November 12, 2005 Mary Ciaramella,  "Pottery Making in the Madrid Codex"

Columbia educated, retired librarian Mary Ciaramella was our speaker on November 12, 2005, describing pottery making as shown in several almanacs of the Madrid Codex. For the last 15 years, Mary has studied the Dresden and Madrid codices. In addition to her present work, she is currently studying the agricultural almanacs. Previously, she investigated weaving, bee-keeping and mask and idol making in the Codices. Mary's interpretation of pottery-making in the Madrid Codex came from epigraphic analysis as well as from comparisons with historical works and current Maya potting practices.  Mary also referred the audience to many available resources for further study, among them, the work of Gabrielle Vail on the codices, and Dorie Reents Budet and Justin Kerr on Maya ceramics.

 Mary began with a description of Maya pottery production: the desired clay, or "k'at", was dug from a particular clay source, or mine, by men.  It would then be soaked with temper (various hard minerals and ground, fired clay) to give it strength, and then formed into a well blended paste, also called "k'at". The potter first made a pinch pot, formed from a kneaded ball of the blended "k'at", on a flat wooden slab, and gradually added coils to this base until the vessel took on the desired shape and size.  The finished pot was then smoothed, coated with slip (liquid clay) and then further burnished with stones or other implements.  After drying slowly in the shade, the pot would have been fired with other pots, most likely in an open fire. Highly valued Maya potters could be either men or women, although the Madrid Codex depicts only male potters. The potter's wheel was unknown to the Maya until it was introduced by the Spanish; traditionally only men used the newly introduced wheel.

The Madrid Codex illustrates a variety of ceramic vessels: round bottomed ollas, with and without handles, some with feet and others with separate supports, as well as water bottles and incensarios.  Mary noticed, in her studies, that  vessels which contain food are decorated with a glyph that she identifies as "na", which may represent the Yucatec word "na'ah", meaning 'replete, or full of (food).'  Brian Stross and Justin Kerr feel that this glyph is a "u", probably referring to the moon, and alcoholic beverages. Mary disagrees, because the glyph depicted is curvilinear, which differs from the rectilinear form of "u" seen in the codices, and because it appears on vessels that contain food as well as beverages. She feels that "na'ah", or 'replete', would fit all applications of the glyph.

Mary then discussed specific almanacs in the Madrid Codex which show pots, often apparently being created by different gods. For example, Madrid 22G-23G depicts a god making a tripod pot which appears to be called a "man-made gourd for water". Other vessels appear to contain "tuxi", cottonseed, and "hina", seeds.  In Madrid 64B, two gods are shown stacking two vessels upside down above something else.  This strange arrangement actually depicts a method of ink creation: pots were placed above a smoky, smudgy fire, or oven, and the soot forming on the inside of the pot could be used to create ink. Mary closed with the information that the entire Madrid codex is on display, for observation or study, behind glass, in the Museo de America, in Madrid.

back to home page