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A Culture of Stone: carving the marble vessels of the ancient Americas

This post is part of the series Excavating Archaeology, which features selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related collections, housed in the Geography and Map Division and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.

The greatest artist does not have any concept which a single piece of marble does not itself contain…                                                                                                       –Michelangelo Buonarrotti

Marble is a mineral more normally associated with ancient Greece and Rome than the early Americas, where a tradition of sculpting and building with the material in all its forms goes back thousands of years. In Honduras however, a custom of making vases from marble as luxury goods for the noble elite developed during the classic and late classic periods, with many stunning masterpieces of carved vases surviving from 600- 800 CE.

Carved Marble Vase from the Ulua Valley in Honduras. Jay I. Kislak Collection.

Carved Marble Vase with feline handles from the Ulúa Valley in Honduras. Jay I. Kislak Collection.

Through the history of the study of the surviving vases, they have been described as being made either from marble or alabaster. Marble is a metamorphic rock composed of recrystallized carbonate minerals, most commonly calcite or dolomite. Archaeologists use the word alabaster in a broader sense than geologists do, and hence under the name are included two different minerals. The first consists primarily of gypsum, a hydrous sulfate of calcium that forms in layers and is the result of evaporating sea water. The second, called calcite alabaster or travertine, is calcium carbonate or calcite. This mineral is typically deposited as a flowstone and is the main component of stalactites and stalagmites found in caves.

Most of the surviving vases are actually carved from marble and come from the Ulúa Valley in northwestern Honduras. The history of the study of these extraordinary vessels, two of which are found in the Kislak Collection, begins in the late nineteenth century, with the publications of George Byron Gordon, the Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology.

Gordon’s first publication of the vessels, in the Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, started speculation amongst archaeologists at the time about the possible sources in the Americas of the marble used in these unique vases, cups, and other containers.

At the time little was known about the possible sources of marble in Central America except for a description of marble quarries by the explorer E.G. Squier, who, in his book, The States of Central America, first published in 1858, writes that,

The hills and mountains back of Omao have exhaustless quarries of a fine compact white marble remarkably free from faults and stains and remarkably adapted to statuary and ornamental use.

All documented vases that are known are carved from this kind white marble, and most come from Travesia, an archaeological site in the Ulúa Valley, close to the quarries of Omoa mentioned by Squier.

Carved Marble Cup with Bird Effigy Handle from the Ulua Valley in Honduras. Jay I. Kislak Collection.

Carved Marble Cup with Bird Effigy Handle from the Ulúa Valley in Honduras. Jay I. Kislak Collection.

The vases have been classified by scholars into five broad stylistic groups that span a period from around 600 to 850 CE. Many of the vases, like those in the Kislak Collection for example, have zoomorphic handles representing birds, felines, and other animals. The iconography and detailed carving on the vases is very regular, with a central program focused on scrolls, which usually form the building blocks of profile or frontal zoomorphic heads that are very abstract. Surrounding these figures are an intricate pattern of scrolls of various forms, shapes and sizes.

Close-up of Scrolled Carvings on Marble Vases in the Kislak Collection. Drawings by author after George Byron Gordon.

Close-up of Scrolled Carvings on Marble Vases in the Kislak Collection. Drawings by author after George Byron Gordon.

Based on the best modern available evidence, mostly derived from isotope studies of the marble in the vases, it seems that this style of vessel was restricted in its production to a very small area for more 200 years and was centered on Travesia, in the Ulúa Valley of Honduras. This evidence implies very centralized workshops and tight control over the distribution of marble in the region.  Creating these intricate vases requires an extremely organized and skillful workforce of carvers, and a great deal of specialized knowledge, leading to the conclusion that they were luxury goods, made for a class of elites and nobles who supported their production.

In Mesoamerican contexts, this kind of luxury craft production plays a vital role in the maintenance of the social structure and contributes to how the society communicates status visually and through the use of portable objects such as vases, jewelry, textiles, and other high cost objects. Archaeological remains such as these shed light on one of the central concerns of ancient historians regarding how the production of luxury goods contributed to the evolution of social networks within the communities that produced them and how they confer status on high ranking individuals.

Close-up of carved scroll work on the marble cup from the Jay I. Kislak Collection

The strict adherence to labor-intensive iconographic carving, like the scroll work on these vessels, over long periods of time, points to deliberate control of imagery by a specific group that may suggest the existence of workshops of carvers attached to royal courts.

George Byron Gordon in his first description of these masterpieces of Maya art more than a century ago drew attention to their uniqueness,

In the Central American collections in the Museum is a group of marble vases from the Ulúa Valley in Honduras that are so unusual and of a type so distinct as to cause a good deal of curiosity among scholars…

It is a statement that still applies today.

 

Extremities of the Earth: The Northernmost Inhabited Point (Part 2)

In the previous post of this series, the military installation of Alert in Nunavut, Canada was named the northernmost permanently inhabited point. While this is indeed true, it is only accessible to assigned military personnel. For the adventurers out there, we will have to content ourselves with visiting or living on the island of Spitsbergen, […]

Extremities of the Earth: The Most Remote Inhabited Island

Where is the lowest point on dry land? Or the northernmost inhabited point on earth? How about the highest city? All of these questions and many more will be unraveled in this new occasional series, Extremities of the Earth, created to explore the farthest reaches of our planet. For this inaugural post for the series, […]