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What Can We Learn from a Maya Vase? Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003
by Dorie Reents-Budet and Ronald Bishop

Hi-tech analysis enables once-enigmatic ceramic vessels to tell their tales.

Click here for larger image and more info. (© Justin Kerr)

Today, when high-profile foreign dignitaries visit the White House, they can expect to attend grand dinners and to receive gifts, often custom-made by the best artists in the country. The gifts honor the visitor and showcase the giver's fine taste. In the days of the Classic Maya (A.D. 250-900), state-level gift-giving was little different, and no gift reflected more meaning or artistic expertise than the painted ceramic vase. Twenty years ago, the hieroglyphs, images, and even origins of these extraordinary vessels were little known. Now, advances in decipherment and chemical technology have made these vases invaluable for exploring the economic, political, and social exploits of the Maya.

The vases, used both to serve food at feasts and as gifts presented at such events, were created by highly skilled painters who had mastered the intricacies of Classic Maya religious mythology, ideology, and history, and used hieroglyphic writing as both communication and visual poetry. Artists were highly regarded and often members of elite families.

These vessels are rich repositories of data concerning Classic Maya culture and royalty and provide intimate views of palace life. They depict the decorations that would have adorned the now-bare stone palace buildings found at most Maya sites, and the perishable interior furnishings that do not survive in the archaeological record: curtains and throne covers of cloth and jaguar pelt; containers of ceramic, gourd, wood, and basketry; books; regal costumes; and musical instruments and scented wood torches that added to the auditory and aromatic atmosphere of the court. Also recorded on them are ancient myths and epic tales, which often survive nowhere else.

The vessels' hieroglyphic texts convey two sets of information. The text encircling their rims dedicates the vessels and lists their contents--a kakaw, or chocolate, beverage for cylinder vases, tamales for plates, and atole (corn gruel) for dishes. The text ends with the name of the vessel's owner or patron and might even name the artist. The second set of text is painted in the scenes. It records the portrayed individuals' personal names and official titles and denotes the main action, sometimes giving the date of the event.

Many pictorial vessels have no archaeological provenience, and most sites' excavated ceramics are in many different styles, hindering comparison. How then can we know the origins of the vessels to retrieve more historical information from them? The Maya Ceramics Project, Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, has a growing database of chemical "fingerprints" of dozens of Classic Maya ceramic production sites.

Combining chemical with stylistic, iconographic, and hieroglyphic analyses, we can match the vases with archaeological regions, sites, and even specific workshops and master ceramicists.

The article presents two vases, one unprovenienced and one excavated archaeologically. The rollout photographs present their entire pictorial compositions as envisioned by the ancient artists.

Dorie Reents-Budet is a research associate and Ronald Bishop is senior research archaeologist at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America