Design Transfer and the Classic Maya

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Printing designs on textiles goes far back in time. An example at the Hunan Provincial Museum in China dates to the Western Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC. Likely produced by stencil, it reveals the ease of reproducing designs in this way but also the need, in places, for hand-coloring and fussy adjustment. More than just hastening the process, it yields a pleasing consistency, an orderly repetition of pattern. But it was seldom the act of one person.

Think of a Japanese print, be it an ukiyo-e (Edo-period) or shin-hanga (Meiji and post-Meiji Japan). Despite many museum labels, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Hokusai, was not literally by his hand. Hokusai made the original drawing, which was destroyed when a carver attached it to a board and set to work, highlighting the original inkwork while shaving down the background. Another person, a printer, then created what we see today, building on the help of assistants of varying status, in a production supervised by a publisher who took most of the profit (Salter 2002:11, 37, 60, 64).[1] Such complexities must also have entered into textile printing at the time of Hokusai, and earlier still in China and India (Riello 2010:8-9).  

The question is, did block-printing or, more broadly, design transfer occur among the ancient Maya? Evidence of a direct sort is poor. Bark cloth, which must have been abundant, judging from implements to make it, is almost impossible to find archaeologically, although it is well-attested among groups such as the Lacandon of Chiapas, Mexico (Moholy-Nagy 2003:figs. 101-105; Soustelle 1937:60-62, pls. ID, VA, VIC; Tozzer 1907:fig. 1, 129; see also Tolstoy 1963). For their part, early Maya textiles are only preserved under exceptional circumstances. They might occur in water-logged deposits, well-aerated caves, or endure by contact with metal or as decayed impressions visible on other objects (e.g., Johnson 1954; Lothrop 1992; Morehart et al. 2004; Ordoñez 2015). This means that Maya textiles survive in limited samples, although they are frequently depicted in ways that reflect their cut, color, and kind of weave (e.g., Halperin 2016). The quantities of such cloth must have been staggering, and not just for dress, costume or sacrificial offerings. Renderings of textiles on walls at Xelha, Quintana Roo, and suspension holes for cloth at Palenque, Chiapas, point to the wide use of such materials as changeable wall hangings (Anderson 1985; Ruiz Gallut 2001:lám. 13). When exposed, such textiles could not have lasted long. Soon mildewed, soggy, and faded, they would need replacement on a regular basis.

The direct and indirect evidence is that textile threads were colored with dyes, and, as added decoration, when weaving was finished, with freehand and resist painting, a technique attested in cave finds from Chiapas, Mexico (Figure 1, Johnson 1954:fig. 16; see also Filloy Nadal 2017:36). There is no question that the Classic Maya painted textiles and, in a few instances, tagged the calligraphers or the owners of clothing….if in coy ways that never identified such people. Names curl out of view or hide behind other items of dress (see Miller and Brittenham 2012:230, 233 [Captions I-5B, I-5C, I-49B]; Tokovinine 2012:70-71, figs. 32-33; note that such labels probably marked garments passing through tributary networks).

Figure 1. Textile from Chiptic Cave, Chiapas, Mexico, with use of resist paint (Johnston 1954:fig. 16).


There is a paradox, however. Surviving textiles and images show few clear signs of block-printing and its tidy repetitions. Yet there are archaeological objects, all of rugged or durable ceramic, that must have been used for printing or stamping.[2] Several are cylinders, with step-fret designs that are common on textiles and well-suited to the warp-weft constraints of weaving. Such cylinders extend deeply into the Mesoamerican past (Field 1967:22-38). That these cylinders were used in body painting seems improbable. If charged with pigment, they would have left messy or indistinct patterns with their expansive fields of color, and the designs on the cylinders are step-fret or of fragrant blossoms attested on other textiles (e.g., Filloy Nadal 2017:fig. 34). In any case, all images of body painting involve brushes (e.g., K1491, K4022).

Three cylinders occur in the probable tomb of a princess or queen at the site of Buenavista del Cayo, Belize; the tagged weaving bones in that burial hint that such designs might also have been rolled over textiles created by high-ranking women (Figure 2, Ball and Taschek 2018:485-487, fig. 14; see also Moholy Nagy 2008:fig. 219l).

