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Maya Vase Database

Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies
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Reviewed by:
Christine A. Kray
Rochester Institute of Technology
October 2004

This website is a photographic database of painted and carved vases from the ancient Maya cultures of southern Mexico and Central America of the Classic Period (200-900 CE). The photographs, taken by Justin Kerr, a fine arts photographer, are crucially important for understanding ancient Maya people for two reasons.

First, these vases are unique among forms of ancient Maya art in that they typically include full scenes from life and mythology, including multiple figures in different poses and actions. Other common figural Maya art forms (hieroglyphs, statues, carvings on stucco walls) usually do not display the same degree of complexity of scenes. Therefore, the vases offer the most detailed perspective available on Classic Period courtly life and mythology.

Second, Kerr took the photographs using a technique he invented, called rollout photography, in which the painting or carving that wraps around the vase is rolled out and reduced to a flat, two-dimensional photograph. As such, we can view the entire scene at once, without having to turn the vessel.

The database includes rollout images of more than 1,400 vases. Most are polychrome (multicolored) painted vases, while others are carved stone vases and a few polychrome painted plates. The scenes can be divided between palace scenes, mythological scenes, scenes of warfare, and scenes of animals. Many of the vases are stunningly beautiful and thus make excellent illustrations for classroom use and for student analysis. Some of the photographs include links to 11 articles written by scholars interpreting the iconography.

The database seems to have been created largely for experts in Maya art and iconography (common images and symbols). As such, contextual information about ancient Maya culture is largely missing. Thus, the non-expert may find the site difficult to use. For non-experts, searches by iconographic element and keyword, such as “deer” and “king,” are the most productive. A scroll-down list of 91 iconographic elements is provided, including “ballgame,” “Maize God,” “Moon Goddess,” “Musicians,” “Ruler,” “Sacrifice,” and “Vision Serpent.” Non-experts also will probably need to do some background reading in order to make best use of the site. A recommended text is Robert J. Sharerís The Ancient Maya.1

Each database record includes information on vase type, height, diameter, circumference, owner, and the archaeological site at which the vase was found (the provenience), although sometimes such information is incomplete. The fact that the provenience and date are often not provided will be especially disappointing to archaeologists. The “comments” field provides a description of the scene for about half of the vases. The list of iconographic elements is not always helpful since it does not indicate where in the scene the elements are found; if a scene includes multiple figures, the non-expert may not be able to determine easily which is God A, which is Goddess O, etc.

The site may be used in the classroom in a variety of ways. The images may be used as illustrations of the artistic achievements of the Maya. Students with an interest in technology and photography may enjoy reading the link on rollout photography. Students also could be asked to read about ancient Maya mythology and try to interpret one scene on their own.

A useful teaching exercise would be to walk through the interpretation of one or two vases, relying on the linked scholarly articles. Walking through the interpretation of one vase can reveal to students the difficult but exciting challenge of reconstructing past belief systems. A good choice for this exercise would be vase #593, in which a group of warriors prepares the sacrifice of a prisoner. The linked article by Elin Danien, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, describes the scene as commemorating the funeral of Lord Muwan, with the sacrifice of Lord Puma from a neighboring city as part of the purification ceremony. Danienís interpretation is based on a variety of sources: analysis of the hieroglyphs, identifying symbols that indicate the figureís social status, knowledge of contemporary Maya languages, and a deep knowledge of ancient Maya religious beliefs.

Another good choice for this exercise would be vase #5534, which, according to the linked article, depicts the funerary procession of a noble. The linked article for vase #3266 identifies the scene as a depiction of the mythological Hero Twins resurrected as catfish. Finally, vase #1180 depicts a supernatural scene of scribes. The linked article by Justin Kerr outlines the iconographic elements that indicate that a figure is a scribe and discusses the important role of scribes in ancient Maya societies.

1 Robert J. Sharer, The Ancient Maya (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994)

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