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Fragment of an Incense Burner Lid

Maya, Late Classic
650/750-900 CE
18.1 cm x 31.12 cm x 28.26 cm (7 1/8 in. x 12 1/4 in. x 11 1/8 in.)

Not on view


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This fragmentary ceramic served as the lid of an incense burner. The lid’s interior was charred black by rising smoke; that the coating extends over a shattered edge suggests the lid was still employed even after it was broken. When whole and in use, the lid permitted smoke to rise from the burning interior and through the open mouth of the bird whose head formed much of the object. Judging by the prominent, tufted ears, the bird here appears to be an owl, but its beak, with a scalloped edge, resembles that of a macaw. Composite creatures such this are common in Maya iconography.
Throughout the Maya region, incense burners transformed tree resin, paper, blood, rubber, tobacco, and other offerings into ephemeral smoke, which could be seen and smelled from near and far. Yet, as shown by ethnography, the intended targets were as much supernatural as human. Materials consumed by fire awakened and fed gods and the honored dead, and, reciprocally, the presence of the supernaturals could be glimpsed in the shifting smoke; such burning also summoned clouds and rain through the rising smoke of smoldering.

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. 72.

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. 374-375, pl. 69, fig. 204.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, September 1960 to April 1962.

"Flights of Fancy: Birds in Pre-Columbian Art" Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2009 - 2/28/2010.

"75 Years/75 Objects", Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 9/8/2015 - 5/22/2016

Acquisition History
Purchased from John A. Stokes Jr., New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1960.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1960-1962.

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