This sculpture comes from the House of the Governor, one of the largest buildings at the site of Uxmal, Mexico. Uxmal caught the attention of scholars and travelers alike with its exceptionally well-preserved standing architecture, covered with complex sculpted mosaics showing images of rulers, serpents, and other animate creatures.
The House of the Governor (Casa del Gobernador) received its name from a seventeenth-century Spanish visitor who named the Uxmal buildings after European counterparts; the Pyramid of the Magician, the Nunnery Quadrangle, and the House of the Pigeons are other nicknames. The sculpted block sent by Lespinasse to New York is carved in deep relief and shows an upside-down u-shaped element terminating in volutes on either side. Inside the negative space of the central shape rise three discs with indentations. Rising from the volutes on either side are two loop-like shapes, and below the center is trapezoidal protrusion flanked by deep arch-shaped voids. The main bulk of the stone behind the relief is long and tapered, similar to other sculptures intended to be inserted into walls as tenoned decoration.
The block formed part of a monumental mosaic "mask," an anthropomorphic portrait of a mountain deity, or witz in Mayan. Mountains were central to Lowland Maya cosmology; the ancient Maya actually viewed their pyramidal buildings as mountains from which water and sustenance emerged. Accordingly, the builders of ancient Maya temples and carvers of ancient Maya sculptures marked architecture and places with what is known as the witz monster. These fantastic creatures are often portrayed with enlarged snouts and gaping jaws which represented overhangs and watery caves beneath mountains. On stelae, kings and queens often stand atop witz monsters, signaling their powers to mediate between the realm of mountainous nature and the human world.
Rather than creating one giant sculptured portrait of the witz monster, which would have been difficult and structurally unsound, Maya architects often created a series of stacked portraits in the corners of buildings. This approach allowed visitors to such a building to behold multiple mountain faces from all directions, thus underscoring the sacred nature of the constructed temple. The style of stacking witz heads is especially prevalent in the late eighth and ninth centuries, from such distant city-states as Copan, Honduras, and Uxmal itself.
This fragment reportedly from the House of the Governor probably came from a collapsed witz monster portrait, such as the many documented in situ on the façades at Uxmal. The Stephens 1843 publication includes Catherwood's drawing of such an ornamented portrait. A rendering of the same portrait, described as "one of the masks of the frieze," included in Seler's 1917 publication on Uxmal contains more accurate representations of the proportions and details of each piece of the sculpture. The 1913 Spinden photograph of the unrestored façade and a close-up picture of the modern consolidated façade confirm that the Met's fragment was likely embedded as the eyebrow and pendant lid of a witz portrait.
Maya artists and sculptors at Uxmal mixed geometric designs reminiscent of woven textiles with conventionalized and naturalistic portraiture to transform a palace building within a mountainless landscape into a mythological mountainous location for courtly life and ritual. Doing so cast the kings and queens of Uxmal as providers, voices in the liminal space between the natural and the manmade.
Resources and Additional Reading
Barrera Rubio, Alfredo, and José Huchím Herrera. Architectural Restoration at Uxmal, 1986–1987. University of Pittsburgh Latin American Archaeology Reports No. 1. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Department of Anthropology, 1990.
Brasseur de Bourbourg, Charles-Étienne. "Rapport sur les ruines de Mayapan et d'Uxmal au Yucatán (Mexique)." Archives de la Commission Scientifique du Méxique, Vol. 2 (1865): 234–288. Paris: Imprimerie Impériale.
Catherwood, Frederick. Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán. London: Publisher, 1944.
Charnay, Joseph Désiré. Cités et Ruines Américaines. Paris: A. Morel, 1863.
Foncerrada de Molina, Marta. La escultura arquitectónica de Uxmal. Mexico: Imprenta Universitaria, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1965.
Holmes, William H. "Archaeological Studies among the Ancient Cities of Mexico, Publication 8." Anthropological Series, Vol. 1, No.1, Part I, "Monuments of Yucatán." Chicago: Field Museum, 1895.
Kowalski, Jeff K. House of the Governor: A Maya Palace at Uxmal, Yucatán, Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
Pillsbury, Joanne, ed. Past Presented: Archaeological Illustration and the Ancient Americas. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 2012.
Rhyne, Charles S. Architecture, Restoration, and Imaging of the Maya Cities of Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, and Labná, 2008. http://academic.reed.edu/uxmal/
Schele, Linda. Linda Schele Drawing Collection. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc, 2000. http://research.famsi.org/schele.html
Seler, Eduard. "Die Ruinen von Uxmal." Abhandlungen der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, Nr. 3. Berlin: Verlag der Königl. Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1917.
Sellen, Adam T., and Lynneth S. Lowe. "Las antiguas colecciones arqueológicas de Yucatán en el Museo Americano de Historia Natural." Estudios de Cultura Maya, No. 33 (2009): 53–71. http://www.scielo.org.mx/pdf/ecm/v33/v33a3.pdf
Spinden, Herbert J. "A Study of Maya Art, Its Subject Matter and Historical Development." Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. VI. Cambridge: Peabody Museum, 1913.
Stephens, John L. Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1843.
Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011.
Stuart, David, and Evon Z.Vogt. "Some Notes on Ritual Caves among the Ancient and Modern Maya." In the Maw of the Earth Monster: Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use, James E. Brady and Keith M. Prufer, eds. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.
Alphonse J. Lespinasse, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, until 1877
Spinden, Herbert J. A Study of Maya Art: Its subject matter and historical development. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1913.