Mayan Burial Urns

Of all the ancient cultures of the Americas the Mayan civilization holds some of the greatest fascination for current times. The  Mayans had an advanced culture, making intellectual advances in almost all cultural and technological fields including the visual arts, architecture, mathematics, astronomy and calendar science.


Mayan culture was based in what are now present day Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Northern Honduras and Northern El Salvador. Rather than being a unified empire the Mayans were a collection of powerful city-states with a history of intrigue, shifting alliances and vicious warfare. Their art was inspired by a rich and extensive mythology and exposure through trade. The ceramics arts were one of the most advanced and prolific of any culture in the world.

Mayan ceramic arts are characterized by a tremendous variety of styles and designs. These variations show the valuation that Mayan culture placed on artistic quality and individual genius. This is obvious in the plethora of surviving funeral urns found in museums across the planet. The Museo Popal Vuh has the largest collection in the world with over 100. 

There are common iconographic themes that repeat in different styles on these urns. Three of the most common are faces or masks of deities, felines, and skulls. Some of these urns were for burial and others for containing the ashes after cremation. The burial urns are large two part lidded urns with decorative figures on their lids. These were large enough to contain the body of the deceased along with burial goods to be used in the after-life. Cinerary urns are of similar design but smaller. The extravagance of either of these types of urns depended on the status of the individual it housed.




The official web site of Museo Popol Vuh:


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Etruscan Funerary Ceramics

The Etruscans had a long history in central Italy rich in the arts. Their origins are lost in prehistory but this civilization endured from the time of the earliest Etruscan inscriptions (ca. 700 BC) until its assimilation into the Roman Rebublic  in the 1st century BC. They built powerful city states with paved streets, sewers, exquisite palaces and public buildings. They were prolific sea traders amassing abundant wealth and bringing experiences of other cultures to enhance their own. Etruscan culture in turn strongly influenced the arts and culture of the Roman Empire including architectural styles, religious practices, water and drainage systems, and the toga. 

Some of the most amazing works remaining are funerary. The Etruscans had a built cities for their dead with striking rock cut tombs. These tombs reflected the art, architecture and culture of Etruria. The walls of many of these tombs were covered with colorful frescoes celebrating nature and the good life. Some show cheerful scenes of banquets, games and musicians others show scenes of nature and ritual.

                                                                                                                                                                                                 Tomb of the Leopards, Tarquinia

Etruscan cremation urns and coffins were often made of ceramic. Their potters were masters of earthenware or terra cotta clay. Some of the full size coffins constructed of earthen ware are incredable  works. One of the most well known is the Sarcophagus of the Spouses.  There are a vast variety of these.



Terracotta Sarcophagus from Tomb at Cerveteri ht:100cm. ca.530 BC. Cerveteri, Etruria, Italy.

Group of Terracotta Sarcophagi

Cinerary Urns were fashioned in many different styles over time. Some are gorgeous lidded vessels with slip painting and additions of small maodels of votive vessels. A form that is echoed in other world cultures through time is a figurative vessel with a "portrait" of the deceased. Another is a small sarcophagus form that had many permutations over time, some are very smiple and othere extremely ornate.



There is a virtual wealth of information online to peruse. Google Etruscan Ceramics and go from there. The history of ceramics never ceases to amaze. Check out these sites for starters: and/or

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Raku: A Brief History

 Black Raku tea bowl named “Omokage” by the first Raku master Chojiro ( _ – 1589)

Raku as we know it today in America is very different from the Raku of it's origins in Japan. The process shares some basic similarities  but there are some radical changes as well. The making of Raku ware began in the Momoyama period (1573-1615) by the potter Sasaki Chojiro and was introduced to the West by the English Potter Bernard Leach in the 1950's.

There are no written records from the time but the story goes that the origin of the process can be traced to an immigrant tile maker who married a Japanese woman and lived in Kyoto. This potter was employed in making tiles for the construction of a lavish palace, the Jurakudai,  being built in Kyoto by the leading shogun of the time Toyotomi Hideyoshi(1537-1598). While firing the tiles the potter discovered that the red hot tiles could be removed from the kiln without breaking. His son, also a potter, experimented with this new firing technique. As fate would have it, the Japanese tea master Sen-No-Rikyu (1522-1591) was also involved the the construction of the Jurakudai and had Chojiro produce tea bowls in this new style. The immediacy of the firing process and the humble origins of the clay used appealed to the sensibilities of the Wabi-Sabi philosophy of wisdom in natural simplicity practiced by Sen-No-Rikyu. The term Raku is derived from Ju-raku-dai and translates as "enjoyment", "ease" or "pleasure"..


 Screen Painting of the Jurakudai Palace Japan late 16th Century

Due to the immediacy of their production the tea bowls of Chojiro were initially called ima-yaki or "now wares". They were renamed juraku-kal after the shogun Hideyoshi presented Chojiro's family with a golden seal bearing the Chinese character for Raku. Raku then became the family name, synonymous with the ceramics they have continued to produce to this day.

Black Raku tea bowl named “Shûgiku” ( 2000) by Raku Kichizaemon XV (1949 – ).

A source for information and stunning photos of Raku wares produced by the Raku family and proteges.

