Mayan Pottery For A Troubled Time
In the 9th century, the Mayan Civilization was beginning to fracture. At its height, the civilization extended throughout parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. For the next eight hundred years, it would suffer a slow decline defined by urban exodus and intensified warfare until the brutal Spanish conquest began in 1519. During the decline, once prosperous communities were abandoned and great monuments left unfinished. Populations dwindled dramatically. Although some historians point to drought, some point to other causes or increasingly, to multiple reasons. However, there is no clear indication as to what caused the once mighty Maya to wither.
As the first clouds came up over the horizon, several new forms of pottery emerged and rapidly gained popularity with the Mayan elite. Dr. Maline Werness-Rude, a professor of art history at Eastern Connecticut State University, is an expert on two of these ceramic styles, called the “Chocholá Style” and the “Pabellon Molded-Carved” type. Unlike the painted pottery that preceded them, these later developments were intricately carved and/or molded pieces.
Dr. Werness-Rude put together a book entitled “Maya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity: Space and Spatial Analysis in Art History” (University of New Mexico Press, 2015) along with Dr. Kaylee R. Spencer, Chair of the Department of Art at the University of Wisconsin River Falls. The book explores the way Mayans interpreted the world around them and rendered those concepts in art and architecture.
While working in Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico, Dr. Werness-Rude had access to pottery fresh from archaeological digs. “I had this realization that, along with the archaeologists and professionals responsible for the subsequent conservation and storage of this objects, I was among the first to handle them since their original users and owner had deposited them in the first place,” she said.
Dr. Werness-Rude believes that the pottery may have served as a form of propaganda, used to support a certain political outlook and ideology that was under threat during the unrest leading up to and during the 9th century. As the grip of the ruling class became more tenuous, there was a need to “solidify certain parts of the political and religious system,” she said.
The designs were complex and highly detailed. They often showed scenes of particular importance. Mayan potters carved noble lords surrounded by luxury items, vignettes from the fearsome underworld, and a multitude of gods, some wrathful and some kind.
The carved form was most popular in the northern Mayan lowlands (located in modern Guatemala and Mexico) and it was at precisely this time, leading up to the collapse, that potters started working in the beautifully carved Chocholá Style. Dr. Werness-Rude believes the new style might have been a way for the residents of the northern lowlands to distinguish themselves. “The Northern Maya may have wanted to differentiate themselves from the Southern Maya as the South began to have mini-collapses and tension,” she said. While the south suffered, the north was experiencing an explosion of growth, though it too would ultimately succumb to the tensions building to the south. The later southern adoption of the Pabellon Molded-Carved type happened precisely at a time when many sites were experiencing various stresses. The adoption may reflect efforts to create parallels with northern (and possibly international) products in recognition of such strategies.
Such work has also encouraged Dr. Werness-Rude to explore larger spatial constructs. As a result, she has developed an enduring interest in investigating how the ancient Maya structured their world in two and three dimensions. The book includes a chapter by Dr. Werness-Rude focused on how the Chocholá Style positions and legitimizes elite figures in the (relatively) two dimensional imagery it displays. She then extends her spatial analysis to map out a web of alliances suggested by the geographic spread of the ceramic cups in question. Dr. Werness-Rude and Dr. Spencer also created a handbook for the study of space in the Maya world in their introduction to the volume. The book is highly interdisciplinary, drawing from art historical, anthropological, archaeological, linguistic, and historical models to name a few.
Much of Maya imagery, history, and culture was lost in the Spanish conquest. Dr. Werness-Rude’s work on space helps us understand the way the Maya approached their world. Additionally, her analysis of newly uncovered pottery can help shed light into the mindset of the Maya elite during the civilization’s tipping point.