Codex-style Vase with Mayan scribes located in Guatemalan Lowlands

GUATEMALAN LOWLANDS. Late Classic Maya, AD 600–900. Red rimmed, black on cream ceramic. K4010. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

This vessel, from the heartland of Maya civilization in Northern Guatemala, is decorated by a limited palette (red, black, and cream) and is devoted to a scribal theme. The figures on the vessel are a human scribe and the god of scribes, Itzam, identified as such by iconic imagery and glyphs.

Scholar's Commentary

This elegantly painted vessel portrays for us two individuals of the priestly scribal hierarchy. The individual in the forefront is identified by the glyphs in front of his face as being Winik, a man, a human scribe. He holds out in his left hand an inkpot made from a cut shell. He would have used this to paint the “codex” or screen-fold book that's on the ground line in front of his hand.

Thousands of these books existed during the Maya Classic Period, but only three survive in European libraries today. Behind the human scribe is a supernatural figure identified by symbols on the surface of his skin as a glowing, angelic being, who would have brought writing with him from the other world.

He holds a brush outstretched in his right hand and also holds an inkpot. Hieroglyphs in front of his face let us know that he was a supernatural scribe, the patron of writing.

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