Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/September 1896/The Potter's Art Among Native Americans
By ALICE D. LE PLONGEON.
OF all the arts at which man has labored, that of molding clay was probably the first, the most primitive. It has been practiced in all parts of the world, and the thousands of specimens yet existing are an aid to archæological studies, particularly when found intact and unblemished. It is never easy to decide on the age of any piece, as this is not necessarily indicated by its appearance, least of all in places where, as in Mexico and Peru, cunning artificers manufacture antiquities, making jars a few weeks old appear like the time-begrimed handiwork of their great—very great—grandfather or mother; for women have been and are active in that branch of industry. The Mandan women were clever potters. The Zuñi and the Maya women also do much of that work. A new-looking, well-preserved vase may be a rare antique, while a roughly finished primitive one may be modern or of comparatively recent date. There are scholars who claim that some of the Central American and Peruvian specimens are thousands of years old.
In several parts of America it was customary to place various receptacles in tombs, close by the human remains, some jars being usually filled with food and liquid. The pottery found on the Atlantic coast is poor and not abundant, but there is a great quantity in the western part of the United States, as well as in Mexico, Central America, and Peru. Colorado, Missouri, and Ohio are States which have yielded very large collections, varying from crude work to some that is admirable, a certain similarity existing in all. The Alaskan productions are considered of a better quality, in paste and in baking, than any other on the American continent. Some of the large Alaskan vases were coated with a grayish-white wash, and polished after the manner of Phoenician wares. They were decorated with bold devices in black and dark red.
The North Americans modeled their utensils by hand, without wheel, and none seem to have understood the art of glazing. They mixed their clay with pounded shells, with sand, or with pulverized siliceous rock; mica was also used. After being shaped, the clay was hardened in open fires or kilns. Among the many ornamentations, that imitating basket work was much used, and may have suggested itself because the modeling was sometimes done inside of baskets. Similar devices are common on ancient German pottery. The Greek ornament (EI) was very common in America, while Phoenician art is suggested by some of the life forms seen on the Peruvian and Chiriquian pottery. In the Peruvian most of the care bestowed on the decorations was given to the faces of the creatures represented, the rest of the body being fashioned without any apparent attempt to faithfully imitate Nature, Some pieces found in ancient tombs resemble Etrurian or Etruscan work of the same class. The potters did their best work on jars that were to be deposited in sepulchres. Articles for domestic service were of the simplest description. The materials used for the funereal vessels, called huacas and canopas, were light-colored clay and a blackish sort of earth mixed and worked in such a way as not Fig. 1. to absorb liquid. The secret of that method is lost to us. Some of the finest productions appear to have been submitted to the action of fire, but the majority have evidently been hardened only by the heat of the sun.
A long, slim neck is a distinguishing feature of much of the Peruvian pottery; and nearly every vessel is ornamented with a figure of some sort, having holes to represent eyes and other openings. These afford a
passage for the air forced out by the liquid when poured into the vessel. By an ingenious contrivance the air in escaping produces a sound similar to the cry of the creature represented. Thus a utensil decorated with two monkeys embracing each other, on having water poured into or from it, would give a sound like the screeching of those animals. One decorated with a bird would emit birdlike notes; while a mountain cat on one jar would mew, snakes coiled around another would hiss. The most curious that we have seen was the figure of an aged woman. When the jar was in use her sobs became audible, and tears trickled down her cheeks. The manufacturers seemed to have known all about atmospheric pressure. Dr. Le Plongeon had in his own collection a piece that demonstrated this. It represented a double-headed bird. The vessel had to be filled through a hole in the bottom, and yet in turning it over not a drop would spill, but the liquid would readily flow out when the jar was simply inclined. The Peruvians were good portraitists, and many of the faces represented might pass for likenesses of people now living on the coast. The potter of the present day uses a primitive contrivance,
something like two tables fastened together and revolving on an axis firmly fixed in the ground. The lower table serves as a treadle by which the workman imparts a rotary motion with his naked feet to the whole contrivance. On the upper table, the smaller of the two, is placed the moist clay which the potter shapes to his fancy.
