All the Small Things

Stephen Houston

For the small people in my life, and for those soon to arrive

In his study of the sublime, Edmund Burke observed that, “[i]n the animal creation, out of our own species, it is the small we are inclined to be fond of; little birds, and some of the smaller kinds of beasts (Burke 1757:97). These creatures are beautiful; they inspire affection and pleasure. Then there are the things that are gigantic, uncontrolled, unbalanced, even monstrous. Marked by excess, they trigger awe, fear or distaste: “[a] great beautiful thing, is a manner of expression scarcely ever used; but that of a great ugly thing, is very common” (Burke 1757:97). Smallness pleases, largeness overwhelms. A feeling of vulnerability besets the viewer of that “great ugly thing” disliked by Burke (Mack 2007:54). For him, beauty and delight came in petite guise.

Among the Classic Maya, life-sized images were reserved for stone or perhaps wood, a material mastered by Maya sculptors but now largely gone because of tropical decay (Doyle and Houston 2014, 2016). The only clay effigy of comparable size dates later. A foot survives from a Postclassic statue found in 1921 at Mound I, Tayasal, Guatemala. Clearly of unusual size, it might once have sat in a temple. [1] For their part, stone carvings drew close to—or even exceeded—”one-to-one-ism,” a mimetic approximation of an actual human frame (Houston 2019; see below).

Yet the Maya made many small things. Abundant at some sites, scarce at others, “figurines” are described by a diminutive, very much a reduced version of what they depict (Halperin 2014:37–43). This is no less true of so-called “miniature” vessels or containers (Figure 1). [2] Varied in form and surface treatment, they tend to have restricted openings, if with slightly everted lips around the rim. Stoppers of perishable material held the contents in place. Whether the vessels were small so as to enhance portability, house a valuable substance, or made for some other reason remains the issue here.

Figure 1. Miniature ceramics, Magdalena, Guatemala, note ko-lo ch’o-ko on ‘a’ , to upper left (A. L. Smith and Kidder 1943:fig. 52).

Smallness has many motivations. The diminutive implies an innate comparison with the human body, “the gold standard in the realm of measurement” (Mack 2007:53; see also Hamilton 2018:28). The object being seen or held is related visually and experientially to the person doing the beholding. That gamut of size can run, in two whimsical examples, from the smallest Hebrew Bible, on a 0.5 mm2 chip, easily blown off a finger tip by a puff of air (Jaffe-Katz 2009), to, somewhere out on the Plains, a ball of twine so large it would flatten any fool trying to lift it—competition heats up over where that ball might be (Hwang 2014). The small, regardless of time or place, is also right for small people. Conceptually, the small-scale is to full-scale as a child is to an adult. For practical reasons too: in little hands, a doll is easier to grasp than a baby, the consequences less dire if dropped. There is playful imitation, a rehearsal for later roles. Caring for a doll or using a small tool helps to prepare for the local norms of adult work (Mack 2006:139–157).

The hand-held nurtures a feeling of intimacy. Holding an object pleases the viewer, a point made long ago by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966:23–24). Large and “formidable” things put the viewer at a disadvantage; a mental image can only be pieced together after multiple views, one angle at a time. But more than pleasing, small objects lend themselves to eroticism. In 18th and 19th-century Anglo-America, miniaturists painted on ivory a lover’s eye with arched eyebrow or a full-lipped mouth. The images went into a locket or a slim tablet the size of a wallet. Private, kept close to the heart, they were at once a recollection of past contact and a promise of future raptures. And, contrary to Lévi-Strauss, they were small yet partial. The task of imagining the whole was less an unpleasant or onerous effort than the main point of such reverie.

