Monday, September 26, 2011

Puebla Part 4: Pre-hispanic women and the art of daily life at the Amparo Museum

Maya fertility offering. This beautifully crafted piece shows the great skill of Maya sculptors, who were the best in all Mesoamerica. Small and very realistic, the work above clearly represents a woman of high status, and may have been modeled from a real person. Her headdress includes a jaguar, a symbol of great power. In some Maya city-states such as Palenque, women could become rulers. Sak Kuk, the mother of Pakal the Great, ruled Palenque for 3 years as regent during his childhood, and a woman named Yohl Ik'nal ruled Palenque in her own right for 20 years. The fine sculpture above was on exhibit at the Museo Amparo in Puebla's Centro Historico. The Amparo contains an extensive collection of pre-hispanic objects from all the cultures of Mesoamerica, as well as colonial and modern art. A large timeline, covering a whole wall, shows the relation to one culture or civilization to another. All the major and many of the minor Meso-american cultures are included, from the earliest times to the Conquest. If you visit the museum, it is worth studying the timeline for a bit before viewing the exhibits, because it really helps put things into historical context.  For information about the location, hours, and fees of the Museo Amparo, click here.

Tattooed woman is from the Western Highlands of Mexico. Notice the facial tattoos and how they replicate the design on the fabric she wears on her upper body. Her breasts are not covered, as is often the case with such female statues. The designs on her thighs may indicate a knee-length garment, or may represent tattoos.  The bulging thighs and hips are typical of sculptures created to express fertility. Marriage and procreation were very important as a way of securing and improving a family's social position in these ancient societies. The filed teeth, elaborate hairstyles, tattooing, and ample hips were all considered marks of beauty. In addition, women of the noble classes took steps to artificially elongate the craniums of their babies so that as adults they would have a different appearance from the common people. The statue above appears to express just such an elongation.

Pregnant figure is nude, except for tattoos, a necklace, and a nose ring. Childbearing was a dangerous rite of passage for both the mother and the baby. As such it was often considered the equivalent to warfare for men. After they had passed childbearing age, women sometimes became mid-wives, a highly respected role. It was believed that midwives were responsible for bringing the child into being.

Women also played important roles in food and textile production. The thin, contemplative figure above was so different from its curvaceous neighbors that I at first took it for a statue of a male. However, upon closer examination, I noticed the small but unmistakeable breasts. In addition to the beautifully designed upper garment, she also wears a small loincloth and a necklace. She sits as if huddling from a chill, wrapped in beautifully designed fabric with her arms covered and crossed at her waist. Textiles like the one above were produced mainly by women. The fabrics were woven out of cotton, feathers, and other natural materials. The Zapotecs of Monte Alban, outside of modern Oaxaca, were famous for their weaving, producing textiles as early as 500 BC. When the Aztecs finally subdued them in the 15th Century AD, woven cloth was one of the key tributes demanded. Not much of the ancient cloth has survived. However, wall murals and statues such the figure above give us an idea of their style and quality, and archaeologists have found women's tool kits for weaving. In addition to childcare and weaving responsibilities, women tended gardens, ground maize on stone trays called metates, cooked, and transported water.

Daily life in ancient Meso-america

An ancient home from Mexico's Western Highlands. The home above is raised above the ground on a platform. Often, villages were sited near water, and homes were placed on such platforms to avoid flooding. The sides are open air, with a tall, steeply sloping roof, painted with a design that is mostly faded. Such roofs would have been made from woven palm fronds, similar to the palapas I see all around the Lake Chapala area. Inside, a man sits cross-legged, leaning forward in apparent anticipation of the meal his wife is preparing before him. These sorts of homely little vignettes have been found all over Western Mexico, usually in tombs. They create a 2000-year old window on the daily life of Mesoamerica's ordinary people.

A man and his pets. Lying on his back on a sort of couch, a man plays with the pet monkey over his head. Meanwhile his little dog perches with its forelegs on the bed, hoping for an invitation to join the fun. One of the things I love about ancient art like this is the personal connection it creates with a people so long gone. My own dear-departed pet dog used to assume just such a position beside our bed, with an identical expression of hopeful anticipation. The posture of the man is relaxed and natural, unlike the formal and stylized portrayals found in temples and palaces. The monkey looks playful as it perches, wearing its little pointed "dunce cap". Unfortunately, its curled tail was apparently broken off.