The pots found in tombs are made of various kinds of clay—red, yellow, brown, bluish, and black. The latter is generally only modeled, the red being modeled and painted. None are glazed. Many of the Peruvian jars are double, quadruple, sextuple, even octuple. The pottery of the Antis is believed to be of Quichua (Peruvian) origin. It is coarsely made, painted and varnished. From the cannibal Conibos they obtain, through the Chontaquiros, more elegant ware.
The illustrations (Figs. 1, 2, and 3) represent pieces found by Dr. Le Plongeon on the coast of Peru, all belonging to a period prior to the Inca civilization; they are from six to ten inches high. The canopa, an upright bottle, in Fig. 3, is very suggestive, its name calling to mind the canopi, or funeral vases used by ancient Egyptians, though the word is of Maya origin, as Dr. Le Plongeon has fully explained in one of his books. Traveling south of Peru, we find that in Chile, near Santiago, the capital, there is a fragrant clay called buccari, of fine quality and light weight, its color being brown with yellow spots. The inmates of convents convert this into various utensils which they paint, gild, and varnish. It is said that water placed in them has an agreeable perfume and flavor. North of Peru, in Ecuador, near Quito the capital, a similar clay is found.
Chiriqui is an interesting field for students of the ceramic art. Politically Chiriqui is a part of South America, while geographically it belongs to the northern continent. It is between Veragua on the east and Costa Rica on the west. Pottery is most abundant in the lands around the bay of David, though found all along that part of the coast. The Chiriquian modeling shows more symmetry of form than any other on the continent. In graves, from three to twenty pieces are usually found. One explorer obtained ten thousand articles of clay from burial places covering an area of fifty square miles. The ware is uniform. The matrix is of fine clay tempered with pulverized sand. Grains of quartz, feldspar, hornblende, iron oxide, etc., can be detected. Argillaceous matter was sparingly used except in outer coatings, the
sand in many instances comprising at least seventy-five per cent of the mass.
Some of the work is similar to that in Costa Rica and the Colombian States. The Maypures of Colombia form cylinders of clay, and shape even the largest vases by hand, without any wheel. In Nicaragua, too, clay utensils are formed entirely by hand. After being baked some pieces were partially glazed, or varnisbed with a resinous gum, warmed over a bed of coals and gently rubbed over the vessels. The natives on the Amazon employed a similar method.
With clay the Chiriquians made a great variety of objects, including many shaped vessels, drums, whistles, rattles, stools, spindle whorls, needle cases, toys, and other small objects. The baking was effected with a low degree of temperature, and in a way that produced no discoloration. All the work was skillfully done and so neatly finished that the method by which it was accomplished can not be detected. The eye and the hand of the manipulator must have been exquisitely trained.
Complex pieces were made in parts that were cleverly put together, no portion being injured. The heads and other parts of animals, handles, legs, bases of vessels, were luted on with consummate skill, the thinnest walls and most complex delicate forms not being injured in the process. Before the surface wash was applied, the whole was carefully smoothed. After the application, and when the clay was somewhat indurated, smooth pebbles were used to polish the surface. This was sometimes done so thoroughly that the finish has been mistaken for glaze of a vitreous nature. Ornamental painting and intaglio devices were usually done after the polishing. The general colors of the paste were light yellow, gray, ochery yellow, and pale terra-cotta red. Dark brown, salmon, and orange hues are occasionally found. The paints used for decorating were reds, blacks, and purple grays. The red varied from a light vermilion to a deep maroon. The colors are indelible, and are believed to be of a mineral character.
Many jars were manufactured only to be placed with the dead. Tripods are supposed to have served for religious ceremonies as braziers. Most of the fine pieces were made expressly for religious or funeral purposes. The various forms were always symmetrical. Some jars had as many as four mouths.
Among the various ornamental devices are included fish, crabs, frogs, crocodiles, pumas, and monkeys, also a conventional serpent. Too much can not be said in praise of the beauty of outline of these vases, but in any case where the artist has attempted a human figure the result is a deplorable failure. There are a few double-headed vases and an approach to the modeling of jars in animal forms after the Peruvian style.