Figure 2. Ceramic roller-stamps, Burial BV88-B13; note that each design could also be applied in inverted orientation (drawings by Jennifer Taschek, in Ball and Taschek 2018:fig. 14).


Others were flat stamps that, more than the cylinders, would have been ill-suited for use on human bodies. A large set was discovered in Tomb 6, a royal burial in Structure II, Calakmul, Mexico (Figure 3, Carrasco Vargas 1999:31). With their figuration, the Calakmul examples are anomalous in comparison to other stamps, a hint of varied, more narrative or setting-oriented imagery on stamped materials. As at Buenavista del Cayo, this less well-reported tomb contained weaving bones and was said unequivocally to hold the remains of woman, perhaps the spouse of the ruler. These finds of weaving implements and stamps, flat or cylindrical, suggest that stamping was a gendered activity among the Classic Maya. Its tools were linked to the process of finishing textiles, and large areas of cloth or barkpaper could be decorated with both speed and care. Nonetheless, as in Japan and elsewhere, more than one person presumably wove, made stamps, concocted pigments, and pressed them onto textiles. The volume of production and need for varying expertise may have demanded it…and an elite or royal lady would not have operated without servants. There is also a suspicion, challenging to prove, that the stamps at Calakmul and at other sites formed part of a much larger inventory during the Classic period. In India, at least historically, most stamps or blocks were of wood, and these would have disappeared long ago in the Maya Lowlands (Lewis 1924:1-2; see [2]).

Figure 3. Flat stamps with water lily creature, hummingbirds over cavity, Venus sign, spirals, and full-frontal images of Teotihuacan-style warrior; from possible burial of royal woman, Tomb 6, Structure II, Calakmul, Campeche; on display, Museo Arqueológico, Fuerte de San Miguel, Campeche, Mexico (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A unique illustration of direct transfer exists in the collection of the Museo Regional de Yucatán, Palacio Cantón (Figure 4); see Mediateca INAH, CC BY-NC). It has no provenience but appears to be a slateware, possibly Muna or Dzitas Slate, the latter associated with Chichen Itza, Yucatan–the dish would need closer study to establish its precise affiliation (George Bey, personal communication, 2023). The central element is a sign for k’in, “sun,” but also, more telling here, for NIK[TE’] or NICH[TE’], “flower.” An extraordinary touch is that the interior rim has a series of designs in which, not a brush, but a flower has been dipped in ink and repeatedly pressed into the surface. The flower itself is difficult to identity yet could relate to the Asteraceae family of plants (Shanti Morell-Hart, personal communication, 2023). The double reference in image and mode of decoration is likely to be deliberate. Perhaps this flowery ceramic was intended to contain flowers, as seen in one mythic scene with an anthropomorphic hummingbird and a youthful God D (K8008). The repeated design itself might have triggered a synesthetic sense of fragrance. The flower on the dish served as its own instrument of depiction; the central glyph nailed the floral reference and standardized it into canonical form.

Figure 4. Painting with flowers on a dish, Museo Regional de Yucatán, Palacio Cantón, Mérida. Mediateca INAH, CC BY-NC.


Whether this object has any parallels remains unclear. There are two images that show scribal gods dipping (or having dipped) an undulating, near-vegetal “brush” into a conch inkwell (Figure 5). They cannot be conventional brushes but do open unexpected possiblities for the toolkit of Maya painters.

Figure 5. Two scribal deities dipping or flourishing near-vegetal “brushes” (images from Justin Kerr Maya archive, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 4.0).


Acknowledgments   My new colleague at Brown, Shanti Morell-Hart, assisted with the flower identifcation, and George Bey and William Ringle helped to type and possibly date the plate in the Palacio Cantón, Mérida. Joanne Baron kindly forwarded a high-resolution image of a Kerr photograph.


[1] An exception would be the sōsaku-hanga (“creative-prints”) of the early 20th century in Japan. These were painted, carved, and printed by a single artist, often inflected by Western art and its focus on individual production (Binnie 2013:65).

[2] These were probably not the only such blocks. As in India, examples in wood may have been far more numerous (Lewis 1924:1-2).


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