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Maya, in miniature

SPECIAL MEXICO ISSUE

Tiny figures fascinate in their depictions of life in the Yucatan. They were found on an island of the dead.

November 16, 2008|Judith Fein | Fein is a freelance writer.

CAMPECHE, MEXICO — My obsession with clay Jaina figures started about a year ago at the Museo de la Cultura Maya in Chetumal, Mexico. That is where I set my eyes on the tiny statues of a Maya woman wearing an elaborate blouse and ear spools and a young warrior with facial tattoos and scars.

The 6- to 7-inch-tall figures -- depictions of ancient Maya in traditional dress -- looked so lifelike that I half expected them to speak. When a museum guide told me that the statues behind glass were replicas of statuettes unearthed at Jaina, the Maya island of the dead off the western Yucatan Peninsula, I was determined to learn more about the figures.

The delicately detailed terra-cotta statuettes, described by experts as the finest figurine art of ancient America, were buried with each deceased person on the island, as many as 10,000 in all.

Pursuing my obsession, I headed to Ticul, a pre-Columbian Maya town about 50 miles south of Merida that's known for its red-earth pottery, where I was told the replicas of the Jaina figures were being made.

In the area around Ticul's central plaza, I saw ceramic statues of ancient Maya figures, some about 9 feet high. In front of a colonial church, a sculpture of two white hands cradled a pot. Although local shops sold everything from tchotchkes to fine art pieces, no one could tell me where to find the replica figures.

Just as I was about to give up, I found a gallery called Arte Maya, where I met the man who made the statues near the town's center. Andres Mena Sanchez had also been making Jaina replicas for 20 years. He explained that Jaina is a man-made island on the western side of the Yucatan that became a necropolis because the Maya associated the west with death.

Inside his gallery, my pulse quickened as Mena Sanchez showed me the small replicas: a statue of a woman giving birth, a ball player, a shaman with a deer headdress, a weaver, a priest figure with only one arm. Some of the terra-cotta sculptures were painted, others not.

Mena Sanchez found pictures of them in archaeology books and created molds. Some figures were formed by hand, and others were a combination of molds and free-form. It was a technique used by the ancient Maya who made the original Jaina figures.

I bought the one-armed priest for $22. But I was not satisfied with owning a replica. I wanted to see the real thing. I contacted sources in Campeche and got permission to visit Jaina with a guide.

The drive to Jaina was over bumpy roads, bordered by dense jungle, teeming with ibises, cranes, flamingos and bright yellow butterflies.

Along the way, my guide, Erik Mendicuti Polanco, explained the history of Jaina.

"A French explorer named Desire Charnay came to Jaina in the late 1800s," he said. "He found the burial mounds and figurines. The island was protected by the navy to keep people from coming and taking the statues. In 1957 and 1964, excavations were done by INHA [the National Institute of Anthropology and History]. They uncovered two building complexes on the island."

Archaeologists think some, or even many of the small statues were produced elsewhere on the southern coast of Campeche and in Tabasco state, and brought to Jaina for burial. Or perhaps the clay came from elsewhere, and the figures were made on the island.

Most interments took place between AD 300 and 900, with some of the dead buried inside large pots or vases.

On the road to Jaina, the jungle faded and we passed petrified forests and large expanses of salty fields. When the road ended, we walked about 300 feet across a rickety wood plank bridge that connected the mainland to the tiny island. Then we came to a rocky path, lined with red and deep brown pottery shards. Was I walking over pieces of ancient burial urns?

Suddenly, the ancient town of Jaina emerged on my left. Mendicuti Polanco walked me by Zayosal, the site of the main ceremonial plaza: two pyramids, a ball court, a 5-foot-tall stele carved with the image of a kneeling man, probably a prisoner, his arms tied behind his back.

"They found tombs and figurines where we are now standing, as well as everywhere on the island," he said. "Ancestors were buried under the platforms of the houses. There were no actual tombs. They also found domestic pottery, grinding bowls and stone hammers that were proof of daily life here. That's how we know it wasn't just a necropolis. It was a living island."

On the other side of the island was a thatched hut, built to protect several stelae incised with tantalizing hints of Jaina's past.

But no Jaina figures. I would have to drive back to Hecelchakan, near the northern end of Campeche, to see authentic statues.

We drove back along the same road, and about 75 minutes later, we saw a gaggle of tricycle taxis, pastel-colored facades of shops and colonial houses, a plaza with huge topiary birds, and the yellow and white Museo de Hecelchakan.

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