Ancestral Wisdom Chiefs and Priests

Anthropomorphous jar
Eastern Cordillera – Muisca Period, 600/1600

Anthropomorphous Jar

Title: Anthropomorphous jar
Creator: Eastern Cordillera - Muisca Period
Date: 600/1600
Physical Dimensions: w225 x h350 mm
Type: Ceramic
Technique: Modeled in clay and painted
Location: Cosmology and Symbolism room
Finding: Colombia
Accession number: C12919

This jug with a handle is called an ewer or múcura, from a word which the Spanish dictionary says comes from Cumaná, Venezuela, that could mean "clay amphora used for holding water". The Muiscas on the high plateaus of central Colombia used many jugs like these, and they are known to have been used for carrying not just water but also chicha, a word which comes originally from Chibcha –the language of the Muisca– and refers to the fermented corn drink. The Muiscas used large quantities of this corn beer at their gatherings and ceremonies, but they also took múcuras full of it with them when they went to work in the fields, for refreshment purposes.

This jug has a fine painted, moulded decoration. The neck of the vessel is a seated figure: on his chest he is wearing a cotton necklace and hanging goldwork plates, and on his head a white headdress, which must have been woven from cotton because the Muiscas had no animals that produced wool. The man was painted using genipap black (Genipa Americana) and annatto red (Bixa Orellana) dyes, and the potter used iron oxides for the red and calcium carbonates for the white. The motif painted at the figure's foot is very interesting, and is repeated time and again on the band that runs round the vessel and also on numerous Muisca pottery jugs and goblets. From a broken or incomplete circle rises a thick black line, which then falls and ends in another, identical, circle. Under this "^"-shaped line are two thick "legs". It is clear from a comparison of numerous versions of the motif that it represents a stylised, arched feline figure, with the "circle" at one end depicting, in graphical form, the animal's head and ear, while that at the other end is its tail, raised in the attack position. These "palindrome" animals can, in fact, be viewed either from right to left or from left to right. The decorative dots could well be referring to the animal's spots. The seated figure has a rosette in the centre of his white headdress, like an emblem, and this has the same motif that we find in the feline face: a circle divided into four parts, marked with four dots. It is a symbol that was commonly used in pre-Columbian (Maya, Inca) America to depict the four parts that the whole universe is made up of. We can thus see a jaguar-man, and his power extends to the four corners of the earth. EL

Chiefs and priests feature prominently in pre-Hispanic art. Pre-Hispanic peoples revered and respected their leaders as wise men and women; thus chiefs, priests and priestesses are often represented in ceramics and gold pieces.