A beautifully carved stone bowl. You can still see around the rim some of the red paint with which the bowl was originally painted. The carving shows the profile of a reclining figure that appears to be looking into the mouth of a large snake. The fineness of this work is extraordinary given that the artist had no metal tools to cut the rock, and that any mistake would ruin the piece. It is unlikely that such a bowl would have graced the table of a commoner. More likely a wealthy noble or merchant would have commissioned the work. The figure shown might even be a portrait of the owner.

A multi-breasted pot. This odd little piece appears to sprout breasts at each of its four corners. The slanting marks between each set of breasts may represent tattoos. A pot to hold water or food is one of the most common items in all settled societies. In fact, one of the surest signs that a culture has moved from the nomadic, hunter-gatherer stage to a settled, agricultural lifestyle is the presence of pots, usually made from the local clay. A culture that must constantly, or even just periodically, be on the move rarely creates such pots because of weight and breakage. Instead, they specialize in woven containers that are lighter and sturdier. Once people have settled in one location, they can possess articles that may be more fragile and heavier. As the culture develops, the decoration of the pots becomes more elaborate, with painted designs and interesting shapes. Archaeologists often can place a new site in time, and show the geographical extent of a culture, by the pots they find.

Anthropomorphic pot. The term means "resembling a human form". This wonderful little pot is not only painted with lovely designs, but is steadied by a human figure. The attached man is about to pick it up and carry it off, using a "tumpline".  This is a strap attached to a heavy burden, which then extends over the top of the head, just back of the hairline. Tumplines have been used to carry heavy objects for thousands of years by cultures all over the world. In Mexico and the rest of Latin America, tumplines are still regularly used, particularly by indigenous people. In Mexico City of recent times, a man used to deliver pianos using a tumpline. On the pot above, the tumpline that extends from the side of the pot to the man's hands cleverly forms handles allowing the container to be easily moved. The pot-man's expression clearly conveys an anticipation of great effort.

Humble, but extremely important household items. The various small bowls are made from clay or carved wood. The brown one on the left is decorated with a snake on the inside. The large, square metate on the right contains a cylindrical stone called a mano, which is moved up and down the surface of the stone metate to grind maize or other grains into powdered form. In the NewWorld, manos and metates originated in the Neolithic Age, probably around 5000 BC. Items virtually identical to these can still be purchased at local hardware stores in my town. They are not tourist knick-knacks, but are functional tools for the kitchen. Manos and metates form a direct, unbroken connection between the Stone Age world and that of the present day.

The manufacture of tools and adornments shows great skill. On top are 3 pieces of jade, one of the most valuable commodities in the ancient world, roughly equivalent to diamonds today. Both jade and diamonds can be used either as personal adornments or as tools, and both are extremely hard and difficult to cut. A further similarity is that fierce wars have been fought to control their sources. The beautifully carved ancient jade that I have seen in the Amparo and elsewhere is especially impressive in that the ancient craftsmen would have had to find stone of even harder quality than the jade in order to do the work. The large blade is probably made of flint which, along with obsidian, was used for cutting tools and weapons such as knife blades, arrowheads, and axes. Both flint and obsidian (volcanic glass) are easily worked through a flaking process. Obsidian blades can be sharper than modern surgical tools.

An early form of printing

A monkey sello. The ancient craftsmen of Mesoamerica invented an early form of printing using sellos (seals) like this. This one shows a gesturing monkey. Sellos have been found everywhere from Teotihuacan (north of Mexico City), to the Maya city-states of the Yucatan and Guatemala. Although they are clearly devices for the reproduction of images, virtually no evidence exists for how they were actually used. Archaeologists have speculated that the ancients used them for decorating clay pots, textiles, bark paper, and even for body painting. However, there are no surviving examples of paper or textiles with identifiable sello prints. Descriptions by early Spanish chroniclers such as Bishop Landa describe body painting, but not with sellos and in fact make no mention of the the devices at all. There are almost no examples of ancient Mesoamerican pottery where sello use can be definitively shown. They remain one of many mysteries of these ancient people.

