For many years, archaeologists have excavated in different sites finding a variety of artifacts,
which are representative to a specific culture and region. Each object has a story behind valuable to the
regions. Sometimes the artifact is depicted with an important event, representative animal power, any
representative God or ruler, and a specific ritual practice by the culture. Archaeologists find stone tools,
knifes, jars, pictures, plates, vessels, silverware, and ceramic; these artifacts can come in different
shapes and with different colors. Moreover, all of these objects can be found in the same region but on
different sites and located in different statigraphic layers, which helps to understand how long a specific
culture was around in a particular place and how the process of evolution was.
One of the most particular, outstanding, and remarkable cultures which archaeologists have put
in a lot of effort and time to understand in Mesoamerica is the Mayas. The Mayas went through
different events and processes of evolution to expand their culture and become powerful. Mayas’
powerful government, strict rituals, beliefs, difference in social status, strong trading activities, and
important rulers were depicted in different ways and artifacts to remember of their culture and teach
that to the next generations. One of the most important and well used artifacts in this culture was the
ceramics.
Mayas’ civilization dwelled for many years in different regions including Honduras, Mexico,
Guatemala, Belize, and El Salvador, where archaeologists have found pottery remains, “which have long
been one of the most valuable evidences. Because of their durability, artifacts made of fired claypottery vessels, figurines, beads, and other items-usually survive long after most other human products
have disappeared” (Sharer 674). All the ceramics found in different excavations had an important
cultural impact in different Mesoamerica regions. Each ceramic found has a different shape and color
showing difference in chronology among them. Also, these potteries have shown a difference in
techniques used by Mayan peasants in different times.
Not only were ceramics made by Mayas to depict important rituals, events, and rulers, but also
were made with the purpose of storage, cooking, eating, or to please the gods with offerings. Pottery
helped archaeologists to understand and to show “the way people lived, social differences between
classes, and long-vanished economic systems”( Culbert 71). All of these purposes lead Mayas to change
their way of crafting pottery, making them different every time the necessities and times changed,
which was reflected between time periods. The three time periods where ceramics changed so
significantly are preclassic, classic, and postclassic.
The preclassic Period was about 2000 B.C-A.D 250. It was the earliest period in the Mayan
Civilization. As was stated by Patrick Culbert, new types of pottery were revealed in the site of Cuello in
Belize that comprised what is called the Swasey. This type of “pottery was not given to exuberant
decoration. Unslipped vessels, along with predominately red and orange slipped wares, and a few pieces
are incised with simple geometric patterns or painted with red-on-cream decorations”(Culbert 73).
Swasey was the first simple and primitive technique used by the Mayas, which dates back as far as 2500
B.C, to the beginning of its civilization, they were found in a few sites of Belize. Archaeologists found
another type of ceramic technique later in this period, which these were not much as significant as
swasey, such as Xe and Eb. These ceramics were found along the sites of Rio Pasion in the southern
lowlands and in the central lowlands, and were characterized by the simplicity used by Mayan crafters.
Stated by Sharer, they were simple vessels because the neckless jar forms were not often used for the
transport of water and food products (Sharer 679).
Not only were these different types of ceramics found during the preclassic time period, but also
the Mamom ceramics were found. This pottery is dated around 1000- 800 A.C, which is founded in the
middle preclassic. This type of pottery has come from Yucatan to the highland showing a widespread
growth of the culture, during this middle preclassic period. Mamom ceramics were characterized by the
flat-bottomed plates, round-side bowls and open-mouthed jars and they were not crafted as simple as
the swasey ceramics. For example, Culbert explained how these ceramics had one or two lines encircling
the lips of plates or more rarely, a row of triangles or a checkerboard motif. Also, Mamom showed the
first attempt and evidence of using colors of red-on-cream and red-on-orange calling this type of
technique “bichrome”.
After the Mamom ceramics the Chicanel pottery came playing a different role in this civilization.
Chicanel were dated from 300 B.C to A.D 250 and excavated from some sites of Providencia/Miraflores
in the highlands and others from the lowlands. “These ceramics had become even more elaborate and
innovative, in both forms and decorations” (Sharer 682). Chicanel used different types of colors showing
the variety on the design. The decorating technique of the use of Black-brown, lustrous-red, orange, and
cream was named “Usulutan”, which were predominately used on the bowls and plates with shelflike
flanges. This style was characterized by painting over a first slip with a material such as wax that would
prevent the adherence of a second or third slip. Stated by Culbert these colors were used with the idea
of creating wavy or zigzag patterns of parallel lines. The difference in the use of colors and shapes,
during this period, has shown an improvement whether in the way of living or in way of expanding their
culture.
Right after the preclassic time period got to the end, this civilization went into a new phase of
ceramic improvements and decorating when the classic period started. This period was divided into
early, late, and terminal classic, which each stage was unique in the production of ceramics. Starting
with a general idea of crafting ceramics in the classic period, ceramics were characterized by the use of
multiple colors and texts engraved on them. These hieroglyphic texts were remarkably situated in the
upper rim of the vessel, but sometimes, “these texts were found in the lower rim indicating religious
ideology, cosmology, and representations of supernatural to depictions of both the public, and private
rituals that comprised elite Maya life and history”(Reents-Budet). Also, in this period Dorie Reents-Budet
exposed that the primary characteristic that survives in the ceramics was the pictorial polycrhrome,
which was created as part of the increasingly complex social, political and economic developments.
