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Effigy Vessel With Man and Deer

200 BCE-350 CE
17.78 cm x 16.83 cm x 15.24 cm (7 in. x 6 5/8 in. x 6 in.)

Not on view


This effigy vessel assumes the shape of a semi-kneeling personage about to lift a deer on his back. The animal is held by the hoofs while its torso forms the upper backside of the vessel. The head of the deer projects forward from the right side of the human figure, its snout resting against the bent right leg of the personage. The long ears of the stag are joined, and the short tail appears incised with parallel lines on the back of the vessel. The arms of the personage, his left foot, two of the extremities of the deer, and its tail are appliqués to the vessel. The proportion of the human head to the rest of the features in the vessel is rather small.

The personage is male, as indicated by a loincloth slightly modeled over the surface and then emphasized by incised lines. The toes of both feet are shown by means of incised lines, as are the fingers of the hands and the hoofs of the deer. The extended foot of the figure also indicates the malleolus of the tibia by a slight projection on the surface. The personage wears a rope around his neck, disk-shaped ear spools seemingly fastened in the back by a thick band, and a coiffure divided in half by a band. One side of the headdress is lower than the other, but both have the same texture, indicated by punctures on the clay.

The chamber of the vessel opens into the hollow head and legs of the human figure. The head of the stag is also hollow and connects to the vessel. Thus the container was probably not used to store liquid but rather some solid material. The height of the container and its approximate circumference measured at the mouth, which is slightly expanded compared to the rest of the vessel because of the modeled position of the deer’s body, does not generate enough interior space for large items. An adult hand does not fit into the mouth of the vessel; fingers can reach barely halfway into the container.

The exterior surface of the effigy vessel appears to have been burnished and polished with a stick, as striations are evident in some parts. The left knee, the right heel, and the left toes provide a tripod support for the vessel. The head shows evidence of a repair.

The figure has been interpreted as a hunter carrying a deer, but an analogy can be established between the three-dimensional rendering in the effigy vessel and two-dimensional scenes painted on Late Classic polychrome vessels from the Yucatan peninsula.
The scene on the effigy vessel in the Bliss Collection does not indicate that the deer is dead, because no extended tongue, closed eyes, or limp body is indicated. Thus the rope around the neck of the personage could allude to the use of a noose snare, one of the ways in which deer were captured alive in ancient Mesoamerica. Central Mexican as well as Maya almanacs and stone monuments depict this mode of hunting. The capture of live deer and their sacrifice were part of vernal agricultural rituals.

In the Dumbarton Oaks effigy vessel the rope around the neck of the personage, his fancy ear spools, and the elaborate coiffure may suggest as well the pan-Mesoamerican metaphor of a warrior taking a prisoner and the symbolic substitution of the captive for a stag. The joined ears of the stag would be equivalent to the pulled hair of the captive, a visual metaphor also rendered in a Classic Maya polychrome vessel in the Bliss Collection that alludes to a form of sacrifice whereby captives acting as deer were tied to a scaffold, partially burned, and then immolated by shooting them with darts.

Assocation of American Colleges 1987. Liberal Education 73 (4). p. 3.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 31, cat. 158.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., p. 28, 135, cat. 136.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, New York. p. 248, cat. 101, pl. LXI, bottom.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1959 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. 2nd ed. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, London. p.256, cat. 101, pl. LXI, bottom.

Christensen, Erwin Ottomar 1955 Primitive Art. Bonanza Books, New York. p. 170.

Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia 1946 Prehispanic Art of México. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México, D.F., fig. 263.

Mexican Government Tourism Department 1960 Advertisement. In The New Yorker.

National Geographic Society 1983 Peoples and Places of the Past. National Geographic Magazine. p. 381.

Pillsbury, Joanne, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito and Alexandre Tokovinine (EDS.) 2012 Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 16, fig. 14.

Soustelle, Jacques 1967 Mexico. Archaeologia Mundi. Nagel, Geneva. p. 20, illus. no. 18.

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 1957. Artes de México 17. pl. 25.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to July 1949, February 1954 to July 1962.

"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1944.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1944-1962.

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

Animals | Anthropomorphic | Deer