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Photo Credit: © Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection. Photography by Joseph Mills.

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Anthropomorphic and Phytomorphic Whistle

Maya, Late Classic
650-800 CE
17.15 cm x 6.03 cm x 3.18 cm (6 3/4 in. x 2 3/8 in. x 1 1/4 in.)

Not on view


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Nestled within the petals of a flower, an aged man, likely an ancestral figure, gazes straight ahead, arms folded gently over his abdomen. The vividly painted but delicate features are characteristic of Jaina-style ceramic figurines. The flower stem is hollow, and its open end functioned as the whistle’s mouthpiece. The stem connects to the torso and head, which act as resonating chambers. The small size of the chamber produces a high, shrill sound. With a single, rectangular hole at the back of the head, this wind instrument produces one sound or note and, as such, is classified as a whistle. It is possible that the hollow stem (inner diameter: 0.5 cm) was created by wrapping clay around a reed or other organic material, which would have burned away during firing and thus left a void.

The mold-made head portrays advanced age, including features such as wrinkles in the forehead, sunken eyes and cheeks, and a drooping mouth. The partially open mouth reveals two remaining fanglike teeth and, along with the open eyes, indicates this figure is a living being. His importance is reflected in the jewelry adorning his otherwise bare, slender body, including two circular ear ornaments and a necklace of large spherical beads. The two oval elements that frame the top sides of the head represent hair and would have been complemented by a top central element of unknown form that has since broken off.

The modeled flower had four petals, but only three survive. Two downward-curving elements brace the base of the petals, representing the sepals whose function is to protect the flower bud. The broken sepal whose tip is lost contains remnants of black paint, while the complete one shows no sign of any pigment.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1969 Supplement to the Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D. C., cat. 441.

Gould Stoddart, Veronica 1977 The Magic Orchid. Américas 29 (5):14-17. p. 16.

Hawke, Sharryl and James E. Davis 1992 Seeds of Change: The Story of Cultural Exchange after 1492. Addison-Wesley Pub., Menlo Park, Calif., p. 41.

Kurbjuhn, Kornella 1985 Busts in Flowers. In Fourth Palenque Round Table, 1980, Elizabeth P. Benson and Merle Greene Robertson, eds., pp. 221-234. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco. fig. 9.

National Endowment for the Humanities, 1998 Neh and America's Libraries [Brochure]. National Endowment for the Humanities.

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. 426-430, pl. 80, fig. 234.


Kidder, Alfred V. and Carlos Samayoa Chinchilla 1959 The Art of the Ancient Maya. Crowell, New York. fig. 49.

Exhibition History
"Seeds of Change", National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, 10/12/1991 - 5/23/1993.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Alphonse Jax, New York (dealer), by Dumbarton Oaks, 1966.

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

Anthropomorphic | Corn | Jaina | Maize | Mayas | Music*