Carved Underworld Scene and Five Hieroglyphs located in the Yucatán

YUCATÁN. CHOCHOLÁ STYLE. Late Classic Maya. AD 600–900. Grey ceramic. K6303. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

This bowl from Yucatán dates from the Late Classic Maya period, 600–900 AD. The deeply carved figural scene, the bold diagonal column of glyphs, and lack of color distinguish this vessel as an example of Chocholá-style pottery. The carved scene on this bowl depicts an anthropomorphic woodpecker (left) presenting gifts to an aged, lordly owl (right) whose lengthy tail feathers blossom out in all directions, dividing the scene neatly in half. In bowls of this type, the decorative elements and hieroglyphs themselves define the colors of the figures. The woodpecker is marked with the hieroglyph “red” and similarly, the owl wears the “white” glyph atop its head, suggesting snowy white feathers.

The nine lightly incised glyphs above the two creatures represent the birds’ speech. The large diagonal text is a typical dedication found on Chocholá-style pottery. The large text can be read as follows:
“It is the cup of [the] Kaloomte', Ohlis ?-Took', Kab Huk Pet.”

Scholar's Commentary

This carved vessel from northern Yucatan has two different faces. On what may be called the kind of secondary face, we actually have a series of hieroglyphs that record little more than the owner of the vessel.

But on the other side we have an intricate carved scene that portrays two creatures in animated conversation: a woodpecker on the left, and an owl on the right.

Embedded hieroglyphs and symbols tell us that the woodpecker had red feathers and that the owl had white feathers, and small incised hieroglyphs embedded in the pictorial art actually tell us what they were saying to one another.

Sadly we can't read all of what passes between these two birds, but there's always the hope that future discoveries will clarify this ancient conversation for us.

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