Vase of the god Och Chan

A recipient in the form of a cylindrical bowl ballooning slightly at the base. It has a complete polychrome colouring over a yellow base, both on the exterior and the inside of the bowl. A band of black goes around the edge of the mouth. The vessel is decorated with two faces of the same being, one on either side. These are separated by columns of Mayan glyphs.

This effigy is the head of a zoomorphic god, with large eyes and a wide-open mouth showing a set of teeth with fangs both in the upper and lower jaw. These characteristics correspond to the God Serpent decorated with feathers.

The colour, the form and the black band are typical of the “saxon orange” polychrome vessels, as they are known by archaeologists. This style of vase was found in the entire Mayan area, which suggests that the vessels were objects of popular trade.

Given the shape of the recipient, it is quite possible that it was used to hold chocolate, or also atole, a beverage made from cooking a sweet variety of corn flour with water, in such proportions that the drink has a certain viscosity. It is served as hot as possible. The vessel seems to copy the form of a gourd, as these were used originally as containers to drink cocoa and which were later replaced by pottery vessels, frequently imitating the gourd in form.

Chocolate has a long and interesting history in Mesoamerica. Since the beginnings of the culture 3500 years ago, this food has been associated with luxury and has been an item of trade over long distances. The Pacific coast of Guatemala, where the Olmec culture developed, was and still is an important zone for the cultivation of cocoa. The Mayans give testimony to the use of cocoa in their oral histories, carved and recorded in jade and obsidian as well as other materials and depicted as well in pottery. Complex codices praised cocoa and documented its use in rituals and daily life. In the years following contact with the Spanish, hundreds of works on the medicinal properties, economic, geographic, historical and agricultural aspects of cocoa/chocolate have been published.

Mayan cylindrical vases provide us with an inexhaustible source of information about Mayan culture. They are exceptional objects where the Maya peoples managed to capture and express their collective imagination. The pieces tell us of the history and life of the elite, but are also an important element for us to learn about the mythology. Both the images of the gods as well as the myths, are frequently accompanied by glyphs which indicate the name of the god or person and define what the activity is which is represented. Sometimes other types of inscriptions appear on Mayan vases, known as dedicatory inscriptions, which indicate the identity of the person who has paid for the production of the piece, as well as the purpose for which it was produced and, in some cases, the name of the artisan. In this manner, we know what form of vessel was used to hold which liquid: concave and cylindrical containers were meant to store drinks – above all, chocolate - to be consumed during the festivals by the privileged classes. These recipients of great value were given as gifts or interchanged between the guests at a feast.

Although the pieces are of funerary origin, the great majority of them were made to be used during the lifetime of a person. It was common that these same pieces, or similar ones, were later placed in tombs as funerary goods. All these pieces were modelled, as this culture did not develop the method of throwing clay on a potter’s wheel. The colours of the pieces were always produced by the use of slip, a watery mixture of clays and other minerals. The vessels were fired at a low temperature, approximately 800 ºC.

In the Classical period, the artists worked in an easier manner through the use of incision of the still moist clay, so that what was produced after firing was a type of pottery with a decoration similar to what can be seen in low reliefs on monuments. When they decorated with polychrome colouring, they usually did so in the same way as they painted walls. That is, they painted cold over plaster or stucco, covering the piece according to a method that seems not to have originated in the Mayan zone, but rather in Teotihuacan. In the Early Classical period, the decoration was painted using slips or barbotine applied before firing. The colours of these vessels are extremely vivid, while some others, those know as Codex-style, show simple black lines on a white background.


Mayavase n.K1223.

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