There are at least ten varieties of painted ware, apparently the work of different communities. Generally speaking, the vessels were not of large dimensions, some elaborately ornamented ones being only four inches high. Even cooking pots were what we should call decidedly small. It is evident that the Chiriquians were lovers of music, judging by the instruments fashioned from clay. It is hardly likely that the musicians confined themselves to that material in their production of sweet sounds. Terra-cotta drums, rattles, whistles, and flutes have been found. There are rattles shaped like the gourd, which vegetable product seems to have first served man as a rattle. The Mayas of Central America yet use it in certain religious dances. The handles of Chiriquian rattles were made as whistles. The bodies of drums were sometimes made of clay, though these specimens are rare. They were shaped somewhat like an egg-cup, the small part serving as base, the tissue or skin being stretched over the larger orifice.
The wind instruments are capable of yielding very sweet though not powerful or far-reaching tones. The note on any one stop is in some instances susceptible of change by varying the force of the breath, affording much scope to a skillful performer. With
the exception of the drums the clay instruments are not more than about eight inches long. The whistles were constructed on the same principle as the modern flageolet. They give eight or more notes, though not a true scale. The bird was quite appropriately a favorite shape for whistles, the finger holes or stops being in the breast. On them a practiced performer could imitate the song birds with some accuracy.
In Corozal Island on the east coast of Yucatan, there are vases with flaring rims supported on three short legs, like some of Chiriqui. Our illustrations of Chiriqui pottery are: 4. Vase with four handles—decorations in black, red, and purple. Ten inches high. This form is frequently found in Mexico and Central America. 5. Vase, eight inches high, with hollow base. Elaborate designs in red, white, black, and purple. Equal to Chinese or Egyptian work. 6. A tripod nine inches high. Similar ones have been found in Cozumel Island, having hollow legs, containing pellets. Notwithstanding the beauty and symmetry of their work, the Chiriquians seem to have lacked one faculty that the people farther north, in Honduras and the Yucatan peninsula, Fig. 6. had fully developed; for they failed to portray, even poorly, the human face, while the latter were clever portraitists.
In Honduras a wealth of pottery may be dug from the soil; but this must be done with care, otherwise the frail things will inevitably be broken, owing to their moist condition. When exposed to air and sunlight they become hardened and may be handled with less risk.
At Mugeres or Woman's Island (latitude 31° 18' north and longitude 86° 42' west, Greenwich meridian)—so called by the Spaniards because they found many statues of women there—an ancient shrine stands on a rocky promontory at the south end of the island. There the waves perpetually dash themselves as if in blind fury. Atom by atom the rocks must yield to the force of perpetual motion; then this old shrine of strong masonry will fall into the maw of Neptune. Long ago thousands of pilgrims used to bring to the spot votive offerings of all kinds. Fragments of pottery are scattered over the ground in front of the building. Delving in the sand, we brought to light a fine incense-burner. Unfortunately, a man, too anxious to help, thrust a spade in the sand and broke the object before we had time to say "Hold!"
Afterward, in one of the fragments, we kindled charcoal to varnish photographs which we had taken. From the heated pottery an exquisite odor was wafted on the air. Thus, once again, and probably for the last time, was the shrine perfumed with the sweet incense which had permeated the porous clay, and truly it was delicious enough to delight not only the most fastidious devotees but the most exacting divinities. The face which had ornamented the burner escaped injury, as did the feet from the lower part of the brazier. Able potters of these modern times have pronounced the face a very fine piece of modeling. It is now in the museum of the Antiquarian Society of Worcester, Mass. The woman represented did not belong to any of the races that followed the customs of deforming their skulls; but she had her front teeth filed in points, a fashion which was in vogue among some Americans as it is among the Fans of equatorial Africa. This may indicate that the individual depicted on the burner was a Maya. The Mayas never deformed their skulls, and some of them filed their teeth in just this way, as can be seen in the statue called Chaacmol, unearthed by Dr. Le Plongeon. A duplicate of the statue is in the museum at Washington.