Sometimes the painter was the lover. In 1828, Sarah Goodridge, a celebrated miniaturist, depicted her breasts for the statesman Daniel Webster (Figure 2; Barratt and Zabar 2010:125, fig. 12, #256). The painting highlighted, among other attributes, a single mole at the midline. It is a visual billet-doux, and the recipient must have known of this blemish. But the painting also idealized Goodridge’s body. She was nearly 40 years old, and these were the breasts of a younger woman. Perhaps the reception was not what Goodridge hoped for. Recently widowed, Webster soon married another.

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Figure 2. “Beauty Revealed,” by Sarah Goodridge, 1828, 6.7 x 8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.235.74, CC0 1.0.

In such images, the meanings are non-general, the recipients targeted. This is where tactility comes into its own, in that the effects occur at close distance. The hand can and should hold them (Goldring 2019:2). Smallness also draws attention to the finely made, to a surfeit of detail, to precious material whose minute working asks for a second or third look. An opulent housing may attract the attention of others, and a private statement becomes (nearly) public by its glittering package (Goldring 2019:2). The Phoenix Jewel, designed by Nicholas Hilliard for Queen Elizabeth I of England, astonishes because of its flamboyance and, as a big part of its allure, the fine chasing and enameling, the summit of craftsmanship in this period (Goldring 2019:114–115). [3] Objects like this condense time, so great was the care that went into them. The viewer understands and enjoys that investment. And in what must be a cross-cultural impulse, exquisite things invite repeated visits. Minoan seals astound by their microscopic excellence, surely the focus of the makers and owners who handled them, and a revelation to those lucky enough to visit the Heraklion Museum in Crete (Weingarten 2012). Much later, Lorenzo the Magnificent spent hours scrutinizing his collection of gems and stone vases (Dunkelman 2010; Hellenstein 2013), and some of the largest collections of Russian Fabergé exist in the collections of the British royal family, who exchanged these bibelots as gifts ( If there is such a thing as court culture, the small but sensational played an important role within it.

But the emotions are not always about pleasure. Writing of “tiny stone animals” in the Andes, Catherine Allen discerns “love, awe, reverence, gratitude, and, yes, anxiety and fear” (Allen 2016:416). The last two arise because the pebbles or carved rocks are, in a sense, persons with their own powers, or they relate to grand forces brought, as small sized objects, into the household (Allen 2016:419; see also Mack 2006:162–181). Smallness can be potent and microcosmic, relating to landforms and overall structures of the universe (Dehouve 2016:507–512). In the Andes, for example, families prosper by collecting and shaping stones imbued with the spirits of mountains (Allen 2016:418, 429). Yet with that use comes risk. A power strong enough to assist can slip out of control, and a blessing becomes a peril.

In sum, small things give pleasure by being hand-held, appreciated at one glance (if part of an imaginative process that ripples wider), and exemplary in skill and artful use of precious materials. These features make them precious, coveted, collectable, hoardable. As toys for children, they are literally playful. But by scale, by being smaller versions of much larger things—and inherently non-normative—they inspire a certain awe. What they represent lends some essence of the original to its copy. In some cases, they house spirits that make even the small seem powerful. And, above all, the small inspires a response, along with a range of wishes, emotions, and creative results (Stewart 1993).

Size is an absolute, characterized loosely or by precise measurement. Scale is inherently about comparison, a suggestion made by Andrew Hamilton (2018:27) in his invaluable study of Inca scale, size, and proportion. For him, scale can be loosely descriptive (“tiny, small, large, gigantic”), but has to be in relation to something else. Some are: (1) “reduced,” being smaller than their presumed original (a llama, house model, terraced fields with huaca, water courses, and puma, a textile with Inka checkerboard); (2) “enlarged,” being larger than their natural inspiration (an Aztec grasshopper or chapulín some 47 cm long); or (3) “commensurate,” being the same size as an original (Hamilton 2018:31, 244, pl. 70)—in other words, examples of “one-to-one-ism” (see above). There are, in some instances, ritual or spiritual implications to the relations thus established. A “co-activity” occurred in which “humans coordinate[d] their activities with nonhuman agents” (Pitrou 2016:479). This insight does need detail, however. The size and scale of a llama in gold or silver, or a grasshopper of lustrous stone but monstrous proportions, are not simply aesthetic in origin. They are not made just because they could be made. There were reasons and meanings behind them, a panoply of manufactures and uses, patrons and makers, an intended placement, either concealed or in view, along with names, identities, essences.

