Archeoastronomy Final Project

By Jeremy Wertheimer

Mayan Artifacts on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

Art of the Ancient Americas

The art of the classical Mayans (AD 250 to 900) developed from Olmec influences. The Mayans had a very advanced culture and made technological advancements in almost all cultural and technological fields including architecture, math, and art. Their culture was based in what are now present-day Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Northern Honduras, and Northern El Salvador. They were not a unified empire but rather a collection of powerful city-states, which, at the peak of the Mayan civilization, were unified into two major alliances based on political and military power. Their art is inspired and influenced by religion and trade. What follows is a tour of some of the artifacts in the Art of the Ancient Americas exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

K'iché Maya Burial Urns

The K'iché Maya of highland Guatemala were unique people in the Classical period because they used large ceramic urns to bury their dead. The deceased were carefully wrapped and folded then placed in these burial urns. The urns were each about four feet tall and two feet in diameter (one corpse to an urn, please). Offerings of jadeite and pottery were also placed in the Urn. The Urns were buried inside pyramids or sacred caves. The figures on the Urns are not entirely understood because many Mayan myths and legends have been lost. Some seem to represent characters from the Popol Vuh, the 16th century K'iché epic describing the origin of the world and the deeds of the Hero Twins Hun Ahaw (One lord) and Xbalan-que, pronounced Yax-balam (Jaguar-Deer). The hero Twins defeated the Lords of Death and created a path of resurrection for humanity. The representations of the Hero Twins on the Urns may serve to insure the resurrection of the soul of the deceased occupant. There are four urns on exhibit.

Drinking Vessels

The Mayan artists created ornate ceramic drinking vessels decorated with scenes from the Mayan religion painted with slip paint. The artists were members of the Mayan elite and enjoyed very good educations. The drinking vessels served ritual functions and were buried with the dead. Slip paint is clay diluted with water and colored with minerals. I viewed two examples of these large (~8 inch tall) vessels.

No Picture Available

Codex Style Drinking Vessels

Mayan Codex style vessels were made during the eighth century in only a few locations in Northern Guatemala near the Mexican border. They are visually similar to the codex; the astronomical Mayan writings on folded leaves of fig bark paper. Both vessels and codices are painted with fine black on a white background. The ceramic Codex style vessels have red lines on the top and bottom framing the picture. Codex style vessels feature mythological subjects. Our primary sources for interpreting the stories displayed on the Codex style vessels are the surviving writings of the Classic Maya religion. Since we have lost many myths and legends, some of the images on the codex style vessels are difficult to interpret. The vessels were either funerary offerings or ritual objects possibly used by religious pilgrims. They are all roughly eight inches tall.

Codex Style Plate

The paining on this pate is the same style as the paining on the codex style drinking vessels and the codices. The painting is of the birth of the Maize God from a crack in a turtle shell.

Incense Burners

The Maya used ceramic incense burners in temples and other holy places. They filled the base of the incense burners with smoldering coals and incense, and then placed ornamental lids on top. These lids were not only shaped as religious symbols such as temples and kings but had holes in them specifically placed to draw in oxygen and allow the fragrant fumes of the incense to escape. In these examples, the holes were designed so the fumes would come out of a symbolically important place on the lid.


Picture of Mayan cosmology

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Site maintained by Jeremy Wertheimer. Last updated 2/23/01.