Native American


Artist: Unkown
Culture/People: Mayan
Place: Mexico, Central America
Media: Ceramic and pigment
Dims: 2.75 x 7 (diam.) in. (6.9 x 17.7 (diam.) cm).
Date: 600-900 CE
RTC No. PC0006
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011


Coe intern Alison Guzman writes about The Bowl of Voices:

Imagine it is 700 CE and you are walking through the cool lush green rainforests of the highland Mayan lands of today’s Guatemala. The leaves around you so green, they almost turn blue. Water droplets fall from the heavens, like the continuation of the star lights you cannot see; small rays beaming downwards and melting unto the Earth below.

You hear the call of the sacred quetzal bird through the mysterious shadows, and suddenly a choir-like sound wave of colorful feathers envelopes you, chirping and messaging each other in harmony with the cicadas and buzzing insects celebrating life. The humid smell of breathing soils and rocks fills your nostrils as you gaze upwards unto the sunlight that is guiding you on your way home. And all this in a split blink of time, a momentary concept of the Mayan fourth dimension, where all beings have their unique calling in relation to the self, the earth, the sun, the stars, and moon.

The Mayan civilization expanded from what is today’s southeastern Mexico and throughout Central America. Known for their sophisticated numeric and writing systems, one can only imagine what insights, testimonies, and discoveries were being shared across this vast territorial expansion. 

Perhaps they were exchanging stories or secret architectural techniques. Or perhaps, movements of the sun and moon. Or favorite recipes of the aristocracy. Today, their descendants continue to inhabit these lands, mostly in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico and are still practicing ancient rituals and revitalizing the Mayan writing system.

This Mayan Pottery Bowl is thought to have originated in 600-900 CE, around the height of the Maya civilization, what has been labeled by scholars as the Late Classic era. This was their golden age, where cities, such as Tikal (“the place of the voices”) in all their splendid and delight, were booming with beauty, intellect, and sophistication across their networked urban centers. Shaped uniquely like a drum with a flat underside, the bowl reminisces of the typical tortilla ceramic warmers we see today with origins from time immemorial. The rich orange boldness of the playful cartoon-like image, which appears to be the “day keeper”, is what caught Ted´s attention: 

The painting around narrow curvilinear side-wall of the bowl and the interior depiction of a man carrying a load of a rather similar pot on a backpack replete with carrying strap are late classic Mayan glyph imagery.

He continues: 

There are two depictions of human bearers or priests along with two animal figures perhaps representing jaguars. The convex bottom of the bowl contains six groups of three circles separated by six groups of three vertical lines evenly distributed around the bottom rim.

Indeed, the jaguar of the Maya represented the darkness, and therefore the underworld. As a symbol of power, one beckoned the spirit of the jaguar to face one´s fears and enemies. They were linked to Ix : ‘Jaguar’ —the night sun, maize, and associated with the goddess Ixchel, the goddess of the moon.

Some of the other glyphs shown on this bowl look like the symbolic numbers in the Mayan mathematical system, which used only three symbols. According to the-mathematician Dr. Faviana Hirsch Dubin, a researcher in Mayan mathematics at the University of California, the number zero was highly regarded in the Mayan culture. The concept of zero was mainly represented by a caracol or snail, although an easier form was created for writing numbers. A dot or frijol (bean) represented the number one, and a stick or bar represented the number five. Numbers were written vertically, except for numbers used in calendar dates.

The image Ted describes around the bottom of the rim could depict a number, perhaps the number 17, surrounded by symbols of what appears to be question marks—but may very well be the symbol of the capricious playful Mayan howler monkey scriber, so revered by the ancient Mayas as the patron of the artists, sculptors, and writers.

One can then understand why the bowl’s central figure would be the “day keeper”, the keeper of Mayan time. Continuing today, day keepers in the Mayan highland communities of Guatemala track the Tzolkʼin Calendar, representing the ´division of days´ and moon cycles. This calendar is a very sacred calendar of 260 days used to keep track of corn cultivation, divination, and lunar water rituals. It is no wonder Mayan priests, as diviners and communicators with the gods, are depicted on the bowl.

Perhaps what Ted stumbled upon that day when he came across this bowl in the fall of 1995 was an ancient secret Mayan code for a specific day in time. And it is up to us to decipher this hidden message decades later…

Or perhaps the playful scriber had a humoristic moment when painting this tortilla warmer and what we are really seeing is an ancient teasing image of a tortilla ´keeper´.

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