Maya data are deeply concerned with smallness. There are contemporary texts, rich resources from Mayan languages, and many relevant objects. The Ch’olan languages have the following: Ch’olti’, the language closest to may Classic-period inscriptions, has com (kom), as in com aic, “small thing,” com uinic, “small man,” coman, “idol,” comcom, “a little pot with a neck,” se-se, “small,” and tzitic tzitic (tz’itik?), “very small” (Ringle n.d.). Or, in Ch’orti’, there are b’ik’it, “small, little,” chuchu’, “small, little, young,” or the negation ma noj, “not big” (Hull 2016:70, 108, 144, 265); Ch’ol provides b’ik’it, “small,” ch’ok, “young, small, and tz’ita’, “a little bit” (Hopkins et al. 2010:22, 53, 249). More distantly related languages offer: Colonial Tzotzil bik’it, “little, narrow, thin, humble,” ch’am, “little, small, trifling,” or machal, “modest, even phlegmatic” (Laughlin 1988:166, 196, 253), or present-day Tzoztil ‘unen, “small, young, unripe, new (moon), leaf, rising (sun)” (Laughlin 1975:74). Tzeltal records bik’it, “pequeño, chico,” ch’in, “pequeño, chico,” ch’ujch’, “pequeño, menudo, diminuto,” pek’el, “bajo, pequeño,” tut/tutu’, “pequeño, chico (Polian 2017:156, 225, 234, 491, 577). Yukatek, lush with words, yields chan, chan chan, kom, ma’ noh, ts’e, and so on (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:83, 84, 334, 498, 880).

What is clear from this incomplete list is that: (1) the terms can apply to things, humans, and idols alike; (2) they can negate by overt comparison with their opposite (ma’ noh, “not large”); (3) words can intensify by means of reduplication (se-se [tz’e-tz’e?], tzitik tzitik [tz’itik tz’itik?], chuchu, tutu’, chan chan); (4) cognates exist across several languages (bik’it, chuchu’/ch’uhch’); and (5) bio-metaphors exist, or an expansive reference from one thing, a small or young being, to a new moon or rising sun, and vegetal growth that is small, and likened reciprocally to a child (ch’ok). Diminutives themselves have, in some Mesoamerican languages, a self-deprecatory quality, sometimes combined with honorifics (Romero 2014:69). They might also affirm a mode of polite, careful address (Brown 1993). Tzotzil projects the use of diminutives as part of story-telling or entreaty (Laughlin 1975:17–19). Tenderness and delicacy are there, but also an almost humble (even wheedling) tone if to a social superior or a supernatural. That Latin American Spanish makes pronounced use of diminutives raises the possibility of indigenous influence on such usage (Eddington 2017; Walsh 1944).

From the Classic period, an inventory of reduced-scale objects would include (Figure 3): a temple (wayib) for a dynastic god at Copan, Honduras (Fash 2011:160, fig. 184); a micro-stela from Tikal, Guatemala (Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:fig. 218, gg); another said to be from Uaymil, Campeche (photograph from John Bourne; Zender and Reents-Budet 2012:103–102, #83); and a city precinct of limestone, also from Tikal, with small holes that may represent chultunes or storage cavities (Laporte and Fialko 1995:fig. 74; n.b: this model, not a maquette for builders, shows a degree of architectural compaction that would be impossible in Maya cities; it does not correspond to any known sector of Tikal). These are consistently smaller, both absolutely and at reduced scale, in comparison to their inspirations. The micro-stelae do not have the long, deep bases of actual monuments—without such “espigas,” real stelae would list by imbalance or soil creep or topple with gusts of hard wind. The Copan temple model, a dwelling for a deity, is set apart by its smallness. By its marked, notable reduction in scale, it offers a hint of “co-activity” with the humans living nearby. Although crudely executed, a miniature stela said to be from Uaymil, Campeche, appears to bear the name of its carver. Evidently, despite its regrettable opacity, the stela was valued. A closer reading of its text could tell us much about the meaning of smallness among the Classic Maya.

