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January 28, 2022

Rediscovery of a rare Pre-Columbian vessel

MEXICO, CENTRAL HIGHLANDS, Teotihuacan (150 BC – 650 CE), cylindrical tripod vessel: flowers and symbol of the Storm God, 450-550 CE, earthenware, stucco, polychrome painted decoration, 14.1 cm (h.), 14.5 cm (d.). MMFA, purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière

On your next visit to the Museum, you can admire this polychrome tripod vessel that is particularly representative of the art of Teotihuacan. After being tucked away for more than a decade, it was brought out of our reserves during the reinstallation of the Pre-Columbian art collections in the Stephan Crétier and Stéphany Maillery Wing for the Arts of One World. This unique piece in our collection gives us a vivid sense of the colourful world of Teotihuacan and its surroundings.

Erell Hubert

Curator of Pre-Columbian Art

Located in the northeast of the Basin of Mexico, the city of Teotihuacan began to expand in the first century before the Common Era into a large multi-ethnic metropolis comparable in size to Rome at the time.1 In addition to the great temple-pyramids standing in the middle of the city, over 2,000 multi-family residential compounds have been identified to date.2 In fact, it is in these compounds that vessels like this one were found, often as funerary offerings.3

Despite some chipping, this work is in an excellent state of preservation considering the incredible fragility of its painted decoration. Analyses done on similar pieces revealed that a layer of calcite and/or clay was applied after the vessel was fired. Outlines were then incised on this surface, and last, the motifs were painted on using a variety of mineral and organic pigments. The post-firing application of the decoration permitted the use of a greater chromatic range, notably hues of green and blue obtained with the use of malachite, azurite and chrysocolla, as well as black charcoal-based contour lines.4

Rolllout drawing of the vessel, Javier Urcid

Stylistically, this vessel corresponds to the production of the Late Xolalpan phase (450-550 CE), when the power of certain families was on the rise, to the detriment of the central authority, and the city was beginning its decline.5 At that time, decoration on this type of piece was especially varied.6 Here, the main register presents two motifs that each repeat three times. According to Conides, they may be alluding to costume elements or objects indicating the status of their owner.7 For his part, Urcid interprets them as a divine emblem, accompanied by a nominative sign.8 Specifically, at the centre of the cartouche-shaped motif, there is the curved shape of the mouth of the Storm God. This divinity was often associated with water and fertility, but also with lightning, which gave him the power of destruction.9 This iconography is in keeping with Teotihuacan art’s emphasis on attributes signifying the figures’ social and/or religious roles rather than on their individuality.10

This vessel, whose exact origins remain unknown, is a testament to the arts practised about 1,500 years ago in the Basin of Mexico. In addition, its display in the Museum’s galleries, where it dialogues with other works (such as a Michoacán bowl executed in a similar technique as well as a Maya tripod vessel from Honduras), reveals the extent of the interactive networks uniting the various regions of Mesoamerica at the time.


1 George L. Cowgill, Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

2 Linda R. Manzanilla, “Corporate Life in Apartment and Barrio Compounds at Teotihuacan, Central Mexico: Craft Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity,” in Domestic Life in Prehispanic Capitals: A Study of Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity, eds. L. R. Manzanilla and C. Chapdelaine (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, 2009), p. 21-42.

3 Cynthia A. Conides, The Stuccoed and Painted Ceramics from Teotihuacan, Mexico: A Study of Authorship and Function of Works of Art from an Ancient Mesoamerican City, Ph.D. thesis (Colombia University, 2001), p. 230-240.

4 Jessica M. Fletcher, “Stuccoed Tripod Vessels from Teotihuacán: An Examination of Materials and Manufacture,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, vol. 41, no. 2 (2002), p. 139-154.

5 Linda R. Manzanilla, p. 21-42.

6 Megan E. O’Neil, “Stucco-painted Vessels from Teotihuacan: Integration of Ceramic and Mural Traditions,” in Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, ed. M. H. Robb (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco-De Young and University of California Press, 2019), p. 180-186.

7 Cynthia A. Conides, p. 577.

8 Javier Urcid, personal correspondence, 2021.

9 Jesper Nielsen and Christophe Helmke, “The Storm God: Lord of Rain and Ravage,” in Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, p. 138-143.

10 Esther Pasztory, “Abstraction and the Rise of a Utopian State at Teotihuacan,” in Art, Ideology and the City of Teotihuacan, ed. J. C. Berlo (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1992), p. 281-320.

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