Although the Maya are well known for creating a multitude of art—sketches, wood carvings, stone works—they are perhaps best known for their pottery. Driven both by function and aesthetics, pottery became a ceramic canvas for the Maya to tell stories, venerate the gods, commemorate the deceased and much more. Here’s a quick tour of four pieces from four distinct periods of the Maya civilization. All are from the Mayan Art of the Americas permanent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Next time you’re in New York, we highly recommend that you take a look at these. They’re all the more stunning in person.
The very early Maya used hollowed-out gourds as containers for liquids and food. With utility still in mind—they were light, portable, and sturdy— these gourds inspired the shape and size of the Maya’s first pottery creations. Clay was easily collected in riverbeds of the highland valleys and was strengthened with ash, sand or bits of rocks. The Maya created pots by winding long coils of clay into the desired shape and then smoothing the edges. The pieces were then fired in kilns built expressly for the setting of pottery.
Late Preclassic Period (250 BC – 250 AD)
During the Late Preclassic period, the design movement of adding appendages to these pots (also known as ceramic vessels) was developed. Pottery from this period featured increasingly intricate human and animal forms. This bowl, where utility and imagination merge, is an excellent example of the sophistication that had developed by the end of the Late Preclassic Period.
“A characteristic ceramic bowl was one made in the shape of a tropical bird, perhaps a cormorant, in the act of catching a fish in its beak. The bird’s forehead is marked with a disk, probably depicting a mirror. Details of the bird are rendered on the lid, where its head forms the knob and its wings spread out onto the expanse of the lid. The fish is rendered three-dimensionally, carefully held in the wide bird beak.” Image and Description via The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York
Early Classic Period (250 AD – 550 AD)
Attention to detail flourished in the Early Classic period, which lasted from about 250 AD to 550 AD, and ushered great creative expansion throughout the entire Yucatan and the Mayan world. The Temple of Inscriptions at Pelanque, in Chiapas, was built during this time, as well as the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal. Scenic mosaics of battles, rituals and ball games were emphasized in ceramics and incorporated into rituals and sacrificial ceremonies.
“This magnificent high-gloss blackware bowl is decorated with carved and incised feathered serpents. Profile human figures are seated in front of their bearded jaws. The bodies of the serpents undulate with regularity around the circumference of the vessel. The figures are perhaps emerging from the underworld as the bearded, feathered serpent is thought to be a personification of that fearsome place. A bowl carved with serpents and human forms; likely a scene of the underworld” Inscribed with dots signifying 539 AD. Image & description via The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York
By the fourth century, a number of unique pigments had been refined and were being incorporated during the firing process to add color and depth. The classic Maya blue, for example, was used frequently during the Mayan Classic period around 550 AD. Remnants of the color pigments can be seen in the “Censer with Seated Figure” below, which is estimated to be 5th- 6th Century.
“The smoke from burning incense, accompanied every major ceremony in the Maya realm. Depicted on the censer illustrated here is a seated figure, perhaps a ruler, surrounded by aspects of mythological creatures that are stacked about his head and symmetrically flank his sides. The central figure is in higher relief, sitting cross-legged with arms carefully positioned in front of his chest. The position of the hands, held inward and touching, is known from sculpted stone monuments, where it carries connotations of rulership.” Censer with Seated Figure. Image and description via The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York
Late Classic Period (700 AD – 850 AD)
By the Late Classic period (700 AD to 850 AD) and the Terminal Classic period (after 850 AD) salt plumbate was used regularly in plates and bowls the bright orange and deep red hued pottery now associated with the Yucatan had become the default colors used by the Maya as seen in the funerary vessel below, likely from the 8th century, depicting a young lord.
Maya polychrome ceramic vessel. “A palace court scene is depicted on the exterior of this cylindrical vessel. An elegant young lord, seated on a throne, wears a grand feathered headdress and a large collar of beads and pendants. Two seated male figures of lesser rank face him, and between them is a vessel shaped much like the one on which they are depicted. It is filled with a foaming liquid probably made of honey or cacao. The depiction of the luxurious life of a wealthy and powerful young man is overlaid with references to death. The vessel is undoubtedly a mortuary offering.” Image and description via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Today, the tradition of Maya pottery still thrives. Many pieces have lasted the test of time and can still be viewed and studied. Mérida’s Yucatan Museum of Anthropology maintains a charming collection of ceramics. In Ticul, about an hour from Petac, pottery remains at the financial and cultural heart of the town. Once known for the production of clay water storage tanks, the pottery industry of Ticul has adapted to be one much more about artistry. From clay masks of Mayan gods and mosaics depicting Xibalaba, the underworld, to commemorative altars and elegant pots and plates, local artisans are thriving and continue to by selling their work in nearby Mérida.