About forty miles south of Mugeres Island, and ten from the east coast of Yucatan, is the abiding place of Spring, the lovely island of Cozumel, almost uninhabited now. When the Spaniards arrived there, three hundred and sixty-five years ago, it had a hundred thousand inhabitants, besides an annual concourse of fifty thousand pilgrims that worshiped at its temples. This "place of swallows" (cuzamil, hence Cozumel) is an interesting spot for the antiquary. In the dense forests there are curious old buildings, and round about them, beneath the surface of the ground, may be found many a specimen of the ceramic art. Illustration No. 7 shows a fine incense-burner from there, with scarcely a blemish, and similar to the one so unfortunately broken at Mugeres Island. Its ornamentation represents the goddess of the bees. Like the other, this forehead shows no artificial deformity. The clay was of fine quality and in color a rich red brown, while the broken burner was of a light yellowish clay found only on the mainland. After examining hundreds of specimens we Fig. 7. are inclined to believe that among those people individuals were given names suggested by some trait in their character or peculiarity of appearance, and that the artists ingeniously indicated such appellations in a headdress or other ornament. In some instances such headgear as this was used in battle.
Pottery from Palenque exhibits entirely different features. The two vases here given (Fig. 8) are in the Government House of Balize, British Honduras. Here we see the Palenque type, with artificially deformed forehead. The way in which the hair is curled and banged suggests a very rakish Bacchus, appropriate ornamentation Fig. 7.
for an antique punch bowl. The Honduranians seem to have been as ingenious as the Peruvians in their terra-cotta works. We have before us two jars which appear to be glazed in imitation of bronze. One is intended to represent an armadillo, the other a familiar domesticated hen that cackles melodiously when the water gushes from her open beak. This effect is produced by a small pebble cleverly placed in her throat.
Among figures of all shapes and sizes several had holes that did not enhance their appearance and were not in accordance with Nature. A dog, for instance, may be allowed a mouth and two eyes, but why an extra pair of orbs on each side of its small body? Simply that the impertinent-looking pup was a musical instrument, the six eyes corresponding to six sweet and clear flutelike tones—C, D, E, F, G, A. On these clay instruments the native melodies can be played, their compass not exceeding six notes.
In the deep sand at Progreso, port of Yucatan, objects of clay have frequently been found. One in our possession is interesting Fig. 8. because of what it represents. The double mouthpiece gives the notes C and D. Blue paint remains on the clay (blue was emblematic of sanctity), indicative of the veneration which was attributed to the creature, roughly suggested by the uplifted proboscis. The mastodon, whose visage is depicted everywhere on the walls of Yucatan's ancient cities, was taken by the Mayas as one symbol of the Creator. They made it their god of the ocean, life being first generated in water. Beneath the upturned proboscis there is a mutilated human face surrounded by a broad collar or necklace.
The persons who in ages gone by had used the little dog-flute and the double whistle just described were not unfamiliar with the seductive weed, for in applying our lips to them the flavor and odor of tobacco were quite unmistakable. The late General Bogran, when President of Honduras, personally found the clay pup and gave it to us, so that the tobacco was not imparted to it after its discovery.
In the National Museum of Mexico's capital are some ornamental vases, three feet high, which might perhaps justly be regarded as the culmination, the perfection of the ceramic art—they are so very handsome, fine and intricate in form and decoration. But to which of the Mexican tribes the work should be ascribed is a question. In the State of Oaxaca funeral urns have been found inscribed with Maya hieroglyphics which have been interpreted by Dr. Le Plongeon. Their meaning is "the extinguished," "the snuffed out"; a brief but unquestionable allusion to the deceased.
There is a fascination about antique pottery. In handling a funeral vase, for instance, one can not help indulging in a little imagination about the scenes which occurred when the object was placed in the tomb. Visions of queer figures and fantastic rites flit before our mind's eye till we shake off the waking dreams, breathing a vain wish that the clay might be endowed with the power to tell, not its own story, but of those events which transpired in connection with it.