Birds weren’t the only wonderful things to be seen on a recent trip to the Mexican state of Veracruz: there was clay! The capital city of Xalapa, perched on the volcanic shoulders of the Sierra Madre Oriental, has a world-class archaeological museum, Museo de Antropología de Xalapa (MAX), stuffed full of the cultural treasures of pre-Hispanic people local to the region. For someone who works in clay, these objects are endlessly fascinating and inspirational. Here are some of my favorites. Click on any image to see a larger version. Forgive blurriness; no flash allowed, so all camera work is hand-held in low light conditions, through the glass of display cases.
Surprising to me: nearly life-sized human figures in clay. I’d seen examples in stone (like the big Olmec heads, several of which are on display at MAX), or in bas-relief, but not in clay and modeled in the round. On the right, check out Xipe Totec “the Flayed One”, scary deity of death/rebirth wearing the skin of a human, flaking off him as it decays — a practice shown in Aztec sculpture actually carried out by priests, wearing the skins of sacrificed captives. This sculpture was made in 3 pieces: head, torso/arms, and pelvis/legs, and assembled after firing, saving on kiln space. Looks like ear bobs and head-piece may have been interchangeable, or made of another material that didn’t survive; musical instrument or other item held in hands missing?
Effigy vessels — pots made in the form of animals, human heads or figures, parts of humans (like feet), or plants — are common in many cultures in both the old and new worlds, but are particularly prevalent in Meso-America, and there are many fine examples in the MAX collection. Here is one with a bat, and an excellent Jaguar, complete with furry pelt, made by attaching small flattened balls of clay to the surface in exactly the same way as the flaking skin is represented on Xipe Totec. Note the bat’s “arms” are human arms supporting its wings. More on effigy vessels and Three Star Owl in a later post.