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Jar in the Shape of a Monkey

Aztec, Late Postclassic
1300-1520 CE
31.43 cm x 19.69 cm x 30.48 cm (12 3/8 in. x 7 3/4 in. x 12 in.)

On view


This slightly oblong, barrel-shaped vessel has the form of a monkey in a squatting position with its arms above and behind the head, grasping its own tail that encircles the vessel. Only the portion of the tail on the anterior portion of the vessel is freestanding, having its points of origin placed laterally. The course of the tail around the superior portion of the vessel is carved in low relief. The length of the tail and its coiled end—a detail that reveals its prehensile nature—suggest that the animal represented in the vessel is a spider monkey. The posture of its hands is not clear. The fingers taper toward the posterior surface of the freestanding portion of the tail but are also rendered on the anterior surface, giving the impression that the visible portion of the hands is the palmar and not the dorsal side.

The head of the monkey sticks out from the wall of the vessel by a thick peg that mimics the neck. The hairless area surrounding the eyes of spider monkeys was reproduced with a beveled depression done with a thick solid drill bit. The eyes were then marked by means of two consecutive drilling episodes using solid bits of decreasing diameter. Such double perforation created a deep and uneven surface to enhance the sticking properties of an adhesive that must have held in place inlays simulating the eyes. Smaller perforations, 2.3 mm in diameter, produced the nostrils. Five others, ranging between 3.4 and 5.6 mm, probably facilitated the adherence of three upper and two lower inlaid teeth. Other facial features, like the ears and the forehead, appear to have been finished by grinding flat surfaces. The missing lower lip, however, must have broken some time after the vessel was finished, perhaps relatively recently.

Flexed knees and the feet protrude substantially from the body of the vessel. The left foot has been broken off. The right foot’s four grooves define five toes. The plantar surfaces of the feet and of the tail provide a very shallow tripod support to the vessel. Except for some other chipping on the lip of the vessel, it is in good condition; its interior is quite smooth and does not exhibit any traces of the hollowing drill marks, having been thoroughly polished inside.
On the outer surface are several marks left by hollow tubular drill bits, particularly at certain interstices in the protruding portions of the monkey’s effigy. Most of the marks are where the protruding head and rising arms with the tail-grasping hands were sculpted; others occur at the anterior juncture between the legs and the feet. The sides of the primate’s face have depressions generated by the path of the drills as they perforated the effigy from the front. Along the inferior border of the protruding tail is another slight curved notch indicative of a drill bit’s path as it aimed at extracting raw material from above the monkey’s head. Drill bit marks also evidence an approach from above to hollow the head and the freestanding portion of the tail. The drilling marks that could be measured exhibit exterior diameters ranging between 1.51 and 1.90 cm. Such a thickness is fairly standardized, and the range probably reflects the process of thinning as the drill bits wore down. The few measurable interior diameters indicate that the wall thickness of the tubular drill bits varied between 1.8 and 6.0 mm. The maximum thickness suggests that the drills, if made of bone, probably originated from the femora of small mammals, as this anatomical element has the thickest layer of cortical bone in its shaft.

A fair number of monkey effigy vessels are known, and these display interesting patterns and two major types: one of monkeys with their hands resting on their heads and knees, the other of primates that hold their own tails, as does this one. Both types were inlaid with obsidian, pyrite, or mother-of-pearl eyes. Some retain the adhesive substance for the inlays, and some have shell inlay teeth.

The spider monkey’s popularity as a subject on stone vessels may relate to the saga of a failed creation, in which monkeys featured importantly, before the advent of true humans, or perhaps it alludes to the playful character of the patron deities of artisans. The association with a human burial of the only vessel with reliable archaeological context, however, strengthens a still-unresolved symbolic relationship between death and the monkey. Such a link has been noted in codical studies: in the Maya Dresden Codex, the monkey is invariably represented with death symbols, something equally applicable to such non-Maya books as the Codex Vienna or Codex Laud. The manufacture of vessels in the shape of a monkey using travertine may have had its source of inspiration in the much older production of similar forms in ceramics.

Alcina Franch, José, Miguel León Portilla and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma 1992 Azteca Mexica. Colección Encuentros. Serie Catálogos. Lunwerg Editores, Barcelona. p. 84, pl. XIII.

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. 28, cat. 139.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., p. 21, 100-101, cat. 96.

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. 246, cat. 74, pl. LI.

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. 254, cat. 74, pl. LI.

Christensen, Erwin Ottomar 1955 Primitive Art. Bonanza Books, New York. p. 209, 244, fig. 200.

Davies, Nigel 1983 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico. Pelican Series. Penguin Books, New York. fig. 36.

de Borhegyi, Stephen F. 1952 Travertine Vase in the Guatemala National Museum. American Antiquity 17 (3):254-256. p. 255.

Ries, Maurice Ruddell 1942 Ancient American Art, 500 B.C.-A.D. 1500; the Catalog of an Exhibit of the Art of the Pre-European Americas, April-June 1942, Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara. cat. 29.

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 1957. Artes de México 17. pl. 9, 10.

Exhibition History
"Ancient American Art", Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA, April - June 1942; M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, July - August 1942; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, OR, September - October 1942

"Azteca Mexica, Las Culturas del Mexico Antiguo", Museo de America, Madrid, 1992.

"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to July 1962.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, June 1941.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1941-1962.

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

Animals | Aztecs | Monkeys