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Writing was independently invented in five areas of the ancient world: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, the Indus Valley, and Mesoamerica. Among these systems of writing, the Maya glyphic system stands out, according to one scholar, “for its creation of syllabic and pictorial writing, in one of the most visually diverse scripts ever conceived.” Maya writing was recorded on a wide variety of media that include ceramics, stone, wood, shell, textiles, animal hides, and screen-fold codex books.

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Vase with Eleven Figures

This Maya vase from the Guatemalan Highlands dates from AD 600–900, the Late Classic Maya period.  Experts believed that scenes such as this represented gods from the Underworld, but recent scholarship has clarified the role of these horrific creatures as animate spells and personified illnesses sent out by sorcerers. Although glyphs appear in the rim text of this vessel, and an additional seven are in the imagery (ostensibly as captions), none are legible.  Rather, these repetitious and imaginative pseudoglyphs merely convey the “idea” of writing, along with all of the attendant social status of a literate text.

Large vase with glyphs and eleven characters. Guatemalan Highlands. Nebaj region. AD 600–900. Polychromed orange-gloss ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (008.00.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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Vase with Six Figures and Glyphs

The principal figure on this vessel is a Maya ruler wearing an elaborately woven garment. He is seated on his throne and greets visitors. On his wrist he wears a jade bracelet and on his chest is a jade bead. Behind the ruler is an attendant, arms folded, and standing guard.

White background vase with six figures and glyphs. Guatemalan Lowlands. AD 600–900. Polychromed ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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Vase Depicting Seated Ruler and Dwarf

This Maya vessel depicts a ruler wearing a beaded headdress and sitting cross-legged on his throne. The king is addressing Itzam, the creator god and patron of scribes, and behind him sits a chubby dwarf wearing a fancy headdress.

Vase depicting seated ruler and dwarf. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Red-rimmed, black-on-cream ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (023.00.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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Shell Cup with Incised Hieroglylphs

A Maya craftsman of great skill and patience worked on this shell to cut out the internal structure, polish edges, and engrave intricate hieroglyphs.

Shell cup with six incised hieroglyphs. Maya, AD 200–400 Shell. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (028.00.00)

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Ballgame Yoke in Form of a Toad

This Maya granite ballgame yoke or belt is carved with an abstract image of a toad. The ballgame, played by two opposing sides with a solid rubber ball, was prevalent throughout the cultures of Mesoamerica. Carved stone yokes, like this one, are probably replicas of the leather or wood versions worn by players.

Ceremonial ballgame yoke in form of a toad. Mexico.Veracruz. AD 200–400. Carved gray granite. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (013.00.00)

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Vase with Deer Hunting Procession

The hunters in this scene wear hats, probably woven from plant fibers, and carry long blowguns. Scenes similar to this still occur in Yucatán today. After a hunt, villagers march home triumphantly carrying a prize deer, while blowing on conch shell trumpets to herald their return. As with a number of other vessels from this region, the text on this vessel is entirely pseudoglyphic—that is, the glyphs are not meant to be read, but merely represent the “idea” of writing. The glyphic sign below the tongue of one of the deer and in front of the mouth of one of the hunters may indicate the “last breath” glyph.

Vase with deer hunting procession. Guatemalan Highlands. Chama style. Maya, AD 600–900 Polychromed orange-gloss ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (016.00.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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Vessel with Maya Scribes

The decorations on this vessel, from the heartland of Maya civilization in Northern Guatemala, are of a limited palette (red, black, and cream) and reflect a scribal theme. Writing was often used for solemn and sacred tasks, such as recording history, accounting for tributes, and writing of prayers and auguries. The figures on the vessel are a human scribe and Itzam, the god and patron of writing. The decipherable glyphs confirm who the figures on the vessel are and their stature.

Vessel with Maya scribes. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Red-rimmed, black-on-cream ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (022.00.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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Plate Depicting Maya Worldview

This plate depicts pages of the Madrid Codex, one of the few surviving books of the ancient Maya, which details the Maya worldview. On this plate, the earth is seen from above as a four-sided temple with the “world” tree at the top and deities performing sacrifices and presenting offerings around the sides of the temple. In the center of the plate sits an image of the “Waterlily Jaguar,” marked with lines and dots representing water and wearing bits of foliage on the top of his head. In this instance, he may function as the day sun whose light illuminates the Earth. The original codex is in the Museo de América in Madrid, Spain.

Large polychrome tripod plate. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Painted orange-gloss ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (027.00.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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Miniature Flasks

Midwives may have used flasks like these for healing and birthing rituals. Several flasks in the Kislak Collection are inscribed with the words “homes for may,” the traditional native tobacco and lime mixtures used for medicinal and ritual purposes.

Painted miniature flasks. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Red and brown-black-on-cream ceramics. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (029.00.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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Incised Creamware Vessel

This well-proportioned cylindrical vessel is finely incised on both sides with a diagonal glyphic text.  One side refers to a specific god, on the reverse side, carefully formed elements refer to the mixing of copal and cacao liquids, probably for ritualistic uses.

