Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Stamp, Birds

14th–early 16th century
Mexico, Mesoamerica
Overall: 1 9/16 x 2 1/16 in. (3.99 x 5.16 cm)
Other: 1 9/16 in. (3.99 cm)
Credit Line:
Museum Purchase, 1900
Accession Number:
Not on view
This ceramic stamp features a schematic depiction of a bird with outstretched wings and tail. A thin coiling line defines its teardrop-shaped torso, while its extremities have been reduced to series of parallel lines. The open maw forms a dynamic counterpoint to the static symmetry of the body and suggests that this is a bird of prey shown in striking position. Ancient Mesoamericans generally revered raptors for their hunting abilities, often likening them to warriors and the sun in both their resplendence and occasional hostility.

Ceramic stamps were made in Central Mexico from the Early Formative period (ca. 1800–1200 B.C.) and continued into the early sixteenth century. It is assumed that the earliest examples of such objects functioned much as they did among the Aztecs three millennia later: as ornamental devices used to decorate clothing, ceramic vessels, and even the body. They typically feature abstract geometric designs or stylized animal imagery, often in repeating patterns. Commonly found interred with human remains, these stamps were apparently valued as highly in death as they were in life.

On a metaphorical level, the inclusion of stamps with the dead may refer to ideas of ephemerality as expressed in Aztec poetry. After all, in their narrow capacity as objects of embellishment, stamps are solely used to adorn surfaces that are diaphanous (e.g., cloth), breakable (e.g., ceramic), and otherwise perishable. Therefore, by decorating their own skins with these same stamps, the Aztecs conceptually aligned (or equated) the human form with the fragility of fabric and clay. Regardless, these objects were fundamentally very personal possessions that were associated closely with the body, both living and dead.

William T. Gassaway, 2014-15 Sylvan C. Coleman and Pamela Coleman Fellow
Louis Petich Collection, New York, before 1893–1900, on loan to Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1894–1900

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