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Polychrome Vase

Maya, Late Classic
650/750-900 CE
20.32 cm x 18.42 cm (8 in. x 7 1/4 in.)

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Painted in earthy tones of red and brown on an orange background and contrasted with highlights of white, this polychrome vessel portrays a celebratory scene of warriors accompanied by musicians at a rite culminating in the sacrifice of an individual on a scaffold. This large object requires both hands to hold it, and indeed it may have been used for frothing cacao rather than for drinking. The upper portion of the interior is decorated with wide, dark-brown or muted-black lines in a diagonal crosshatched design, which is reminiscent of basketry or perhaps scaffolding, much like the structure in the vessel’s central scene.
Delimited along the top and bottom by red bands with a thin black outline, the scene boasts a total of fourteen individuals who can be divided into three groups: six musicians, four warriors, and four people directly involved with the scaffold, including the deer impersonator to be sacrificed, an individual standing in front of him on the scaffold, and two white-colored attendants behind the sacrificial victim. The scaffold scene is the centerpiece of the composition, while the warriors frame the event, facing different directions.
The ritual nature here is conveyed by the six simply dressed musicians who play four different instruments. The seated individual and the two standing men closest to the structure play large gourd trumpets. A fourth trumpet suggests that there is yet another musician, entirely hidden from view, adjacent to the two standing trumpeters. The three other musicians behind the warriors play rattles, a large upright drum, and a turtle-carapace percussion instrument.
In contrast to the musicians, the four warriors who stand at attention wear leather hip cloths displaying the same crenellated edging found on the tympanum of the drum. The first warrior holds an axe with a red-tipped blade, and the fourth carries a spear with a white chert blade; the other two also carry spears, but the tips are hidden from view. Although the red on the axe could denote blood, it may also refer to the variegated coloration of the stone. The first two warriors wear headdresses featuring animal heads—a buzzard and a puma. Both creatures may have had associations with warfare and sacrifice. Vultures have a well-known propensity for eating decomposing flesh, human or otherwise, and surely were a common presence after major battles; pumas are considered today in the Peten region to be fearsome “man eaters”. The other two warriors wear crested white conical hats or helmets embellished with long red feathers at the front. The first three figures wear thick collars with yellow circular elements, maybe collars of Spondylus shell, human jawbones, and other material. The collar worn by the fourth warrior may represent a string of shrunken trophy heads, as they seem to represent simplified faces akin to the one the puma warrior wears on the front of his collar. The puma warrior has two inverted trophy heads on his bib and a full-size head on the small of his back.
The long, white, biblike devices worn by the warriors likely represent paper strips used to capture sacrificial blood. The puma warrior figure has a long bib of cut-paper strips that is marked with red paint, probably denoting blood. It is likely that the biblike devices worn by the other three figures are versions of the same costume element, although in these cases the bibs are formed of knotted paper, constituting a “stacked bow” motif. Sacrificial accoutrements of paper would be directly linked to the theme of scaffold sacrifice that appears on the vase. It is possible that during the act of slaying a bound victim, the paper would be drenched with spurting blood.
The scaffold is composed of wooden poles lashed together to form a two-level pyramidal structure. The sacrificial victim is shown on all fours, in quadruped stance, his hair tied up in the form of antlers, impersonating a hunted deer. The man standing on the lower level in front of the deer impersonator wears a broad-brimmed hat, a type commonly worn by hunters in Late Classic Maya scenes. He balances what may be a spiked censer in his left hand and a torch in his right. Along with the figure standing on the other side of the scaffold, he scorches the backside of the “deer”.
Wearing tall white hats possibly bound with paper strips, the two white-bodied attendants have the same thick collar as the warriors, with the one holding the ornamented spear also wearing a shorter version of the paper bib on his front torso.
All of the men appear entirely human aside from the only seated figure at the base of the scaffold. Grasping a gourd trumpet in his right hand, he holds his left hand toward his mouth. One or two lines encircle his yellow lips. This figure may be an impersonator of the sun deity positioned at the base of the scaffold to ritually consume the victim’s blood.
In addition to the sacrificial scaffold’s function as a structure of terror, the edifice also played a central role in the accession rites of rulers. In sum, the scene on this vessel represents an elaborate rite consisting of a celebratory war performance with music and the sacrifice of a deer impersonator on a scaffold. Although no ruler is depicted here, the rite may have been part of a series of events that involved the transfer of authority to the throne’s heir. Just as the blood of the victim may have fed the sun deity seated at the bottom of the scaffold, the cacao frothed in the vessel may have nourished the newly acceded ruler.

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Taube, Karl A. 1988 A Study of Classic Maya Scaffold Sacrifice. In Maya Iconography, Elizabeth P. Benson and Gillett G. Griffin, eds., pp. 331-351. Princeton University Press, Princeton. p. 333, fig. 12.1b, 12.3.

Exhibition History
"I Maya", Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy, 9/6/1998 - 5/16/1999.

"The Art of Music", The San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA, 9/26/2015 - 2/8/2016.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Edward Merrin (The Merrin Gallery), New York (dealer), by Dumbarton Oaks, 1970.

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

Anthropomorphic | Mayas