suggesting sleep or death.  Above the shoulder of the vessel is complex brown linear decoration, and below is a pattern of circles and dots.  Details are painted in brown on the crème body.  Whatever the context of its use, the spout indicates it carried liquid.

Bequest of Lester K. and Rosalyn W. Olin