Archive for the 'Maya' Category

Object: Maya Mask

Figure 1    Maya "Wolf" Mask from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Maya “Wolf” Mask from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Cakchiquel (Kakchiquel) Maya
Chimaltenango: San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala
Materials: Painted wood

This wooden face mask has been painted red, with green polka dots, black eyes, and black and white detail behind the ears. This particular mask shows a face with an open mouth displaying carved wooden teeth. The eyes of the mask have been made by carving holes and surrounding the eyes with black paint. The eyebrows are also painted black, and the ears are carved and painted just above the eyebrows. On the sides of the mask are wooden flaps painted black and white, a striking color difference from the mostly red background and spotted green on the rest of the mask. On the forehead of the mask, there is a small hole, probably for hanging the mask.

The mask is sized to fit on a human face. It is 8 ¾ inches long, 7 inches wide, and 4 ¼ inches thick. It was accessioned into the Sam Noble Museum’s Ethnology Collection with only a few scratches in the paint on the nose, forehead, and ears – overall, in good condition. When accessioned, it was determined that the animalistic features on the mask were meant to resemble a wolf. It seems like an unsuitable animal inspiration for the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala (where wolves are not native), possibly meaning that it takes its likeness from another predator.

Instead of a wolf, which does not live in the region this mask was made, the mask may actually be meant to resemble a jaguar. Jaguars have always had important significance to Maya culture, playing an integral role in the Maya creation story. Many successful Maya kings and leaders were known for having the same feline characteristics associated with the jaguar. The jaguar is often the symbol for life and fertility. It is also seen as existing outside of the human realm, giving it associations with the underworld. In the Chimaltenango region specifically, jaguars can be black or yellow with black spots. While the mask in the Ethnology Collection at the Sam Noble Museum is red with green spots, the jaguar seems like a more likely option for inspiration than the wolf.

In order to understand why these seemingly odd paint choices might have been made, it is useful to look at the significance of these colors in Maya culture. Traditionally, red and black were popular in Maya cave art. Red pigment was originally made from the red clay dirt found in or near the caves themselves. In ancient times, Maya temples were painted in red and white colors. The red, white, and black paint on this contemporary mask follow along with this long-standing tradition.

Without speaking directly to the artist, of course, the intentions and inspirations behind this particular mask cannot be known for certain. However, it seems safe to say the original identification of the mask as “wolf-like” is most likely incorrect. Because this mask follows Maya tradition in paint colors, it seems more likely that the artist chose the more traditional jaguar native to the Chimaltenango region to inspire this mask.

[Caitlin Doepfner]

More sources:

Fischer, Edward F., and R. McKenna Brown. 1996. Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala. Austin: University of Texas Press.

National Geographic. N.d. Jaquar: Panthera Onca. National Geographic. Accessed February 15, 2015.

Lovgren, Stefan. 2004. Masks, Other Finds Suggest Early Maya Flourished. National Geographic. Accessed June 16, 2015.



Object: Shirt

Shirt or Huipil
Chuj Maya
ca. 1945
Materials: Cotton

This shirt, or huipil, from the Sam Noble Museum collection was made by an unknown member of the Chuj Maya community of Guatemala. Chuj is a language belonging to Q’anjobalan-Chujean family of Mayan languages. There are five branches in the Mayan language family, namely, Cholan-Tzeltalan, Huastecan, Q’anjobalan-Chujean, Quichean-Mamean, and Yucatecan. The Chuj language is spoken by many people in Guatemala and Mexico today. In Guatemala, most Chuj live in the department of Huehuetenango. Huehuetenango is one of Guatemala’s largest departments and is located along the Sierra de Los Cuchamatanes mountain range. This shirt is believed to have come from San Mateo Ixtatá, one of the two main Chuj communities in the region.

The huipil is a traditional Mayan garment, usually made of one or two pieces of hand woven cloth that is heavily decorated with embroidery around the neck. The designs used on huipiles are usually specific to the maker’s community and combine elements of Precolumbian and European styles. The influence of modern western-style clothing on traditional Mayan garments can be seen in this huipil’s fabric. Rather than being woven on a traditional backstrap or treadle loom, the fabric for this shirt is commercially produced muslin.

