Distribution and Production of Maya Figurines

Maya figurine press mold, type 2, of high detail. Image from

By the Late Classic Period, ancient Maya craftspeople became skilled in crafting a variety of ceramic wares. From experience, I can say that clay ocarinas are very hard to make. The Maya, however, crafted ocarinas that not only work, but are adorned with figurative sculpture. These small ceramic figurine ocarinas may have played a role in many aspects of ancient Maya culture and were distributed across vast areas, societal tiers, and cultural uses.

For the most part, figurines created in Mesoamerica are assumed to be either toys or ritual items. Investigation of rapidly abandons sites, such as Ceren in El Salvador, reveal the ocarinas stored in their original contexts; Ocarinas were found in both ritual and non-ritual rooms. They were often found stored with other musical instruments, like ceramic drums, bone rasps, and turtle carcasses, suggesting they were thought of in the same way. Among these, other soundless figurines found in each household ranged from four to thirty-seven. The figurines in each home vary in form and subject, from human males and females, to animal, grotesque, and anthropomorphic figures. This wide assortment of characters suggests that these figurines relate to each other in some narrative way. Ancient stone cities of the Maya were found left with figurine ocarinas scattered among almost every tier of the culture - all except the uppermost temples. This suggests that the ocarinas played a role in many public functions, even the royal court. Despite their wide reach in Maya culture, figurine ocarinas are not usually found in burials or dedicatory caches.

Maya figurine ocarinas were produced in four different types: press molded, hand formed, combined technique, and finely modeled. The first type, press molded, were crafted as the name suggests - by pressing clay into a mold. The hollow space required for each instrument would be formed by the addition of a clay slab attached on the back of the pressed piece, closing a small interior. For this reason, this type is flat. This use of repeated molding shows how the ancient Maya employ "mechanical reproduction", a term commonly associated with the emergence of industrial capitalism. Often in this type, while male figurines were created as ocarinas, female figurines were created as rattles. The second type were produced by hand. Rather than using a mold to get a base form, these instruments were crafted entirely freehand. These crudely modeled forms did not often employ reductive techniques, such as carving or scraping. Type 2 often has unrealistic body proportions due to these simple forming processes. The third type combines techniques used in both of the first two, molding and modeling. These were often more complex than their type 2 counterparts, and therefore required more skilled labor. They consist of molded head with modeled, hollow bodies. Type 3 depicts anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and supernatural figures. The fourth type is characterized by is higher detail and finer modeling. They were most commonly found in elite architectural groups (an inverse of the crudely hand modeled Type 2). This type also contains non-musical examples of high crafted quality.

Halperin, Christina T. Maya Figurines: Intersections between State and Household (version Project Muse). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014.

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