Recent Acquisition: A Late Formative Maya Figural Sculpture

In order to provide structure and meaning to the idiosyncrasies of artistic production through time and space, art historians situate works within grand narratives of invention, influence, and aesthetic evolution. In the study of ancient Mesoamerica, these stories weave together visual culture produced over about three millennia and across many linguistic groups. In constructing these narratives, we inevitably privilege works that epitomize particular styles or serve as key links in imagined chains of development or networks of interaction and inspiration. While such efforts can produce clear and easily followed tales of visual achievement and evolution, they also often neglect those works that do not fit neatly within the narrative arc, what might be deemed the murky backwaters of Mesoamerican art history.

A stone figure recently acquired by the Princeton University Art Museum is of a type that has to date suffered such a fate, at least beyond the small number of scholars focused on the dynamic Late Formative period (500 BC–AD 300) in southeastern Mesoamerica. The objects from this time and region discussed in textbooks usually come from just a few sites—Takalik Abaj, Izapa, and Kaminaljuyu—and often only a selection of works from these centers that serve to link two of the great Mesoamerican civilizations—the Olmec and the Maya—are highlighted. Stelae and associated altars carved in shallow relief are framed as an epilogue to earlier Olmec monumental art while simultaneously serving as a prelude to those of the Maya, particularly in their depiction of mythological scenes, ruler portraits, and the incorporation of hieroglyphic writing.

Maya, Late Formative (Providencia phase), Highland Guatemala, Peg-based sculpture of standing man, 350–100 BC. Basalt, h. 59.4 cm. Museum purchase, Peter Jay Sharp, Class of 1952, FundThis recent acquisition will catalyze in-class discussions about how art history can privilege some forms while ignoring others. The sculpture’s subject is not clearly mythical or royal, and no texts accompany the full-round carving to layer deeper meaning or offer richer understanding. Still, it is formally powerful and, as corroborated by a number of nearly identical forms found across the Guatemalan highlands, was a significant type in its time and place.

The sculpture presents a generally prismatic rendition of a nude man whose compact body closely adheres to a trapezoidal form when viewed frontally. Voids separate the legs from each other and the arms from the narrow torso. Grooves at the shoulders and the knees delineate musculature, and curved lines across the chest define the pectoral muscles. Similar bodily treatment can be seen on smaller sculptural types from the same era, such as so-called bench figures and mushroom stones, and earlier precedents may belie adaptation of forms and meanings previously presented in smaller ceramic figurines. The hands and face extend forward from the rather rigidly vertical form in profile, while the buttocks project dramatically back. Still, the figure maintains a compact vertical shaft form overall, hinting that it may have been produced from a naturally formed basalt column. Such unworked natural columns are found in archaeological contexts from the same region and era. The figure has puffy cheeks and pursed lips; the eyes may be closed. These features appear on the potbellied boulder sculptures of Kaminaljuyu and other sites along Guatemala’s Pacific piedmont, where the closed eyes are more definite. A headdress rings the head, with an additional flap at the top projecting forward.

A short peg at the base suggests the figure was set into something else, such as a platform or basal block. This sculpture is one of a small corpus of such peg-based sculptures of standing men, with only four other intact examples known, along with three fragmentary examples. These works are all associated with the locations along the great mountainous spine of the Sierra Madre del Sur, running through south-central Guatemala. Specifically, those with reported locations are from the Antigua Valley, Chimaltenango, and Kaminaljuyu. The Princeton example has been associated with the region around the modern Kaqchikel Maya communities of Patzun and Tecpan, marking the westernmost attestation of the sculptural type, but its findspot is not far from the locations where the other examples were found. Of this small corpus, Princeton’s is the finest example in both its sculptural quality and its condition.

Although none of these sculptures were excavated from controlled contexts, they were surely produced contemporaneously and are thought to date to the Providencia phase as defined at Kaminaljuyu (350–100 BC). The dating of this and related works derives from fragmentary pedestal sculptures excavated in the mid-twentieth century at Kaminaljuyu Mound C-III-6, which included associated Providencia-phase ceramics. Of course, the date of the archaeological context provides only the latest date at which the sculpture may have been produced; it is possible it was carved earlier. More recent scholarship has revised the dating of Kaminaljuyu ceramic phases, leading to the date range noted above. Notably, Kaminaljuyu seems to have been in a period of population decline in this era, potentially resulting from the desiccation of the lake it once surrounded.

Stylistically these peg-based human sculptures are members of a broader sculptural tradition of the Late Formative period, which extended as far east and south as El Salvador and Honduras and as far west as Chiapas, Mexico, with some notably similar forms found in the old Olmec heartland at Tres Zapotes and environs in central Veracruz, Mexico. The greatest concentration of such sculptures is at the site of Kaminaljuyu, now enveloped and largely destroyed by the urban sprawl of Guatemala City.

The lack of context makes these works difficult to resituate culturally, but functional hypotheses identify them as portraits of community leaders and/or renditions of deities. They are large enough to seem monumental while small enough to be reasonably portable. They may have been set into plazas or other ceremonial locations, perhaps articulated with other sculptures to re-create important narratives, whether historic or mythic. This and related sculptures have holes pecked though the clenched hands, indicating that now lost implements may have been inserted when in use. The arrangement of multiple sculptures and the possibility of swapping out the held implements could result in varied meanings for these objects.

Bryan R. Just
Peter Jay Sharp, Class of 1952, Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas