The homelands of the ancient Maya spanned a vast region that today includes central and south Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. Maya peoples expressed their cultural practices and belief systems through distinct artistic styles and a hieroglyphic writing system. Over time, many pieces of pottery have been removed from ancient Maya sites without archaeological excavation. Even though knowledge of where vessels came from is lost, they can nevertheless offer many insights about Maya artistic production.
Drawing from The Fralin’s collection of Maya painted pottery made during the first millennium (250–900 CE), this exhibition highlights three approaches used by scholars today to understand and interpret these works. The two most established methods are epigraphy, meaning the study of the written texts painted on vessels, and the art historical analysis of visual characteristics such as shape, size, and composition of the imagery. The third approach—instrumental neutron activation analysis—is a more recent technique developed in the material sciences to determine the geographic locations of where the vessels were made. These three methods complement each other in restoring lost knowledge and help reveal the complex social networks within which Maya pottery was circulated.