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Cultures across the world and throughout time have marked life’s important moments by rites of passage, special celebrations, and ceremonies. In this section a select number of pre-Columbian artifacts provide glimpses into the diverse ways that native cultures held such observances.

Effigy Incense Burners

These matching monumental incense burners were found together at the entrance to a tomb. Both vessels have warrior images on the front, but the base color of the kilts worn by the warriors differs: one is red, the other blue. The warrior figures hold spear throwers and circular shields.

Pair of bi-conical effigy incense burners. Central Mexican Highlands. Mixtec. AD 1200–1500. Polychromed buff ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (010.00.00)

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Ballplayer Relief Panel

Ritual ballgames were an integral part of the political and ritual life of ancient Mesoamerica. Many of the most vivid images of the game come from Maya artifacts. This limestone relief shows an ornately dressed player—most likely a nobleman—kneeling and about to strike a ball. Two hieroglyphs are lightly incised into the background of the relief near the forearm of the player, giving his name and title. On the second of the two glyphs is the spelling of the word “pitz,” translated as “ballgame” or “ballplayer.”

Ballplayer relief panel. Guatemalan Lowlands. La Carona (Site “Q”). Maya, AD 550–950. Limestone. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (011.00.00)

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Miniature Flask with Ball Player Panel

The ancient Mayan ballgame was the sport of kings and commoners alike. Seen as a cosmic contest played by planetary gods in the heavens and as the game of life and death with the Lords of the Underworld, ballcourts were places of sacrifice and, literally, portals into Xibalba, the Maya Underworld. Research, based in part on the Kislak Collection of Maya miniature flasks, suggests that they contained tobacco-based medicines, liniments, and magical potions used by ballplayers, among others, and ballgame themes are commonly represented.

Miniature flask with ball player panel. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Mold made cream slipped ceramics with red cinnabar. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (012.00.01012.00.02, 012.00.03, 012.00.04)

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Ballgame Ceremonial Stone Hip Belt

This stone artifact, found in Puerto Rico, probably represents the perishable materials (leather and wicker) worn around the waist by participants in the Mesoamerican ballgame. The ballgame was performed within slab-lined ball courts throughout Mesoamerica and  the Caribbean area.

Ballgame ceremonial stone hip belt. Puerto Rico. Taíno, AD 700–1500. Hard gray stone. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)

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Calling People to Gather

An artist has applied stucco to this conch shell, then decorated it with figures of deities for probable use in a princely Maya court. Indigenous tribes blew into conch shells to gather crowds and open ceremonies. Their sound is mystical and otherworldly, providing a touch of the supernatural.

Stucco painted conch shell. Maya, AD 700–900. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (015.00.00)

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Monumental Jaguar Sculpture

The jaguar is extremely important in Maya cosmology. Jaguars are not only the special patrons and protectors of kings but are also the deities representing the sun in its nocturnal aspect. Many kings selected the name “Balam” meaning “jaguar”, on ascending to the throne. This particular sculpture is unusual because it is a full figure. Originally, it may have flanked the throne of a Maya lord or king.

Monumental jaguar sculpture. Mexico. Southern Veracruz. Maya, AD 600–900. Painted buff ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)

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Cache Vessel with Applied God Heads

Cache vessels were used to hold ceremonial offerings and were ritually buried in consecrated places, such as beneath stone monuments (stelae) and temples, or buried with a wealthy lord.

Two-part cache vessel with applied god heads. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 200–600. Painted ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00)

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"Eccentric" Flints

Flints are usually found in cache vessels as offerings. Maya craftsmen were noted for their abilities in creating flints by “knapping,” or shaping objects by breaking off pieces. The flints on display are labeled “eccentric” because of their abstract shape.

“Eccentric” flints. Guatemalan Lowlands. Maya, AD 600–900. Chipped gray flint. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (017.00.01 - 05)

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Study of Maya Ruins

A British colonial diplomat and explorer, Alfred Percival Maudslay was one of the first Europeans to study Maya ruins. He began archaeological work at the ruins of Quirigua in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras, taking photographs, copying the inscriptions, and making plaster and papier-mâché casts of the carvings, while accompanying artist Annie Hunter made detailed drawings. Between 1889 and 1902 Maudslay published the results of his six expeditions in a massive five-volume work entitled Biologia Centrali-Americana, which contained numerous photographs and drawings, as well as Maudslay’s commentary.

Alfred Percival Maudslay (1850–1931). Biologia Centrali-Americana or Contributions to the Knowledge of the Fauna and Flora of Mexico and Central America. Annie Hunter, illustrator. London: R.H. Porter and Dulau, 1889–1902. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (017.01.00)

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“Creation”

The Popol Vuh recounts the religious beliefs and legends of the ancient Quiché Maya, who inhabited the highlands of Guatemala. Probably originally recited, the text is thought to have been set down first in hieroglyphic form by indigenous writers in the 1550s, at the request of a Jesuit priest. In the 1930s, Mexican artist Diego Rivera, long a champion of indigenous people, was commissioned to create illustrations for an English translation of the Popol Vuh.

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  • Diego Rivera (1886–1957). “Creation.” Illustration from the Popul Vuh, ca. 1931. Watercolor and gouache on paper. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00)
    ©Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust

  • Diego Rivera (1886–1957). “Human Sacrifice before Tohil from the Popul Vuh”, ca. 1931. Watercolor and gouache on paper. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (020.01.00)
    ©Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust

  • Diego Rivera (1886–1957). “The Trials of the Hero Twins.” Illustration from the Popul Vuh, ca. 1931. Watercolor and gouache on paper. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (20.02.00)
    ©Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust

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Survey of New Spain

This manuscript was copied in the eighteenth century from a sixteenth-century original in the library at the El Escorial outside Madrid, which holds the library of King Phillip II of Spain (1527–1598), who reigned 1556–1598.  The text contains numerous watercolors depicting village life, religious ceremonies, and warfare among the Indians.  Although the images reflect Spanish impressions of the Indians, the work seems to have been based in part on information from native informants.

Antonio de Mendoza (1492–1552). “Relacion de las ceremonias . . . de los Indios de la provencia de Mechoacán (Account of the ceremonies . . . of the Indians of the province of Michoacan).” Manuscript, eighteenth century. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (035.00.00, 035.00.01, 035.00.02, 035.00.03)

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