The collection of Mesoamerican pottery at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto is impressive. The arrangement of the ceramics with their information panels and maps is clearly meant to educate. The range of pottery includes vessels and figurines, all made by hand, as well as pieces produced by moulds. The decorative elements range simple incised lines and applique to elaborate techniques such as polychrome slipware.
Small female figurines were made in Guanajuato or Michoacan Mexico from 300 BCE to 100 CE. These female statuettes made entirely by modelling the clay by hand (and mostly solid), with their oversized heads and headdresses. While many were made out of flat slabs, a number are three-dimensional like the ones at the Gardiner. Notice the eyes. Most are coffee-bean shaped and slanted as in the second image below. Most figurines were left unpainted, but occasionally some were decorated with bright colours. Ceramics serve as historical records and here we can see the hairstyles and clothing that were prominent during this period of time. Many of you may be aware of other female figurines created out of clay in the Indus Valley civilization or carved out of stone like those in Europe and the Aegean. Archaeologists believe that these figurines served various purposes. They may have been used as amulets for crop fertility rites, for healing, or as part of a narrative of an important event. Others believe they could have been part of grave offerings, companions, as such, for the afterlife.
Close by are a group of oversized ‘baby-like’ androgynous figures. Androgynous simply means containing both male and female parts. These hollow statues with their slip decoration were made by the Olmec, a culture that lived in what is now the Tabasco and Veracruz areas of Mexico. What do they represent? The Olmec had eight deities that were androgynous. Are they associated with any of those? The vast majority of these chubby youth have their legs splayed with their hands on their thighs. They look up to the viewer as if they are ready to jump off their display. Many of the oversized heads appear to be covered with some kind of cap. They are not smiling but, rather, all of the mouths seem to have the same expression. They are open and downturned. No one is certain of their function. Some believe they represent the rain deity while others believe that they could have been a portrait of an extraordinary individual when they were an infant. Many have been found in or near burial sites. Were they part of a ceremonial burial perhaps? Scholars have suggested that they could have been actual stand-ins for infant sacrifices.
It is impossible to miss the skills of these early clay artists and, as I wandered through the galleries, other visitors commented on the quality of the crafting, unable to believe that people living so long ago could be so accomplished.
In comparison, the Maya who lived in Guatemala and parts of Mexico created some extraordinary earthenware vessels with polychrome slip.
In the cylinder above, a noblewoman carries a jug of cocoa to two men seated with a plate of tamales (out of the scene, sorry), participants in what appears to be a feast with lavish food and drink. Cocoa is bitter chocolate made by pressing roasted cocoa kernels. It is still a popular drink, often with cinnamon, in Guatemala and Mexico. The lines are animated and the colours remain bright. Below are two dishes with bird effigy lids. Made during the Early Classical period of the Maya, these deep earthenware burnished dishes were used to serve tamales (wah). The middle images contain the plates that foods would be served on during feasts. The large bowls held a type of corn gruel, ul. Cylinders, such as the one above, used for drinking, always held a chocolate-based beverage, kakaw.
The Maya believed in many gods that controlled all aspects of their life. In their creation myth, the Mayas believe that the gods separated the heavens from the earth. The Maize god, Hun Hun Ajaw, erected an enormous ceiba tree in the centre of the universe. That tree was a conduit between the gods and humans. The gods formed the first humans out of a dough made of both yellow and white maize when their clay figurines failed. As such, the foodstuff was not just important for the survival of the community but was a part of their creation stories as well as being associated with the seasons and growth of crops. One of Maya’s sacred books, the Popol Vuh, tells about the creation myth as well as discussing how images of the maize gods were decapitated once the harvesting of the maize had begun. New effigies were made at the beginning of the new growing season.
During times of drought – and the Maya experienced many of these – the people turned to the gods of food, rain, and fertility to ward off starvation. Blood sacrifices made by the nobles were performed at shrines. Elaborate temple complexes were sites of more public ceremonies with music, dancing, ball games as well as ritual prayers and sacrifices.
The Maya culture grew from small villages into great city-states. It became one of the most dominant cultures in Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. The Maya excelled not only in their pottery making but also in mathematics, agriculture, calendar-making, astronomy, and architecture and, in particular, the pyramid building of the early classical era. The height of their culture, the ‘Golden Age’ occurred around 250 CE. At that time there are believed to have been fifty major cities each with a population of between 5000 and 50,000 people. No one knows for certain what started the decline of this magnificent culture. By the late 9th century CE, their culture had collapsed completely. Some scholars believe that they had exhausted their once fertile environment while others contend that it was warring factions between the various city-states that caused the demise. developed several competing theories. Some feel that a catastrophic climate change with a long and intense period of drought caused the abandonment of the cities.
We are left with great works of architecture and pottery. The Gardiner Museum has a reasonable collection and it is a must see if you are visiting Toronto. Free guided tours normally take place at 2pm.