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Name Your Poison: Glyphic Designs on Maya Miniature Flasks in the Jay I. Kislak Collection


Today’s guest post was written by Graham Atkinson, a Research Volunteer in the Geography and Map Division, who works with the Pre-Columbian objects in the Jay I. Kislak Collections. He received his doctorate in mathematics from Oxford University, and has spent most of his career applying mathematical and statistical techniques to health care. Graham also studies the Maya hieroglyphic language and runs the “Glyph Group,” of the DC Pre-Columbian Society.

For those who might not know, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas became part of the Geography and Map Division several years ago and is made up of Pre-Columbian archaeological objects, maps, like Waldseemüller’s famous 1516 Carta Marina, and manuscripts and rare books relating to the earliest history of America. The dates of the collection span a wide range from 1100 BC until the mid-18th century. Part of collection is on permanent rotating display in the Exploring the Early Americas Exhibit in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library, with the remainder of the objects housed in the recently opened Kislak Study Collection in the vaults of the Geography and Map Division. There they may be studied by scholars by contacting the collection curator John Hessler ([email protected]).

This post is part of an occasional series that will feature new research and highlight objects from the collection.


The Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas contains many classic period Maya ceramics (200 CE – 900 CE) and includes 174 small flasks, sometimes called “poison bottles” that have been shown to have been used for tobacco products, and possibly other medicines. Some of these have been described in detail by Dr. John Carlson of the University of Maryland, in the published Catalog of the Kislak Collection. The glyphs painted on some of the flasks, like the one shown below, have been interpreted as “the house of tobacco” while others have more extensive glyphic designs. The first empirical evidence for tobacco in a flask was found by Kislak Fellow Jennifer Longhmiller-Cardinal in an example from the Kislak Collection and published in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry in 2012.

Flask from the Jay I.Kislak Collection from which nicotine residue was first extracted. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Figure 1: Flask from the Jay I.Kislak Collection from which nicotine residue was first extracted. The flask is decorated with text that seems to read “Yo-‘OTOT-ti ‘u-MAY,” which translates to “the home of his tobacco” (or “her tobacco” or “its tobacco”). Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Looking at some of the miniature medallion-shaped flasks in the Kislak Collection I was intrigued by the designs impressed on the sides of some of them, and decided to try to read what was written there. Many of the glyph blocks were comprised of recognizable glyphs, but after staring at them for some time and starting to see patterns of repetition within and between the flasks I concluded that the designs were probably not meaningful writings, but rather just decoration stamped onto the flasks that looked like writing, intended to add prestige to the flasks, but not intended to be read as meaningful sentences. This is not meant to deny that the glyphs may have some relevance to the contents of the flasks (as was clearly the case with the flasks mentioned in the first paragraph), but even that is not clear.

This may seem like a claim that would be difficult to prove, but I wrote a paper describing the various patterns that appear within and between the flasks that I hope will convince most readers of the reasonableness of the claim.

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Figure 2: Miniature Classic Period Maya Flask from the Jay I. Kislak Collection. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The flask in figure 2 has 10 glyph blocks arranged in a circle around it, but only 3 different designs appear. Starting just about 12 o’clock we see the block with an animal head with what looks like a barbell below it. The animal head is a common logogram read CHOK and meaning young or youth (or possibly the syllable ch’o). The symbol underneath the head is the syllable “ko” and serves as a phonetic complement to assist the reader in reading the logogram (or to be added to ch’o to form ch’ok) . The subsequent block consists of two easily recognizable syllables, the same syllabic glyph “ko” that we saw at the bottom of the preceding block and “lo”, so would be read “kol”, but as of now I have no idea what that means, if anything. If we label the glyph blocks starting with the CHOK-ko at 12 o’clock A, B and C, then the whole design reads:

A B C A C A B C A C

This could be an incantation, or just an interesting design, but does not look like a meaningful sentence.

On some flasks we see the designs starting to repeat after several rows, and comparing the designs on different flasks we see more repetitions and partial repetitions, with the inscriptions on some flasks appearing on others, but starting at different places, and of different lengths.

The most convincing argument for the lack of meaning in these inscriptions is that some of them use every second block of another inscription. To explain what I mean by this, the inscriptions on some flasks involve a double column of glyph blocks and the inscriptions on other flasks consist of a single column. There are several situations in which the single column on a flask is the right hand column of the double column design on another flask. Given that you read Maya inscriptions in double columns starting at the top left, moving one block to the right, then moving diagonally down one to the left, the use of the right hand column is equivalent to extracting every second word from an English sentence and expecting the result to make sense.

Figure 2: Miniature Classic Period Maya Flask from the Jay I. Kislak Collection. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Figure 3: Miniature Classic Period Maya Flask from the Jay I. Kislak Collection. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

A small rectangular house shaped flask, see figure 3, exhibits another feature that suggests that the potter making it was not literate, and did not expect the design to be read. The design on the front and back is a portion of the design that occurs on other flasks, but consists of about 2 1/3 (two and one third) rows. The bottom row of glyph blocks has been cut off so that only the top third is visible. On the sides of this flask the right hand column from the front is repeated, but with only a sliver of the top of the third glyph block.

Some of the medallion flasks have designs stamped on their fronts and backs that look very similar. They have Gods K and L sitting facing one another, and with what looks like a glyphic inscription running vertically between them. On a couple of them the design was stamped upside down, and on others it is slightly out of a vertical alignment.

Figure 4: Miniature Flask from the Kislak Collection showing Gods K and L and the glyph sequence between them. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Figure 4: Miniature Flask from the Kislak Collection showing Gods K and L and the glyph sequence between them. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

This suggests strongly that the designs were stamped onto the clay during the construction of the flask, rather than being part of a complete mold. The designs on these flasks I looked at are very similar, but they vary in width from 6.2 cm to 10.7 cm. This led me to wonder what mechanisms could explain the differences in size while retaining the extreme similarity in the details of the medallion design. When clay is formed then dried and fired it shrinks, often by 10 to 15%, so I hypothesized that in the mass production of these flasks the potters would prepare a stamp, create flasks using that stamp, then they, or other potters, would use the resulting flasks (or perhaps just stamped, dried and fired pieces of clay) to prepare a second generation mold, and so on. The second and subsequent generation models would have the same design, but be smaller than the original. See the complete paper for more details.

 

 

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