Bird Vessel, Ceramic, red ochre, Olmec

Bird Vessel

12th–9th century B.C.
Mexico, Mesoamerica
Ceramic, red ochre
H. 6 1/2 in. (16.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1986
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 358
Animal effigy vessels are among the most engaging objects known from Mesoamerica. Often the animal body forms the entire vessel, but at other times the creature is placed on top of an equally hollow, low cylinder that is marked, as here, with cloud or water motifs. The smooth, tapering surface of the bird's body emphasizes the crisp lines of the beak, breast, and wings, and the gloss of the blackware surface contrasts with the rough, matte finish of the base. Eagles and other birds of prey were powerful symbols in ancient America, where they marked the realm of the sky. This young raptor, beak open and tongue just visible, appears completely birdlike but has human ears. The combination of human and animal traits is common on vessels of this type, probably based on a shamanic ideology in which predators of the sky, water, and earth were seen as group emblems.
Marcel Ebnother, Sempach-Station, Switzerland, 1973–1986