Beautiful Ceramics of the Marajoara Culture

The mound-building peoples of the Marajoara culture on Marajó Island made some of the most beautiful pre-Columbian pottery known. The island, at the mouth of the Amazon River in what is now Brazil, was heavily populated until the century before the first Europeans arrived. From about 400 CE the island inhabitants “built mounds, raised fields, fish ponds, raised causeways and bridges over flooded land. They were also skilled craftsmen who produced a vast array of goods for local consumption and for trade.”

In Marajó: Ancient Ceramics from the Mouth of the Amazon, Margaret Young-Sanchez and Denise P. Schaan bring us the collection of the Denver Art Museum, supplemented with pots from the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Museu Barbier-Mueller d’Art Precolombí in Barcelona, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, and private collectors.

The pots astonish me.

There are jars, bowls, plates, tanga (delicate pubic covers!), stools and most magnificently, funerary urns and vessels. The peoples of Marajó practiced both primary and secondary internment, ultimately keeping the bones of their dead in large urns.

What makes the pots magical is the richly carved, and sometimes modeled all-over decoration. “The carved designs are dense and intricate, with scrolls and steps filling every centimeter of space. Among them are recognizable anatomical elements, like spiral tails, limbs terminating in hands or feet, lens-shaped bodies, disembodied eyes, and rectangular or triangular heads with curled whiskers or toothy mouths…[they] have a mesmerizing quality – the eye follows the meandering, spiraling, interlocking lines, searching for paths and struggling to recognize complete figures among the decorative space fillers.”  These are pots made by highly skilled and caring makers; potters who took considerable time to finish each piece. In addition to carving and modeling, they also painted designs with contrasting colored slips.

The pots are expertly fired. They are a deep, rich red. Some have fire clouds, which may or may not have been intentional, but they add to the beauty.

I would love to see the pots in person. Touch them. Feel the carvings. But even if one could travel to each of the museums that hold these pots, it would not be possible to see those held in private collections. The Denver Art Museum has given us a wonderful gift by gathering so much together in this slim, extensively illustrated and well-researched volume. I know I will read it again.

Note: Due to the heavy winds of Irene and many downed trees and wires, we were without electricity or landlines for much of last week. Also, Internet and cell phone service were sporadic. Hence, no posting. Thankfully, things are almost back to normal here now. I can read, and make pots, and write again. We will not talk about how the gardens look after the storm.

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