Vase with Hunters and Waterbirds, 600–900 AD
Earthenware with slip
5 3/8 × 6 1/8 × 6 1/2 in. (13.7 × 15.6 × 16.5 cm)
Museum purchase funded by "One Great Night in November, 1989"
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Vase with Two Blowgunners and Waterbirds
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
This vase depicts an event from the Popol Vuh—the sacred book of the Quiché branch of the Maya—which was a popular subject during the Late Classic period (550-800). Dating to the 16th century, the version of the book that survives today is only a fragment of what was once a long mythic cycle akin to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
The Popol Vuh recounts the epic adventures of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. On this vase, the two are seen using their blowguns to hunt waterbirds in a swamp or river. The black spots that cover their bodies identify the boys as gods. Two moments from the same narrative are illustrated on the vase. The playful scene depicted first shows one twin shooting a stone pellet at an evil-looking bird with a fish in its beak. The pellet is in the form of a small glyph representing a stylized skull. In the image that follows, the pellet has struck its prey. A bird waiting nearby snatches up the released fish. The blowguns detailed here are much like those still made today in the highlands of Guatemala.
From the Popol Vuh
“Now we shall tell how the two youths shot their blowguns at Vucub-Caquix [a great monster bird] .... They lay in ambush at the foot of the tree, hidden among the leaves. Vucub-Caquix came straight to his meal of nantzes. Instantly he was injured by a discharge from [a] blowgun, which struck him squarely in the jaw, and screaming, he fell straight to earth from the treetop.”
As the decoration of Maya pottery became increasingly complex, the shapes of vessels became correspondingly simpler. Cylinder vases provided an uninterrupted surface on which to render the elaborate narrative scenes of the Late Classic period. The use of black line to provide fine detail—as on this vase—is characteristic of the best Maya painting. Potters often covered their vessels with white slip before embellishing them with linear black decoration, in what archaeologists call a Codex Style. However, the creator of this vessel used a red background and also added orange glyphs. This colorful combination is rare in Mayan pottery.
The Maya people inhabited the region that is now Guatemala in Central America, a mostly mountainous terrain with a narrow coastal plain. The climate is tropical—hot and humid in most areas, although cooler in the highlands.
Maya civilization inherited much of its culture and technology from the Olmec people who preceded it. Between 1200 and 900 B.C., the Olmec had created the first complex civilization in Mesoamerica. Like the Olmecs, the Maya became masters of mathematics, astronomy, and architecture. During the Late Classic period—when this vessel was made—Maya civilization was at the height of its splendor. The Maya people had refined their calendar and developed a written language that accurately recorded their history. The great Mayan ruins visited by archaeologists and tourists today are the remnants of cities built during this period.
Mysteriously, however, these cities were abandoned during the same era in which they were constructed. Archaeologists speculate that the mass relocation of the Maya may have been the result of climatic changes or food shortages. The Maya are believed to have retreated to the Guatemalan highlands, where their descendants still live.
- Take inventory of the scene. What characters are present? What is the action depicted?
- Identify with one of the characters you can see. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? Why are you doing what you are doing?
- How is the scene rendered? Take into account the shape of the lines, the types of decoration, and the different colors present on the vessel. What words would you use to describe the overall effect?
- Who is the protagonist in this scene? Who is the antagonist? Defend your answer.
- Read the story of the hunt from the Popol Vuh. Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Consider the context of the story and its cultural significance when answering.
- Do the visual cues for the protagonist and antagonist align with what you associate with good and evil?
- What is the advantage of telling a story on a vessel like this, rather than in another medium—in a book, through a painting, through conversation?
• Investigate Maya civilization, including achievements in art, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and literature.
• Research the Popol Vuh. What does this story tell you about the Maya people? What did they believe? What did they fear? Compare this story to myths and legends from other cultures, including your own.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.