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Guanacaste-Nicoya (Costa Rica)

Jaguar effigy jar

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Object Details

Culture

Guanacaste-Nicoya (Costa Rica)

Date

ca. 1200–1400

Medium

Earthenware

Dimensions

13 3/8 × 10 5/8 × 11 7/16 inches (34 × 27 × 29 cm)

Credit Line

Gift of Thomas Carroll, PhD 1951

Object
Number

2006.070.436

Jaguars, among the most powerful predators in the Americas, often serve as a symbol of authority. Th(…)

Jaguars, among the most powerful predators in the Americas, often serve as a symbol of authority. The style of this jaguar effigy vessel and its decoration, including diagonal lines with opposed scrolls (called ilhuitl in central Mexico), is a link to Mesoamerica. Jaguar imagery is a particularly prominent theme of the Pataky Polychrome style beginning around AD 800. The deep red and black paint set off against beige slip is particularly effective in this vessel, designed for drinks, probably cacao drinks or maize beer (chicha), served on special occasions. In 2006, the Johnson Museum received a spectacular gift of pre-Columbian ceramics, stone carvings, tools, and gold adornments through the generosity of Cornellian Thomas Carroll, PhD 1951. The Carroll collection spans nearly five thousand years of artistic tradition, with objects from forty different cultures found in ancient Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and Central America. (“Highlights from the Collection: 45 Years at the Johnson,” curated by Stephanie Wiles and presented at the Johnson Museum January 27–July 22, 2018)Several Latin and South American countries, including Costa Rica where this object originated, began regulating the trade in their cultural patrimony in the 1920s, well before the 1970 UNESCO Convention. In fact, the Convention was inspired by the earlier efforts of these countries to limit removal of their cultural resources. The Cornell alum who donated this vessel, which is symbolically significant for the jaguar shape and anthropologically important as it was probably used to serve beer or cacao (chocolate), worked extensively in Latin and South America in the 1950s–70s. He began collecting during this time, always with an acute awareness of the impact of this process and the laws that governed it. This jar was one of the last pre-Columbian objects he acquired, having purchased it at auction in the United States. (“This is no Less Curious: Journeys through the Collection” cocurated by Sonja Gandert, Alexandra Palmer, and Alana Ryder and presented at the Johnson Museum January 24 – April 12, 2015)BRIEF DESCRIPTIONThis Guanacaste-Nicoya ceramic jar has hollow legs containing clay balls, which make a rattling sound when the vessel is moved. The term “effigy” is used to refer to a sculpture or vessel made in the shape of a person or animal.WHERE WAS IT MADE?This vessel was made in what is now Costa Rica.HOW WAS IT MADE?The body of this vessel was likely made with coils. To begin making a coiled vessel, a base is made by shaping clay into a flat disc. Then hand formed coils of clay, like ropes, are successively added to one another, building up the walls of the vessel. A tool such as a wooden paddle is used to smooth the sides both inside and out, leaving no trace of the coils. The head, arms and legs were probably hand modeled and attached separately. Small balls of clay were placed inside the legs of the vessel, and slits were cut into the legs. Before the vessel was fired in an earthen pit, it was painted with red, tan and black slip. Unlike resin-based paints applied after firing, which wash off if scrubbed and burn off when heated, slip-painted decoration is relatively resistant to ordinary wear and tear. Slip paint is made by mixing different-colored clays or ground mineral pigments with water. Although some colors are naturally present in the clay, others can be made by adding powdered minerals to clay; for example, minerals high in iron produce rich oranges and reds, while those containing various forms of copper produce blues and greens. Once the slip had dried, the surface was burnished with a smooth object such as a rock or piece of bone.HOW WAS IT USED?This large, ornate Pataky Polychrome style (an archeological classification) vessel was probably used to serve alcoholic or cacao-derived beverages on special occasions or for ritual purposes. At least two types of drinks are known to have been made from the contents of the cacao pod. One was a fermented beverage made from the white pulp that surrounds the seeds, the other was a chocolate drink made from seeds that had been fermented, dried, ground, and then suspended in water.WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE THIS?The jaguar represents a sun-devouring Mesoamerican god; the smaller “silhouette-jaguars” on the arms, legs, tail/rear support, around the neck, and in the bands of upper decoration under the lip and circling the vessel shoulder may depict the stars revealed by approaching darkness.Notice the slits in the legs: the legs are hollow, and contain clay balls, which make a rattling sound when the vessel is moved.Feline imagery is seen in a wide range of pre-Columbian artifacts, including pottery, textiles, metalwork, and even in site planning (the archaeological ruins on the slopes of Mount Sangay, Ecuador, consist of tolas mounds arranged in the shape of a jaguar). Recognizable by a typically snarling face with prominent fangs, cat-like elements are often blended with human characteristics as well as features from other animals such as snakes and birds to form a variety of fantasy creatures, including “monsters” and “dragons.”Jaguars are the largest and strongest spotted cats in the Americas. Because jaguars are equally at home in trees and on land, they are seen as mediators between ground-dwelling humans and the divine; deities communicate to the world of mortal men through the jaguar. Shamans are closely associated with jaguar spirits and there are recurrent themes in pre-Columbian art of jaguars as procreators, sexual unions with jaguars, jaguar-men and jaguar clans.To compare this vessel to a Moche jaguar effigy jar in the Johnson Museum’s collection, search for object number 56.187 in the keyword search box.ABOUT THE GUANACASTE-NICOYA CULTURE:Social changes in Guanacaste-Nicoya during the period following AD 800 may be related to increased volcanic activity, which served to concentrate the human population in coastal areas as highland-dwellers fled the ash-covered interior. Reliance on marine foods, especially as sources of protein, increased considerably. At the same time, evidence of population movements into this area from farther north in Mesoamerica, perhaps due to social unrest following the collapse of the Classic Maya civilization and the fall of Teotihuacan, greatly altered the social landscape in Costa Rica. This is reflected in the art of the period from AD 800-1200, in which the production of polychrome wares increased substantially and in which stylistic variation increased notably.

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