Figure 3. Reduced scale among the Late Classic Maya: House “model” for god, Copan, Group 10L-2 (photograph by Barbara Fash, Fash 2011:160, fig. 184); miniature stela, Tikal, Op. 20D–72/43 (7.5 cm high, Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:fig. 218, gg); Uaymil, Campeche Mexico (56.5 x 12.8 x 9.7 cm, photograph from John Bourne, TL 2009.20.196); Tikal “maquette,” Structure 5C-54 (Laporte and Fialko 1995:fig. 74).

Scalar inventions are in some ways the basis of Maya writing. The glyphs are, in a word, “calibrated.” They are images adjusted to a glyphic domain where variant scale cannot be accommodated within a single band of writing (Andréas Stauder, personal communication, 2019). The glyphs for a pyramid platform, a frontal stairway leading to its summit, and a stone-pedestaled altar on the Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway are nowhere near their relative scale—they have passed through a graphic process that makes them equivalent in size (Figure 4). Such calibration is necessary to all hieroglyphic systems. They must obey linearity, a language-based sequencing, but be framed within an area set off as writing. They are “reduced” but clarified further by a second adjustment in which relative size no longer mattered. Each glyph was probably central to Maya concepts of civic settlement. These were the places where ritual duties were performed. In what seems a necessary duality, platformed buildings existed with open-air altars used for sacrifice, sometimes of humans (see Caracol Altars 22 and 23; Grube 2020:fig. 13). To judge from glyphic reading order, the platforms took rhetorical precedence over the altars.

Figure 4. Stepped platform of two levels and pedestaled altar, Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway, Honduras, upper portion (Gordon 1902:pl XII, H).

Reduced scale ceramics are found on Maya sites, if not in great number. But they do appeal to collectors, as in the large troves in the Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress (Dunkelman 2007:11, 12, 13, 42, most descriptions by John B. Carlson) and a set of unprovenanced examples in the Museo de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala, most in its storerooms. Simply put, they are highly collectable. They are a discrete category of small size and, on a piece-by-piece basis, modestly priced on the art market. Their use and formal composition show evidence of variety and playfulness. Not at few at Uaxactun, Guatemala, display what might be called “componential inventions.” In trompe l’oeil fashion, they appear to fuse two distinct shapes, an open bowl with a water jug. They are small yet, even at that size, playing with much bigger forms.

Figure 5. Componential inventions, “bowls” with inserted “tinaja,” Tzakol or Early Classic miniatures, Uaxactun, Guatemala (R. Smith 1955:66, A10, 11).

The metaphors in such miniatures vary greatly. They can be versions of trophy heads or skulls, one at the Library of Congress with pummeled, swollen eyes and lips (Figure 6a; for larger examples, see Chase and Chase 2018:fig. 75; Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.46, likely modeled as a deceased captive). A piece from the Aguateca palace complex appears to show a figure in which the miniature becomes its satchel held by tumpline (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.28f); another exhibits a small bug, probably a firefly, on a small vase (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.27g). Others are skeuomorphs—cross-media transfers—from perishable to non-perishable materials, as in a gourd-shaped miniature from Uaxactun or flat, canteen-like flasks that might have reflected leather or wooden originals (Figure 6b; cf. flat, horizontally elongated flasks in Eppich 2011, a shape well-suited to figural scenes), or the small houses common in square shapes, sloping roofs with fringed thatch or leaves (Figure 6c). Churned out in large number, these last exemplify the mold-made productions that heightened access to hieroglyphic texts and high-style images (Card and Zender 2016; Matsumoto 2018, 2019). Curiously, many seem to have been produced in the area of Copan, the Motagua River Basin, but with eventual find spots in areas that had little evident literacy in glyphs: readable texts that were unread if admired. What is worth noting too is that many miniatures have counterparts in larger pots, but not all do, especially the “flat” or “canteen-like” flasks. For unclear reasons, the imagery is largely decoupled from the probable function of the miniatures, one of the few exceptions being a flask with a tobacco plant (e.g., Houston et a. 2006:fig. 3.9b).

