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Identity and Prestige in Mayan Textiles

Honor through Dress
Mexico, Island of Jaina</br> Maya</br> Whistle, 7–10th century</br> Ceramic, pigment</br> Minneapolis Institute of Arts</br> The John R. Van Derlip Fund</br>
  Mexico, Island of Jaina
Whistle, 7–10th century
Ceramic, pigment
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The John R. Van Derlip Fund


The ancient Maya are well known for their highly developed written language, art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. Today, Mayan people live in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador.

This ceramic figure is a hand-sized whistle that was buried with an important person on the small island of Jaina (hi-nah), the site of the largest known Mayan necropolis, or cemetery. The figure's prestige dress indicates burial with an important person. The short layered skirt, decorated in blue stripes, has a long panel that falls to the feet. Neatly combed hair, feathered headdress, and earrings are all signs of an elaborate ceremony.

Characteristic physical alterations enhance the figure's appearance. Mayan boys of this time period endured physical manipulation of their facial features to obtain the arched nose and flattened brow seen in this figure, desired features for Mayan men. Babies' heads were bound and shaped to grow upward and tall, not round, to align the forehead with the tip of the nose.

What words would you use to describe this masculine figure's facial expression? His face, arms, and legs are painted red, in imitation of the prestige practice of painting the deceased with iron oxides. His feet are firmly planted and his arms crossed over his chest, showing strength and pride, perhaps to communicate that he was honored for a significant accomplishment.

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1. This jacket would have been worn during ceremonies, perhaps with special permission from the village priest. The fancy eye-catching embroidery would remind everyone of the wearer's prestige. Guatemala, El Quiché (el keesh-ay), Santo Tomás Chichicastenango (chee-chee-cas-te-non-go), Man's Ceremonial Jacket, c. 1960, wool, silk, cotton, embroidery; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Richard L. Simmons in memory of Roberta Grodberg Simmons
2. The addition of feathers to this huipil (we-peel) (woman's blouse) indicates it is not for everyday use, but for a wedding. This huipil is unusual in that the weaver is known and identified. Maria Sanchez de la Cruz, Mexican, 20th century, Wedding Huipil, cotton, feathers, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Richard L. Simmons


September 2012