Collecting Art of the Maya

Acquiring new works of art for the Museum is both an exhilarating and a challenging task. For a university art museum, the degree to which an object advances the teaching mission is important, but high artistic quality remains the principal criterion, along with such factors as beauty, rarity, condition, and historical and scholarly interest.

Two zoomorphic pawatuns, ca. 550. Signed by the artist Chak Til Mo’ (Red Tapir-Macaw), Maya, Early Classic. White stone (finegrained chalk), a: 13.3 x 17.1 x 14.6 cm, b: 12.7 x 13.3 x 17.8 cm. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund (2013-78 a–b). Photos: Bruce M. WhiteFor those curatorial areas which include archaeological materials and ancient art, additional guidelines frame the consideration of new acquisitions. In accord with the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Princeton University Art Museum acknowledges the UNESCO Convention on the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, as well as relevant national laws of the country of presumed modern discovery. Only an object whose provenance—that is, its documented history of ownership—clearly demonstrates that it was already in the international art market by the UNESCO convention date of November 14, 1970, is considered a viable potential acquisition. As one might imagine, this can prove a challenging task, as documents of this sort are extremely rare. Perhaps as few as ten percent of the antiquities offered to Princeton meet this standard.

Recently, an exceptional opportunity arose to acquire a pair of Early Classic Maya sculptures dating to the sixth century. Provenance research was easy, as the objects had been published numerous times, beginning in 1959, as part of the renowned collection of Jay C. Leff, a banker who resided in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. These compact, boulder-shaped sculptures represent two distinct aspects of Maya deities known as pawatuns—old, chthonic entities who support the world. Each features the face of a wizened bearded man, sporting large earspools resting on crossed human arms. As with several Maya deities, such pawatuns exist in four aspects, each associated with a cardinal direction and a color. It is said that these two objects were discovered with another badly battered version; presumably there was also once a fourth.

In other representations, pawatuns take on several animal attributes, including those of turtles, conch, spiders, opossums, and monkeys. One of this pair (below) resides in the most common conch shell, while the other (at right) presents an alternative hybrid creature, combining the pectoral fins of a fish and what seem to be the hindquarters of a crocodile. Additionally, a fish nibbles at the tip of the creature’s long, curling tail.

Each of these sculptures is further embellished with brief hieroglyphic texts. The primary glyphs are presented on the tops of the works, in carved cartouches whose decorative frames are associated with marine shells. These large glyphs name the portrayed deity-aspects. The conch-figure is named as A[j] K’an Bats’u[l] (He of the Yellow Howler Monkey), while the fish-crocodile is named ?Chab Na[aj] (?Earth-House). The incorporation of the color yellow in one title and an indeterminate element at the beginning of the other that bares some resemblance to the hieroglyph for “white” (sak) probably links these sculptures to specific cardinal directions—most likely the south (yellow) and north (white). Presumably, they were placed in a cardinal arrangement along with two other sculptures taking the positions of east and west. Collectively, they would have defined a central space as the axis mundi—a locus of sacred power and heightened connectivity among the cosmic planes. This arrangement may have been part of a dedicatory cache for a ritual building, although it is impossible to know with any certainty.

Sculptor’s signature near the bottom of the pawatun’s conch-shell, naming the sculptor as Chak Til Mo’ (Red Tapir-Macaw). Photo: Bruce M. WhiteThe crocodilian pawatun includes one additional incised glyph placed atop the old man’s head. It seems to refer explicitly to the “shaping” of the sculpture or the “setting up” of the full arrangement of the figural group. The conch-figure includes more elaborate and informative inscriptions relating to the production, patronage, and ownership of the object. First, the owner of the object is named in a four-hieroglyph text, placed in two-glyph sections on each side of the figure. Collectively, these name Til Man K’ihnich, the king of an undeciphered kingdom that scholars refer to as the “water-scroll” site. This is followed by the directional epithet “east.” Although this “water-scroll” place has not been definitively located, this same Maya king is named on a jade plaque excavated at the Belizean site of Altun Ha’, suggesting that the kingdom was either centered here or in a nearby locale. The material in which the two pawatuns were carved—fine-grained chalk—suggests a coastal locale, further supporting a Belizean provenience for these objects.

Perhaps the most exciting and significant inscription appears discreetly on the back of the conch-figure, below the shell’s spiral. It is an artist’s signature, in fact very likely the earliest known sculptural signature in Maya art, and thus the earliest known named artist in the ancient Americas. (Among ancient American people, only the Maya had full-fledged writing, and only they made use of true signatures in their work. This is extremely rare anywhere in the ancient world.) The inscription translates as “He [was] the sculptor, Red Tapir-Macaw, he was owned by [   ] lord.” This type of “ownership” statement is well known from later Late Classic Maya (A.D. 600–800) artists’ epithets in sculpture. They serve to clarify that the artist was attached to a specific, foreign lord but was making a work of art on behalf of that lord for someone else. That is, this sculptor was not from the water-scroll place but was commissioned by his patron-king to make this sculpture for the king of that locale. The inclusion of such an artist’s signature suggests the sculptor was particularly proud of this work; it is especially rare to find such statements on small-scale objects as opposed to monumental stelae, building lintels, and wall panels. The lack of explicit signature on the other figure, as well as subtle differences in quality (its carving is fine but inferior to the signed piece), may indicate that at least two artists were involved in the production of the original four sculptures of this group.

For teaching purposes, these two sculptures facilitate explanation of Maya religion, including the complexities of multifaceted deities and directional and color associations. Moreover, the hieroglyphs, especially those involving patronage, commission, and artist’s identity on the conch-figure, form an important early record of the burgeoning importance of named artists in Maya society, which will likely continue to garner scholarly attention.

Art of the ancient Americas spans the entire Western Hemisphere and 5,000 years of time. Selecting new works involves a complex combination of determining quality, building on strengths, and creating balance within the collection, as well as the availability of objects at any given time. Director James Steward has succinctly framed the Museum’s aims by asking curators to seek works of art that will have a “transformative” impact on our collections. These brilliant and unique Early Classic Maya sculptures meet and exceed the criteria we involve in considering acquisitions, and it may be no surprise that our acquisitions committee warmly welcomed them as new additions to the Art Museum.

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