The wit here is notable, a skull like a receptacle, a “house” that stored limited contents, a gourd that did the same. They resemble, and are likened to, things they are not, but with a looser semblance of function. That marking of special shape and small holdings—tobacco is one likely content (Houston et al. 2006:114–116, figs. 3.9–3.10; see also Loughmiller-Cardinal and Zagorevski 2016)—may explain their inclusion in special deposits or caches at Caracol, Belize (e.g., Chase and Chase 2018:fig. 72a), and Tikal (Problematic Deposits 116, 169, Culbert 1993:figs. 114b, 148g, 155b), or in the Barranca Escondida chasm at Aguateca, Guatemala (Inomata et al. 2010:fig. 8.59). These are variant sizes in symbolically marked spaces. The presence of copal or resin in some such miniatures hints at other sacred offerings to be combusted by fire (R. Smith 1955:figs. 9k, 12n).

Figure 6. Miniatures and metaphors: (a) swollen, bleeding head, perhaps with eyes removed (Kislak Collection, Library of Congress); (b) a “gourd” (A. L. Smith and Kidder 1943:fig. 52d); (c) “house” with God D, quetzal bird, and dwarf, Tazumal, El Salvador (Card and Zender 2016:fig. 4); and a “house” flask with ballplayer scene (Yale University Art Gallery, 2018.12.8, gift of Peter David Joralemon).

A few, up on four supports, are more likely to be sedan chairs. A creature sprawls on its roof, and four feet elevate it for resting on an uneven or muddy surface. Both are portable, one by a single hand, the other, judging by the handbars, by at least two heaving porters (see also K6759). Other miniatures have two small “ears” for lashing the stopper or suspension around the neck—if with tobacco powder, a short distance to the nose (Inomata et al. 2010:figs. 8.15c, 8.16a, 8.19a, b, 8.25h, 8.27g).

Figure 7. Miniature as sedan chair, Magdalena, Guatemala (left, see Figure 1a, above), and Late Classic vase (right, K767, courtesy Justin Kerr).

In fact, an image of a male rat or pocket gopher may display a unique image of a miniature in use. The rodent clutches a small object that may be self-referential, the flask in use, close to the face (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Miniature shown in possible use, Bodega, Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (photograph Stephen Houston).  

The glyphs on the flasks and miniature jars need their own study. A few refer explicitly to tobacco snuff (see above), but, notably, the owner is not always specified: in flexible phrasing, “the dwelling [yotoot] of his or her snuff [may]” applies to the first owner all the way to the last. One who is specified carries almost a casual, stripped-down record, a-ku MO’-‘o, “Turtle Macaw,” without the titles that would further identify him.

Most texts are, if legible, highly formulaic, with glyphs repeated and reordered into what seems a jumble. One has an upside text (American Museum of Natural History 30.2/ 6083). These glyphs are generally syllabic, perhaps a nod to consumers unfamiliar with the language: ko-lo, che?-ye/HA’?-ka, AJAW, AJ-cha?-la, XOOK?, and, most clearly, ch’o-ko (e.g., K7122; one molded text may even allude to a “great youth,” CHAK ch’o-ko). The presence of this, a term for “youth,” could refer to these as flasks intended for young men as gifts in rites of passage (Houston 2018:80–81). At the least, their broad occurrence suggests a certain degree of impersonality, a more generic sort of reference. Yet the biometaphors for small things may indicate an alternative: the ch’ok are the objects themselves (Figures 1, 7). A flask with incised, post-fire text reinforces this possibility with a name-tag that simply reads, u-ch’o-ko ch’a-jo?-ma, u ch’ok ch’ajoom, “[this is] the ch’ok of the incense [priest]” (Coe 1971:137, pl. 76).

