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Jaina Island is a pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site in the present-day Mexican state of Campeche. A small limestone island on the Yucatán Peninsula's Gulf coast with only a tidal inlet separating it from the mainland, Jaina served as an elite Maya burial site, and is notable for the high number of fine ceramic figurines excavated there.

The term "Jaina" translates to "Temple in the Water". Both Jaina Island and nearby Piedras Island (Isla Piedras) were the sites of small towns or villages. Jaina was settled circa 300 AD, lasting until its abandonment some time circa 1200 CE. The principal occupation occurred near the end of this period, during the Late Classic and Terminal Classic eras. Present-day ruins consist of two small plaza groups and a ballcourt.

Jaina Island's notability is tied to its estimated 20,000 graves, of which over 1,000 have been archaeologically excavated. Within each grave, the human remains are accompanied by glassware, slateware, or pottery as well as one or more ceramic figurines, usually resting on the occupant's chest or held in their hands. The name of this island necropolis probably comes from the Yucatán Maya phrase hail na, or “watery house”. Its western location may have been tied to the setting sun, and therefore to death. The source of the burial population is as yet unknown, but likely comes from Edzna, and the nearby Chenes and Puuc regions.

Due to sheer numbers found here, these figurines have become known as "Jaina-style figurines" whether or not they were found on the Jaina Island. In fact, these figurines are far more numerous at inland Maya sites, such as the Usumacinta River delta, than on the island. Early Jaina-style figures are naturalistic, delicately detailed, and generally regarded as the finest figurine art produced throughout the ancient Americas. While both solid and hollow figurines have been found, the latter predominate and are usually fitted with a whistle, or with clay pellets that produce a rattle-like sound. Like the figurines themselves, it is not known what function(s) the whistles and rattles served. Made of orange clay and originally painted, mostly in ochres and blues, the figurines are generally 25 – 65 cm tall, rarely more. These figures also represent Mayan practices of scarification and the significance of class in Mayan society. Created in a realistic style, the figurines are an ethnographic treasure trove, affording a glimpse into the physical features, dress, and daily life of the late Classic Maya elite. Their delicate detail reveals hallmarks of social status and the figurines are often shown with tools and other accoutrements, providing us three-dimensional snapshots of long-vanished implements.

The idiosyncratic details shown in the earlier phase figurines have led one researcher to declare that they are "genuine essays in portraiture", while another adds that the figurines "faithfully describe age, status, and expression". Expressive and individual as they are, it has thus far proven to be difficult to determine the subjects of these figurines. For example, it is not possible to correlate the figurines with their associated burial. In particular, the gender of the figurines only randomly seem to match the gender of the burial—female figurines may accompany male burials and vice versa, while child burials are often accompanied by adult figurines. Certain figurines, and styles of figurines, have been identified as deities. Others hint at myths or legends. It has also been suggested that the figurines represent ancestors, distant or immediate. The question of portraiture may only be resolved when the function of these grave goods is itself resolved.

All the figurines on Jaina Island seem to have been produced specifically as burial accompaniments. Due, if nothing else, to space considerations, few if any of these figurines could have been produced on the island itself. Many of the molded figurines have been linked to workshops at Jonuta, some distance to the south and west. Fascinatingly, the people around Jaina are the only people in southeastern Mesoamerica who put human figures into graves - everywhere else in the region, figures have only been found in domestic contexts. The use of human figures immediately calls to mind the earlier West Mexican cultures that had extensive figures made solely to be placed in their shaft tombs. The Spaniard Diego de Landa, who recorded details of Mayan life shortly after the Spanish Conquest, wrote that the artists who created pieces like this one lived lives of religious isolation and ritual, fasting and abstaining.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

- BALL, Joseph. Maya Lowlands: North. Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America. An Encyclopedia Garland Publishing, Inc. 2001.
- COE, Michael D. The Mayas. Thames & Hudson. 1999.
- CORSON, Christopher. Stylistic Evolution of Jaina Figurines, Pre-Columbian Art History. Selected Readings. Peek Publications. 1977.

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