When the first Spanish troops reached Tenochtitlan in 1519 in what is now Mexico City’s Centro Histórico (historical center), they were astounded to see ornate buildings, a highly engineered city with an intricate system of canals, a market center, and ceremonial plazas. These were all signs of a high culture that had developed independently of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. They found more signs of high culture in the Maya territory to the southeast and frankly throughout what is now Mexico.
There is so much to say about the indigenous cultures of Mexico such that the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park focuses almost exclusively on this area. It is unusual among the world’s leading museums in showcasing only two cultural areas of the world — Mesoamerica and Arid-America.
But as a world-class museum it also has access to temporary exhibits from around the world. Right now it is showing “Keramiká, Divine Matter from Ancient Greece,” an exhibit on loan from the Louvre with 89 exquisite vases and urns and five marble sculptures.
The result is that a convergence of high quality ceramic vases is going on in the National Museum of Anthropology. Though not billed together, and not even exhibited in adjacent galleries, ancient Maya vases in the museum’s permanent collection dating from the the classic and post-classic periods (300-1500 A.D) and ancient Greek vases (700 B.C.-200 A.D) are exhibited concurrently.
The comparisons between Greek and Maya vases are fascinating. Not in the sense that ancient Greece had any influence on the Maya, but rather in the similar use given to ceramic art as the medium for portraying events that have endured, with little decay, through millennia.
Clay seems deceptively simple. It is easily modeled and can be skillfully decorated, but when fired to high temperatures it becomes as hard as stone. Due to its beauty, ceramic art was a frequent offering in Greek and the Maya burials — placed carefully in tombs subsequently sealed or filled with earth where it survived the passage of time.
Decoration on some of the vases — both Greek and Maya — portrays deities and mythological or religious events. Many are pictorial documentation of events in the lives of living people.
View Greek vases from opposite sides and in many cases you’ll see before and after scenes in which the same people or gods are portrayed. The shape of the vases and urns varies, but the color, for the most part, is amazingly uniform — black background with orange-red figures, or vice versa.
View Maya vessels as if to be seen as a single panel all the way around. Archeologist Justin Kerr perfected a technique to photograph the entire surface of a cylindrical or round vessel in a single frame.
The interaction between Greek deities is portrayed graphically on many of the vases. Though ancient Greek can be read by modern scholars, there isn’t much text on the pieces displayed in Keramiká other than an occasional name of the patron for whom the vase or urn was made, or the name of the ceramic artist. Those versed in Greek mythology will understand the scenes showing gods interacting with each other. Portrayals of life markers such as birth, marriage and funerals give us insight into daily life and living quarters of the ancient Greek elite.
It is the Maya vases that include the most writing. Breakthroughs in deciphering written Maya weren’t made until 1977, but once they started they came fast and furiously. Within five years the understanding of written Maya went from 15% to 50% and comprehension went up to 90% when read in the context of the surrounding hieroglyphs. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to read. Only four books survived along with an assortment of texts carved in stone, most of them quite deteriorated. Then archeologists realized there was a wealth of hieroglyphic text, much of it in pristine condition, on ceramic plates and vases.
Just below the rim of Maya vessels there is frequently hieroglyphic text blessing the piece, describing its shape and referring to its owner and its use. Sometimes the name of the artist who painted the vessel is recorded as well — making them the earliest signed pieces of American art. Text set within the painted scene describes the event itself.
The scenes portrayed on both the Greek and Maya vases are small and it can be hard to see all the detail. In the Keramiká exhibit some of the scenes from the vases are enlarged to life-size photographs. It is as if we are looking over the artist’s shoulder.
I encourage you to see the beautiful pottery in the “Keramiká, Divine Matter from Ancient Greece” exhibit in the National Museum of Anthropology. It will be open until April 27, 2014. And on the same visit walk 100 meters to the Maya room to take in the remarkable vases and urns there. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Mondays.