That there was aesthetic and emotional regard for miniature vases seems undeniable. Metaphors informed their shape and decoration. They may have satisfied cravings if filled with snuff, or served rituals as handy places for copal (tobacco might also be burned on such occasions). They were not just lowly and workaday but could find their way, votive-like, into sacred caches or, testifying to royal use, on the floors and benches of a rapidly abandoned palace. Like a locket, they could be kept on one’s person. The beauty of other small things invoked yet other metaphors. A small conch of unknown provenance has on it a text that spells out “[this is] his hummingbird conch” (Figure 9). [4] Not because any such bird cavorts on its surface, but because “hummingbird” was an expression—and is so used today—for a “very small” thing in Ch’orti’ Maya (Hull 2016:462). In that language, superbly documented by Kerry Hull, it concerns living things, a turkey (or, today, a chicken), a dog, rooster (gayu, from Spanish gallo), a person or, in this example, a small conch cradled in the hand. A tiny bird, anomalous in many ways—fragile yet fierce, of shocking speed and wayward flight—extends to a once-living shell that was probably a rarity in the place it was made.

Figure 9. Small conch, u-tz’u-nu2 HUB-nu, u tz’unun hub, “his hummingbird conch” (photographer unknown).

Reduced scale has many meanings, not all, for the ancient Maya, explicable on available evidence. The allusions could be “playful,” even if to a scooped-out head. (Amusement is a universal but not what prompts it.) And if affection and humility are discernible a millennium out, those feelings may also have enveloped small things. The small and the large appear to intensify responses to them. Some objects were crude, perhaps modeled by children, but there is no proof that the young were involved other than, perhaps, as recipients. Moreover, Burke’s conviction that only large things inspired awe has grounds for disbelief. From the Preclassic period on, the stone effigies of Chahk, the ferocious storm and rain god, were mostly small: powerful in ways that could split trees and blast rock yet rest in the hand; wielders of lightning some decimeters high at most; cut with care, brought to high polish, each quite tactile (e.g., Coe 1973:25, pl. 1, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, ANT.236866; Princeton University Art Museum, y1990-74; American Museum of Natural History 30.3/ 2507). Where these were kept in Classic or earlier times cannot be known. Yet, although things of awe, they could, by human contact, by their small, holdable size, come under human control.

[1] For the Tayasal image: The Hollis repository also contains a photograph of a large seated figure from Laguna Cilvituk, a fired effigy that also dates to the Postclassic period (58-34-20/53638). The Tayasal statue might have had the same pose, the legs drawn up in throned position.

[2] As a label, “miniature” comes from the practice of limning small paintings. It derives from Latin minium, “red lead” or “cinnabar (see the Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé,;s=1921873545;).

[3] On the Phoenix Jewel:

[4] The term for conch may lose vowel complexity over time: hu[bi] and, in possessed form, yu-bi are attested (, position D1, the other from a photograph kindly shared by David Stuart). The example here contains a logograph HUB and a subfixed bu. For incisive discussion: Zender (2017:16–17, fn32), who proposes, for future discussion, a spelling less about vowel complexity than “selected [so as] to minimize orthographic variation in possessed contexts.”


My thanks go to Simon Martin for organizing a session, on Feb. 25, 2020, at the Kluge Center, Library of Congress, where I first presented some of these ideas. The meeting was stimulating, and a warm memory from just before the pandemic. Karl Taube was helpful in discussing little gods who were also “big,” and Christina Halperin and David Stuart were supportive too.


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