Turkey Vessel


Not on view

This vessel portrays a male turkey in a vigorous pose—it is displaying to attract a female turkey’s attention and intimidate rivals. The bird’s head, wings, feet, and “beard”—a tuft of modified feathers at the chest—are sculpted onto its rotund body which forms the chamber of the vessel. The artist emphasizes realistic features of a male turkey courting a female for mating, such as an elongated snood (fleshy protuberance that dangles from the top of the beak) and an engorged wattle (flap along the neck). Coppery-red slip draws attention to its facial features as well as the wings, which are lowered as they would be in a strutting male. Blue slip, now degraded, once brightened the turkey’s neck: typical coloration for an excited male. The artist also burnished some of the pale orange clay to a high polish, perhaps to evoke the heightened iridescence of a male turkey’s plumage.

This kind of container is a “bridge-spout vessel.” It has two openings: a large central opening at the bird’s back, and a hollow tubular spout that forms the bird’s tail. A bridge of clay connects the rim of the central opening to the spout. Such vessels are also known as “chocolate pots” as they were likely used to prepare luxury drinks, including those containing cacao beans (see MMA 1999.484.3). A user may have blown into the spout to aerate the beverage’s surface into a pleasing, tasty foam. Chocolate pots have been found throughout ancient Mesoamerica in elite burial contexts.

This vessel’s elaborate zoomorphic representation, form, and elite associations suggest that it was used for rituals of cultural significance and was likely a grave good or interred in a ceremonial cache. Its sophisticated figuration is consistent with ceramics from Classic period Veracruz in Mexico’s Gulf Coast, a region with a number of diverse polities.

In ancient Veracruz and elsewhere in Mesoamerica, turkeys were not just nutritionally important resource animals—they were also esteemed by high-ranking people for ceremonial use. For example, scholars have interpreted images in the Dresden Codex, the oldest of the few Maya manuscripts that still exist, as depicting priests offering sacrificial turkeys to deities to ensure agricultural fertility. Archaeologists have also uncovered turkey bones throughout ancient Mesoamerica in ancient high-status burials and caches as well as in domestic contexts of both elites and commoners. Even today, turkeys are widely raised in backyards in rural Mexico, their esteem maintained in some areas through ritual activities and gift exchanges that echo practices of the past.

The vibrant subject of this vessel may have been chosen to enhance its ritual purposes. As a male turkey on the verge of mating, this humble-looking pot in fact suggests ideas of fecundity and renewal through seminal power.

Laura Allen, Bard Graduate Center, 2018

Works Cited and Further Reading

Houston, Stephen. 2017. “Forgetting Chocolate: Spouted Vessels, Coclé, and the Maya.” Maya Decipherment. September 24, 2017. https://decipherment.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/forgetting-chocolate-spouted-vessels-cocle-and-the-maya

Lapham, Heather A., Gary M. Feinman, and Linda M. Nicholas. 2016. “Turkey Husbandry and Use in Oaxaca, Mexico: A Contextual Study of Turkey Remains and SEM Analysis of Eggshell from the Mitla Fortress.” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 10: 534-546.

Manin, Aurelie, Eduardo Corona-M, Michelle Alexander, Abigail Craig, Erin Kennedy Thornton, Dongya Y. Yang, Michael Richards, and Camilla F. Speller. 2018. “Diversity of Management Strategies in Mesoamerican Turkeys: Archaeological, Isotopic and Genetic Evidence.” Royal Society Open Science 5, no. 1: 1–14; Supplementary Material 1.

McCullough, Jason. 2001. "Meleagris gallopavo.” Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 8, 2018. http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Meleagris_gallopavo/

Pohl, Mary and Lawrence H. Feldman. 1982. “The Traditional Role of Women and Animals in Lowland Maya Economy.” In Maya Subsistence: Studies in Memory of Dennis E. Puleston, edited by Kent V. Flannery. New York: Academic Press: 295–311.

Pohl, Mary. 1983. “Maya Ritual Faunas: Vertebrate Remains from Burials, Caches, Caves, and Cenotes in the Maya Lowlands.” In Civilization in the Ancient Americas: Essays in Honor of Gordon R. Willey, edited by Richard M. Leventhal and Alan L. Kolata, 55–103. Cambridge, Mass: University of New Mexico Press and Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Powis, Terry G., Fred Valdez, Jr., Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Stanley M. Tarka, Jr. 2002. "Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use Among the Preclassic Maya." Latin American Antiquity 13, no. 1 (March 2002): 85–106.

Schorger, Arlie William. 1966. The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Stark, Barbara L and Philip J. Arnold. “Introduction to the Archaeology of the Gulf Lowlands.” In Olmec to Aztec: Settlement Patterns in the Ancient Gulf Lowlands, edited by Barbara L. Stark and Phillip J Arnold III. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 3–32.

Thornton, Erin Kennedy, Kitty F. Emery, David W. Steadman, Camilla Speller, Ray Matheny, and Dongya Yang. 2012. "Earliest Mexican Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the Maya Region: Implications for Pre-Hispanic Animal Trade and the Timing of Turkey Domestication." PLoS One 7, no. 8: 1–7.

Turkey Vessel, Ceramic, slip, pigment, Veracruz

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