Sello roller. Numerous types of sellos have been found. Some have animal motifs, and some are abstract. Some are small and flat, like the one in the previous photo, and some were made as rollers like the one shown above. Still others were large, with complex designs, and others had handles and looked a bit like a rectangular clothing iron.

Music and Dance

Beautifully carved conch trumpet. Music in the Mesoamerican world served social, political, and religious purposes. The presence of conch trumpets in many areas far from either the Pacific or the Gulf Coast indicates both their popularity as wind instruments and the efficiency of the vast network of trade routes throughout Mesoamerica, stretching not only from coast to coast, but from the southwestern US to Honduras. Shell trumpets have been found in Western Mexico tombs of the Pre-Classic era (300 BC - 150 AD). In Teotihuacan, the shell trumpets were considered so sacred that the Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados (Temple of the Plumed Conch Shells) was dedicated to them. There, a mural shows a procession of jaguar-headed priests blowing conch shells as they dance. According to mythology about Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent creator god, he formed the first human beings out of bones from past eras. However, he could not access the bones until he blew the conch trumpet 4 times, once each for the 4 cardinal directions. He was assisted in creating the first conch trumpet by insects that drilled the blow holes for him.

A dancer with nut-shell rattles. This semi-nude and anatomically correct dancer wears only an elaborate headdress, and bunches of rattles attached to his lower legs. Through music and dance, often accompanied by the use of psychotropic drugs, people could attain a trance-like state in which they could contact the world of the gods. The rattles were sometimes made out of nut-shells or of moth cocoons strung together and filled with seeds, pebbles, or fragments from clay pots. Other kinds of percussion instruments included rattles made from gourds, and drums made from carved, hollow logs.

Carved wooden flutes. The first flutes in the Western Hemisphere probably arrived with the Paleo-hunters who crossed the Bering Strait landbridge. Flutes and whistles were manufactured by these people to imitate animal sounds, and some instruments date back to 10,000 BC. It is believed that Maracas (pebble-filled gourd rattles) were developed to encourage rain. The use of sound instruments to influence the natural environment evolved into more complex religious rituals.

Flutist at work. The figure above, from Western Mexico, puffs away on an ancient flute. Beginning in the Pre-Classic period (1200 BC - 300 BC) Mesoamerican people began to manufacture ceramic flutes as well as using wood. They even invented a wind instrument that did not require human breath to create sound. The "whistling vase" was partially filled with water. When moved in particular ways, the vase could produce whistling sounds that were attributed to magic.

A duo of dancers. The Amparo has many displays of dancers, large and small. These two stand in a slightly crouched position, with their arms held in front and wrists crossed. They are dressed identically for the performance. From various painted murals and clay statues, it appears that the musicians often stood in the middle of a circle of dancers. Among the Aztecs, the musicians and dancers who performed during religious rituals were a different group from those who performed for the royal court. The religious performers lived with the priests at the temple complexes and the royal performers lived in the king's household. In many Mesoamerican cultures, the musicians and performers were of the noble classes.

Sacred instruments. Sometimes the instruments, in this case whistles, included animals in their designs. The one on the left appears to have a jaguar, while the one on the right may be a tattooed face or skull. This indicates that they were probably for sacred purposes.

Beautifully carved zoomorphic whistle. A zoomorph is a carving that represents a mythical creature, part man and part animal. The figure on the top of the whistle has 2 legs, 2 arms, and wears a garment with a skirt. The head, however, is definitely from a creature of fantasy. This was my favorite of all the instruments shown at the Museo Amparo. It is about 4 inches long and perhaps 2 inches wide on the circular part. The carving is very fine, and the zoomorph is a fascinating little creature.

This completes Part 4 of my Puebla series. The next part will also be from the Amparo, but will focus on male humans, animals, and fantastic zoomorphs, as well as gods, rulers, and items from the famous Mesoamerican Ball Game. I always welcome comments. If you would like to leave one, please either do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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