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Bone Bells

Maya, Early Classic
200-650 CE
2.54 cm x 2.86 cm x 2.22 cm (1 in. x 1 1/8 in. x 7/8 in.)
mammal bone

Not on view


This set of four bone bells is an example of the sophisticated artisanry of the Pre- Columbian Maya peoples. Generally known for their intricate works in more permanent media such as stone and shell, Maya artisans fashioned these objects out of a more ephemeral organic material—mammal bone—that rarely survives. The excellent preservation of these bone bells increases our understanding of their skill and imagination in creating objects related to the realm of performative arts.
Made from bone of an unidentified large mammal, including possibly human, each object has a flattened spheroid form with a hollowed center and carved imagery on one of its wider surfaces. It should be noted that the current state of the objects represents their consolidated form after suffering some breakage in the past. Each object has a pair of small perforations (approximately 3 mm in diameter) near its upper end, one on either side of the object, and a narrow slit along its bottom surface, whose end points are just shy of the perforations. Close inspection reveals that their ovoid sides reflect the original form of the raw material rather than the joining together of two previously carved halves. It is quite likely that the upper side is the juncture where the bone was cut, but with the finished edges rounded and smoothed. The open, top sides of the objects are porous, and may derive from the proximal end of a femur or other larger limb bone. This is also suggested by two of the bells, whose bottom sides show a contiguous surface except for the narrow slit. The interior of each bone object was carefully hollowed out using a tool about 2 mm wide, the marks of which can be observed. The direction of the carved grooves indicates that the carver inserted the implement from the larger upper opening, thereby reinforcing the notion that each object was originally made of a single, intact piece of bone.
The four bone objects represent a type of musical instrument that has been underrepresented in the literature for ancient Mesoamerica: bells. They fall within the group of musical instruments referred to as idiophones, or instruments that produce sounds from the material of the object itself by striking, shaking, rubbing, or scraping it. Other instruments in this group include gourd and ceramic rattles, bone rasps, and Oliva shell tinklers. The Dumbarton Oaks spheroid objects would likely have contained one or more pellets that would have rattled when shaken. The small perforations on the sides of each object suggest that they were strung; the larger opening was likely partly closed by a perishable glue or resin material to prevent the pellets from falling out. Alternatively, one or more clappers may have been suspended inside the hollow bone by a cord passing through the laterally drilled holes.
Each of the four bells depicts a different supernatural head. One represents a water scroll, the serpent head of the patron deity of the number thirteen, who is also the Water Lily Serpent, the deity of standing water. Second and third bells depict the sun god and the Jaguar God of the Underworld, respectively. The last bell shows the head of a centipede. It is identified by the skeletal mandible and the prominent pair of long, sharp fangs that tip the upper jaw, as well as the out-curving, bifurcated tail, which is portrayed on top of the head.

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. 15, cat. 71.

Gallenkamp, Charles and Regina Elise Johnson (EDS.) 1985 Maya: Treasures of an Ancient Civilization. H.N. Abrams, in association with the Albuquerque Museum, New York. p. 117, fig. 32.

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. 458-463, pl. 86, fig. 269.

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.

"Pass It On: Visual Communication in the Pre-Columbian World", Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 10/10/2008 - 5/1/2009.

"All Sides Considered: New Research on the Maya Collection:, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 9/8/12 - 6/2/13.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1962.

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

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

Bead | Glyphs | Mayas