The Raku Museum

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Ancient Urns from the Amazon

South America has an incredibly rich ceramic history. The number of cultures with distinct ceramic traditions over the last several millinia is truly staggering: Chavin, Moche, Tiwanaku, Huari, Inca, Teotihuacan, just to name a few. Since ceramics were an integral part of the lives of these peoples it is no surprise that there is a wealth of funerary works. In this post Marajoara Ceramic Arts will be the topic.


Plate and Funerary Urn, Marajó Culture, Marajó Island, Brazil; A.D. 400–1300. Earthenware with colored slips. Denver Art Museum; Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer.

The island of Marajo lies at the mouths of the Amazon and Tocantins Rivers in Brazil. It is the largest river island in the world, slightly larger than Switzerland. The inhabitants of this island developed what is considered to be the oldest ceramic art in Brazil and one of the oldest in the Americas. There are a number of distinct traditions over time based on the type of decoration used. The original inhabitants of the island were the Ananatubas, the oldest potters, dating from the 1st millennium B.C.. Several distinct ceramic traditions followed but a great change happened in what is known as the Marajoara polychrome phase, existing from about 400 to 1350 A.D.. These ceramics have color and a richness and diversity in technique and decoration not previously seen. About 15 finishing techniques were used. These combined carving, sculptural detail, washes of red and white, excision, incision and polychrome painting using red, white, brown and black.

The area of the island that was inhabited by this thriving culture is on a floodplain and underwater about half of the year.So the Marajo people constructed huge mounds to support their architecture and ceremonial spaces. In response to this periodic submersion a unique funerary tradition evolved. The dead were initially buried and then after a given period of time the bonedisinterred. Their cleaned bones were painted red and placed in a funerary urn. Marajoari urns are globular with wide mouths. The surfaces have intricate incised geometric decoration painted in white, red, and ochre.  The size of the urn was related to the age, gender and social status of the person. The designs on the urns consist of decorative and symmetric patterns, labyrinthine designs and stylized images of humans and animals.


Until fairly recently not much was known about the people and pottery of Marajo. Much of what is known comes from the research of Betty Meggers and Clifford Evans in the 1940s-60s. In my research I found information on a symposium that will be held in September 2011 at the Denver Art Museum in conjunction with the current exhibit:  Marajo: Ancient Ceramics at the Mouth of the Amazon. Check out their website for more information

Pam Sinclair-Nixon

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Prehistoric Chinese Ceramics

Asian ceramic traditions are vast and complex, extending far back in time. Geographically the Asian continent itself is broken down into six major areas and each of these areas include many different ceramic traditions. The area of East Asia is home to some of the oldest and most famous ceramic histories. Among these are the ceramic traditions of Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and China.

Ceramics have been one of the major art forms throughout China's long and illustrious history.  Shards from fired pottery have been found in central China that date back over 15.000 years, making Chinese ceramic history one of the longest unbroken traditions on earth.


Even in prehistoric times different styles of making and decorating ceramics were developed for ceremonies and rituals. There are three recognized styles of prehistoric Chinese pottery named after the villages where they were found; Yang-shao Ware, Kansu Ware and Lung-shan Ware.

Small slip decorated bowl, Honan, Yang-shao Culture 5-4th mill. Yang-shao Ware, ca 5th-2nd Mill BC, The Yangshao culture existed extensively along the Yellow River. Yang-shao artisans created fine white, red, and black painted pottery with human facial, animal, and geometric designs. All of their pottery was hand-built using the coiling technique.


Kansu Ware, ca 3rd-2nd mill. BC., includes funerary urns that are among the finest examples of elaborately slip painted Yang-shao ware.



Lung-shan Ware, the ceramics here are expertly wheel thrown with smooth fine black finish. The Lung-Shan culture of Neolithic China, ca 3rd-2nd mill BC., is known for its burnished black pottery, some of it eggshell thin, as distinct from painted pottery. The Lung-Shan culture was on the central and lower Yellow River on the plains in eastern China. A large variety of  earthenware forms were made on the potter's wheel which appears in China here for the first time.

These ancient cultures had established traditions for making both functional vessels for daily use and vessels to be used for ceremonial purposes. The clays and surface treatment for the ceremonial vessels shows a much greater attention to detail and to the quality of the materials used. These remain some of the most beautiful pots in the world.

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An Introduction to the History of Ceramic Cremation Urns

Ceramics has a vast and ancient history. Throughout much of that history people have been creating vessels and other works to use for funeral ceremonies. Many of these vessels were used to hold the remains after cremation, others were used for funeral rites and rituals or to memorialize the departed. This history extends over 10,000 years and includes most of the worlds civilizations. A variety of clays occur naturally over much of the earth and it is an abundantly common material. Because of clay’s amazing capability to be shaped and fired to stone-like hardness ceramic technology arose independently in various places and times in human history. It is perhaps the oldest technology of humanity, and ancient a revered skill.

Some of the most beautiful ceramics in the world are the ancient funerary vessels remaining from different cultures. One of the greatest Western civilizations to create a well developed ceramic technology was the Greco-Roman culture. The ancient Greek culture had a long tradition of cremation that carried over into the Roman Empire and spread over much of the ancient western world. Over time the ceramics used for funeral rites took on many different forms.

Villanovan Cinerary Urn Italy ca 900-700 BC

Etruscan burial urn Italy ca. 150 BC

Protoattic loutrophoros, ca. 680 BC. Found in Athens.

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