Incised creamware vessel. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 550–900. Ceramic with a cream-colored slip and cinnabar highlighting in the glyphs. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00)

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Vase with Sixty Hieroglyphs

This vase is one of only twelve all-glyphic vases known to exist. Called “Dynastic Vases,” the vessels recount and date a series of coronations of rulers of the Snake Dynasty, a powerful ruling lineage of the Maya. The exact number of coronations recounted varies depending on the size of the vessel and the scale of the glyphs. The attested range is between five and nineteen, and this vessel provides the second-longest document sequence: twelve separate coronations. As in all societies where lineage served political purposes, the Maya kept dynastic lists of various forms.

Vase with Sixty Hieroglyphs. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Red and black-on-cream ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (033.00.00)

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Bowl with Carved Underworld Scene and Five Hieroglyphs

The deeply carved figural scene, the bold diagonal column of glyphs, and the 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. On 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.

Bowl with Carved Underworld Scene and Five Hieroglyphs.Yucatán. Chochola style. Maya. AD 600–900. Grey ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (033.01.00)

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Vase with Stylized Flowers and Primary Standard Sequence Glyph Band

This tall, narrow cylindrical vessel is a striking example of a class of vessel that features a stylized, repetitive motif of three-lobed white and black flowers reminiscent of the lilies (fleurs-de-lis) used in later European art and heraldry.  Despite their frequent appearance on vessels from this region, their significance remains unclear.  This vessel was a drinking cup, signified by its shape and a glyph that names it as such.  Unlike most cups of this type, this vessel omits the proper name of its owner, perhaps to render it more suitable as a gift or an item of tribute.  Along the outer rim of the vessel runs a nine-glyph dedicatory formula.

“Fleur De Lis” vase with primary standard sequence glyph band. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Black and orange on white ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (033.02.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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Large Shell Pectoral

The incised, delicate decorations on this large shell are of a processional scene. Figures on one side carry bowls with offerings, while on the other, a warrior with a rattlesnake heads the procession.

Large shell pectoral with narrative scene. Mexico. Maya-Toltec style, AD 900–1200. Incised conch shell. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (033.09.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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Earspool with Four Incised Glyphs

This earspool is made of jade with hieroglyphs highlighted with cinnabar. In Maya art, earspools are typically associated with themes of centrality and opposition. This example includes four bird-like deities that have directional symbols on their foreheads.

Earspool with four incised glyphs. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 200–400. Light green jade and red cinnabar. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (033.04.00)

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Pair of Carved Long Bones

Judging by other ritual bone objects, these are probably jaguar bones. The longer bone piece depicts the profile of warriors with staffs, with a profile serpent on the bottom. The smaller bone also shows a warrior, with the lower four panels featuring the penis perforation ritual.

Pair of carved long bones. Mexico. Northern Veracruz. Huastec region, AD 1200–1500. Carved and polished bone. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (033.05.00)

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Vase with Lords in the Mouths of Serpents

One Maya depiction of the Underworld is of a great serpent with an open mouth. On this vessel, the serpent’s head rests on a skull, and a lord, wearing a flower headdress, sits in the serpent’s open jaws. This indicates that the lord is dead and has arrived in the Underworld.

Vase with lords in the mouths of serpents. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Polychromed ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (033.07.00)

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Vessel with Teotihuacán-Maya War and Sacrifice Themes

Scholars disagree on the interpretation of this vessel. However, most believe that the vessel includes Teotihuacán and Maya cultural references. The two prominent “birds” include Teotihuacán military symbolism as well as the Maya sky god in his avian form.

Tall black-background vase with Teotihuacan-Maya war and sacrifice themes. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Polychrome ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (040.01.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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Vase with Palace Scene

This tall, thin cylindrical Maya vessel is unique for its detailed picture of courtly life. Central to the scene is a standing ruler in his throne room being dressed for a ceremony by three attendants. A dwarf cavorts and amuses the king. Behind the king’s throne crouches one of his vigilant bodyguards, while behind the bodyguard stands a fan bearer whose ministrations keep the king cool. Many of the caption glyphs, probably intended to identify the participants in the ceremony by name and rank, are eroded and are illegible. The partially abraded hieroglyphs behind the ruler declare his status as “foremost [in the] world.”

Tall vase with regal dressing scene in palace. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Polychrome ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00). Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

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A Pre-Contact Codex

In the Codex Vindobonensis, a manuscript that predates the Spanish Conquest, the Mixtec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, illustrate how their gods created the world. According to their cosmology, the first humans were the Primordial Twins. One Deer, shown here with the magic incense copal and ground tobacco, created the Mother and the Father of the Gods. Mother and Father then made four men and an entire constellation of spirits for crops, fire, smoke, forests, and other aspects of nature and the world. Displayed here is a facsimile of the original, which is in the Vienna National Library.

Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus I. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1992. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00-025.00.03) [Digital ID# ea0025p01, ea0025p02, ea0025p03, ea0025p04]

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First Romance Language Grammar

Antonio de Nebrija, the first modern philologist, published this grammar of Castilian, the language of northern Spain, in 1492. The book was the first printed grammar of any romance language. By applying the language structure organized in Nebrija’s landmark study to the languages of the indigenous cultures, missionaries were able to learn New World languages and communicate with the peoples they encountered.

Antonio de Nebrija. (1441–1522). Gramática de la lengua castellana (Grammar of the Castilian language). Salamanca: 1492. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00, 026.00.02, 026.00.03)

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Return to Pre-Contact America List Previous Section: Ritual, Ceremonies, and Celebrations | Next Section: Recording History