The following video shows a woman using a traditional backstrap loom.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Dresden Codex Copy

Copy of Dresden Codex
Jorge Enrique Bonilla Mendez (this copy)
Maya (original)
Yucatan, Mexico (original)
ca. 11th -13th century (original) / ca. 1960s (this copy)
Materials: Wood, paper, & ink

This object is a handmade copy of the Dresden Codex, made by Guatemalan artist Jorge Enrique Bonilla Mendez in the 1960’s. The original Dresden Codex is one of the oldest known books written in the Americas and may have been a copy of an even earlier text dating back to 700-900 CE. Considered to be the most complete of the Mayan codices still in existence, it contains ancient Mayan almanacs, astronomical observations, astrological tables, ritual schedules, and calendars. The 74 page book know referred to as the Dresden Codex is named for the European city in which it was kept from the 1700’s onward. Little is known about how the so-called Dresden Codex made it to Europe, but it may have been one of a group of ancient texts collected by Hernán (or Hernando) Cortés in the early 1500’s. The first known record of its existence came in 1739 when it was purchased (in three pieces) from an unknown private collector by Johann Christian Götze, the Director of the Royal Library at Dresden. Next, in 1810 Alexander von Humboldt published a portion of the text (the first modern reproduction) in his Vues des cordilleres et monuments des peuples indigenous de l’Amerique. In 1829 Constantine Rafinesque-Schmaltz was the first to identify it as a Mayan codex, and in 1880 Ernst Forstemann was able to correctly reassemble the three sections of text. Translation and interpretation of the text has continued to this day, including a much hyped end of the world prediction loosely (and most would say incorrectly) based on Mayan calendars like those found in the Dresden Codex.

The following video excerpt describes the ongoing process of translating ancient Mayan texts. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Loom

Cakchiquel, Maya: Backstrap Loom
Date unknown
Materials: Wood, yam, cotton fibers

The Mayan tradition of weaving is one that reaches beyond textile production. Through the use of tools such as this backstrap loom, weaving can become a mechanism to strengthen and empower the female identity. From an early age, a Maya girl is taught the importance of her role as a weaver. This is instilled as soon as she enters the world, when female elders give her a toy loom. Within the first ten years of her life, this gift will be used as an educational tool as she becomes familiar with the look and feel of the loom. Once her spirit is ready, female family members will teach her how to weave.

In the Mayan worldview, weaving and female fertility are inextricably linked. The very act of weaving is referred to as “giving birth.” Various components of the loom and implements associated with weaving are given names related to female deities associated with life-giving powers, and human body parts such as the female heart, womb and umbilical cord. If the loom is used properly, the rhythmic sounds of the batten and shuttle will sound like a prenatal heartbeat, and the swaying body of a weaving woman should imitate the movements of a woman in labor.

Equipped with the skill and knowledge of textile production, women are often self-motivated to use weaving as a social movement, achieving solidarity among fellow female community members. Many women accomplish this by participating in a weaving cooperative. Membership in such an organization serves to galvanize the female gender identity, and provide a somewhat marginalized group with the means to boost morale and build economic stability and independence. By entering the marketplace, Mayan women have an opportunity to personally share their craft of weaving with people outside their culture group, using the loom as a communicative device regarding their heritage and traditional customs.

Through a shared identity found in cooperative efforts of conservation and education, there is a raised awareness of the rich cultural tradition of weaving. As a result, weaving’s deep connection with the feminine identity is shared with, and kept alive for, future generations of both the Mayan weavers and the public audience.

[Anna Rice]

Object: Women’s shawl

Ixil Maya
Materials: cotton thread

This shawl, known as a rebozo in Spanish or as a tzute, is part of the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History’s extensive Mayan textile collection. John Pitzer collected this shawl, along with many other pieces of Mayan textiles in the collection, on the behalf of the museum during his many trips to Central America. This collection was the subject of the museum’s first online exhibit, which can be viewed here.

Tzutes serve a wide a wide variety of purposes among the Maya. For example, they may be used for warmth or shade, as a basket covering, or to carry goods home from market. Others are ceremonial. Both men and women wear tzutes, although the size, color, and design are gender-specific. Traditional Mayan textiles are woven on either a backstrap or treadle loom. Backstrap looms are simple and portable. One end of the loom is tied to a post, and the other is secured to the weaver’s waist with a strap. The width of the fabric is limited, but the weaver can create detailed brocade designs. Conversely, large, foot-powered treadle looms create simpler designs and wider fabric. Backstrap looms are used almost exclusively by women and treadle looms by men, though they may weave clothing for the opposite sex. This is a woman’s shawl and was likely made on a backstrap loom.

Each piece of traditional clothing worn by a Mayan individual communicates something about his or her social status. Groups within the Maya each have their own particular style as well. The thin vertical stripes on this piece are a common feature of the shawls and sash belts of the Ixil Maya in the town of Nebaj, Guatemala. This simple design contrasts with the intricate geometric patterns on their huipiles, or blouses. While many Maya still wear traditional clothing, western clothing is becoming more popular, often resulting in blended outfits of both traditional and western pieces. This tzute is also a blended garment: the fabric is traditionally woven, while the design is machine stitched rather than brocaded [Holly Thompson].

More information on modern Mayan textiles click here.

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,695 other followers

%d bloggers like this: