Pre-Columbian Collection

Double-Bottom Bowl

Double-Bottom Bowl

  • Maya, Early Classic
  • 350-600 CE
  • 12.4 x 18.1  (4.9 x 7.1)
  • ceramic
  • PC.B.554
  • Currently not on view


This striking, glossy vessel is dark brown to black-brown in coloration and has vestiges of red pigment, likely cinnabar, in the recesses of the exterior carved decoration. The undecorated interior is slipped and well polished, and its hemispherical interior base conceals a hollow cavity between it and the slightly bulbous exterior that boasts an array of surface decorations. The hollow cavity contains numerous clay pellets that create a rattle sound when the bowl is moved.
In contrast to its dark-brown finish, the paste of this unusual bowl is a light-tan-orange color. Visible in conservation photographs and at the location sampled for instrumental neutron activation analysis, the paste color is masked by a brown to black firing slip, which was applied to the entire object after its decoration was complete. Before firing, the surfaces were well polished to a lustrous sheen, except in the recesses of the plano-relief carving and incised decoration.
The construction process for this object required fashioning two bowls and joining them together in such a way as to preserve the open cavity between the layers of free-moving clay pellets. The double-bowl form, when joined, was enhanced with rim impressions and appliqué decoration. Once the exterior had dried sufficiently, it could sustain the execution of the plano-relief carving, gouged and incised decorations, as well as numerous perforations of the wall. When the final incised details were completed, the object was dipped in a firing slip, and its surfaces were polished to create the dark, glossy sheen. This vessel was carefully fired to preserve both the rattle cavity and the elegant shape of the double base. At some point, red pigment was added to the exterior, enhancing the carved relief.
The object has a rounded, slightly bulbous exterior profile. The spiral, fluted swirl of the exterior decoration may have been partially molded. The interior presents a hemispherical profile with a very slightly raised bump at the center of the interior base. The rim band presents a series of smoothed finger impressions creating an almost fluted appearance to the finished rim. Where the exterior and interior walls joined, four smooth, rounded appliqué bosses were added to the exterior, evenly spaced around the circumference of the bowl. The pliant clay of the exterior vessel wall and each boss was pressed with a curve-ended tool to create a shallow groove around the base of the boss.
The pellets within the double-bottomed vessel rattle when the bowl is moved. A simple tilt of the bowl shifts the pellets to one side of the cavity, and this motion creates a short-lived rattle sound. A more striking effect occurs when the bowl is held and manipulated in a circular manner, rotating the vessel at a tilt around a central axis. This action causes the pellets to swirl around the base of the cavity interior, and the resultant noise is akin to the sound of falling rain. The spiral decoration on the base reinforces this idea of swirled motion as part of the intended use of the object. No direct observation of liquid in the vessel during this sort of motion has been attempted, and so the potential effect to the rattle sound is not known.


Benson, E. P. (1967). The Maya World. New York, Crowell.

Benson, E. P. (1969). Supplement to the Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian art. Washington, D. C., Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University.

Benson, E. P. (1977). "Maya bowl from the Dumbarton Oaks collections." Studio Potter 6(1): 46-47.

Coe, M. D. (1975). Classic Maya pottery at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University.

Gallenkamp, C. and R. E. Johnson (1985). Maya: Treasures of an Ancient Civilization. New York, H.N. Abrams in association with the Albuquerque Museum.

Von Winning, H. (1967). "Una vasija-sonaja maya de doble fondo." Estudios de cultura maya 6: 243-250.

Von Winning, H. (1968). Pre-Columbian art of Mexico and Central America. New York, H.N. Abrams.

Exhibition History

"Maya: Treasures of an Ancient Civilization", American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, 5/1 - 7/28/1985; Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA, 8/28 - 11/3/1985; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX, 12/15/1985 - 2/16/1986; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, 3/23 - 6/15/1986; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Fine Arts, Kansas City, MO, 7/20 - 10/15/1986; The Albuquerque Museum, Albuquerque, NM, 11/16/1986 - 2/8/1987.

"All Sides Considered: New Research on the Maya Collection:, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 09/08/12 - 06/02/13.

"Permanent exhibit", Dumbarton Oaks, 1966  -

Acquisition History

Acquired by exchange from Alfred Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Dumbarton Oaks, 1966.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

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