Ancient Mayan ceramics continue to fascinate and inspire potters today. The use of vivid colors, such as orange, along with the intricate and narrative designs makes its style and motifs recognizable all over the world.
What kind of pottery did the Mayans make?
Mayan pottery is an exquisite expression of art. Crafted with meticulous attention to detail, these artifacts offer profound insights into the daily life, social structure, and evolving artistic expressions of the Mayan people.
In the early beginnings, Mayan pottery consisted of elementary kitchen utensils such as bowls, pots, and cups, with only one color (mostly beige) stripes on red, and sometimes with simple patterns or no patterns at all.
Many human clay figures also made their appearance.
Clay, sourced from riverbanks and cenote edges, formed the foundation of Mayan pottery. Blended with sand, ashes, and tiny stones, the clay underwent meticulous hand-modeling due to the absence of a potter’s wheel.
As the Mayans did not have a potter´s wheel, all the pottery was hand-modeled.
The finished vessels or figures were then placed in the sun to dry and harden, or subjected to a unique firing process by placing them in a large hole in the ground with a fire, covering the hole with a large stone.
With the emergence of social classes, Mayan ceramics became more elaborate in form, design, painting, and purpose. The colors were mainly red, black, and brown obtained from natural elements like plants and earth.
The Early Classic period witnessed an expansion in color palette, as mineral pigments mingled with paints. Feet, handles, and lids were incorporated into designs, adding both functionality and aesthetic appeal.
The Classic period ushered in the pinnacle of Mayan pottery, characterized by diverse shapes, intricate reliefs and bas-reliefs, and vibrant paintings depicting royalty, deities, animals, and anthropomorphic beings.
Maya pottery acquired paintings of Mayan rulers, gods, animals, and anthropomorphic creatures on cups, bowls, vases, ceremonial incense urns called copals, and funerary offerings intended for the upper social class.
The middle class used less complex and simple designs, and the working class continued to use only one color and decorate vessels with very simple motifs, maintaining a connection to the humble origins of Mayan pottery.
Clay human figurines in this era acquired extraordinary beauty and perfection. Some of the most famous and notable Mayan clay figurines come from the island of Jaina in the state of Campeche, on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Clay figurines have been found at archaeological sites, and many have been placed in tombs.
The orange color became part of the color scheme of Mayan pottery. By adding other minerals, was created the famous Mayan blue, a turquoise hue that was exported to Central Mexico and to all regions of Mesoamerica.
Today, museums worldwide proudly exhibit these extraordinary Mayan ceramic artifacts.
Modern households still embrace traditional Mayan pottery, not just as relics but as functional items, with the belief that food cooked in these vessels carries a distinct flavor, and water retains its freshness in Mayan ceramic cups.
In some regions, Mayan pottery is still produced using the ancient method, although some craftsmen today have a potter’s wheel, reflecting the continued relevance and adaptability of Mayan pottery in contemporary times.