Decorating these vessels severed as an important role as social currency within the realm of elite gift
exchange but also, these vessels ended up in the burials of pre-Columbian era. However, there were
three stages of this period, which had different techniques and designs on ceramics.
The first period of the classic was the early period, which was about 250 A.D-550 A.D. Most of
the majority of ceramics were found in the lowlands and were different by the use of multiple colors,
bright orange colors, and the used of text engrave on them. The design applied in this period was called
Tzacol which were the production of cylindrical vessel with a tripod support in the base showing a
polychrome paint, stucco, and beautiful gouged-incised relief motifs with a geometric pattern on them.
They were found commonly in the area of Teotihuacan. Adding color to the Tzakol ceramic was easier
thanks to the use of high temperature at the time of making the item with clay. Moreover, the common
colors used in the early period were red and black after been painted the based with orange or cream
colors. Using this new technique of Tzakol, the walls of the ceramics were thinner, the neck of jars
became taller and more delicate, and small bowls and dishes were increasingly common.
On the other hand, the late period was about 550 A.D- 800 A.D showed the variety of reciprocal
activities occurred in diverse regions in the lowlands during this period. These ceramics were
“transformed into a prime medium on whose surfaces were created great paintings. These paintings on
ceramic represent many different artistic styles and record detailed images of Maya history and
religion”(Reents-Budet 72). Mayans to accomplish a defined draw for decorating their ceramics used
paintbrush leading to have a well describe and depicted story of any type; such as social events, myths,
or rituals.
Not only were these ceramics depicted the social event but also were they having a particular
and unique hieroglyphically text called Codex-style crafted in the northeast-central of Peten
department, nearby the archaeological sites of Pacaya and El Mirador. This is explained by Dorie ReentsBudet as the presence of red strips on the edges and pictorial images in different and variety ceramic
size especially small; for example low- small cylindrical cups and small vessels. However, it was another
symbolic type exposed by Dr. Reents-Budet called Plates with “danzantes”, which had an iconographic
program well defined produced in Tikal and Uaxactum.
During this period were two ceramics styles found in Holmul which were Tepeu 1 and Tepeu 2.
Tepeu 1 were located 25 Km south of Holmul and characterized “by the red-and-orange-on-cream
palette (Saxche Orange Polycrome) with small amounts of a opaque black slip highlighting parts of the
imagery and a restricted number of specific iconographic themes” (Dorie Reents-Budet). These ceramics
were round-sided bowls and large tripod plates, which were decorated with a row of glyphs or
pseudoglyphs, delimited at the tip and bottom by contrasting lines of color. Also, they were decorated
with human or demon head, flowers, or an animal. On the other hand, Tepeu 2 was founded in the
eastern Guatemala, which was characterized by using brighter colors and busier designs; for instance,
the colors were called zacatel cream and palmar orange polychrome, which were used on the ceramics
in checkerboards, diamonds, dots within circles, sausages-like semicircular brackets designs. All of these
were found typically on tall cylinders vessels, small flaring-sided bowls, and large flaring-sided tripod
plates.
The terminal period was about 800 A.D-1000 A.D characterized by reducing pottery production,
but the polychrome style changed. “Mayans pottery was technically well done, so that the domestic
vessels, which can be distinguished from earlier ones by minor changes in shape”(Culbert 81). These
minor changes were noticed by the use of the fine orange polychrome, hard fired, thin walled, and with
a variety of simple elegant shapes. Also, these ceramics were made with militarism themes and scenes
showing conferences between individuals trading products. these fine orange ceramics were found in a
widely Mayan area such as Tabasco.
Mayans went into the final period of ceramic evolution called Postclassic period divided in two;
early and late. During the early postclassic time strong regional differences between north and south of
the lowland region were happening. North had a vigorous regional growth while south region was
decreasing on population and on pottery production. Nevertheless, the pottery of this time was
characterized by fired in enclosed pit Kilns, which reach a high temperature for vitrificating and the used
of the plumbate ware “the only true vitrified (glazed) pottery in pre-Columbian America, which was
produced along the Pacific piedmont in South-western Guatemala”(Sharer 702). Also, Mayans were
decorating these ceramics by molding and carving human and animal effigies. However, the pottery of
the late postclassic was characterized by different things. These types of pottery were found in a
“variety of sites of the eastern coast of the Peninsula to thriving centers such as Tulum, Santa Rita, and
Lamani” (Culbert 83). Not only were found in different sites of the Highland Maya but also were
ceramics tempered with volcanic ash with a common shape of necked jars, bowls with plain or tripod
support depicted with bands, circles, dots, triangles, and diamonds. They were colored with a red and
cinnamon ware.
The production of the different ceramics during these three remarkable and unique periods was
a great help to understand their history and evolution process. Mayans exposed their evolution through
colors, techniques, designs, and different shapes on the pottery; found in different regions and sites.
But, they showed the strong trading activity among regions of the highlands and lowlands and showed
the difference on social and economic status in each period. Ceramics were great resources to study and
to understand the Mayans civilization and their evolution.
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