Fellowship / Iconography / Pre-Columbian

Towards an Iconographic Concordance in Mesoamerican Art

Written by Nawa Sugiyama, William R. Tyler Fellow (2012-2014)

This Tyler Project was designed to follow up on the work previously completed by Dylan Clark on assessing the size and scope of the Kerr Photographic Archive that will be donated to Dumbarton Oaks. In preparation for the arrival of this collection to ICFA, my project re-examined the current database of these Maya vessels at http://research.mayavase.com/kerrmaya.html (see screenshot below), with particular attention to how this visual archive with its constituent iconographic elements were identified and labeled within the database. Drawing on my background in zooarchaeology, I focused on how we could possibly standardize the way animal images are recognized and identified.


Screen shot of the principal page of the Maya Vase database website where queries for the vessels are made.

The Maya Vase Database contains many of the roll-out photographs taken by Justin Kerr that Dylan reported as numbering less than 10,000 images out of the over 250,000 items. This means that having a very concrete and searchable database is essential. In order to achieve this, we must begin by identifying the iconographic elements; in my case study, I focused on the diverse animals depicted on the vessels. Accurate categorization is a challenging task because the animals are either often highly stylized or composed of hybrid forms that are not simply natural renderings.


K5460: Hybrid feathered fish. It shows a mythical creature that has a fish form, with scales of a snake, sprouting foliage of snake’s tail, quetzal like feathers, head with jaguar pelage dots, and a water-lily on its head (Finamore and Houston 2010:106).

My project goals were:

1)      To create a system to identify and record animal imagery from the Maya vessels.

2)      To provide a concrete case with a term list and a guide for each of the terms.

3)      To generate a specialized reference list of works on all aspects of this process.

The Hierarchical Term List

The first step to this project was to establish a terminology that accounts for various levels of identification. Within the Maya Vase Database, a search for the word “jaguar” results in 224 vessels with jaguar elements, the word “puma” has 14 entries, while the word “feline” only bring up one record. Ideally, we wanted a term list that follows a standardized and well-defined hierarchical system. Sometimes iconographic elements can be identified to a species level (e.g., Great horned owl) while at other times this is impossible and the animal can only be recognized as a general raptor. This is why I chose to follow the standard Linnaean classification system, which is well-defined, hierarchical, and biological, as a basis for designating clear parent/daughter relationships between the animal categories. This system begins with the broadest classification level, the phylum that includes vertebrate, arthropod, and Mollusca and goes down the hierarchical ladder to class, order, family genus and species (see below). Most of these terms are well-established biological designations, but sometimes culturally useful categories like large cat (including pumas and jaguars) versus small cat (e.g., jaguarondi, ocelot, etc.), or raptor, tropical bird, or water bird were also added, even if they do not belong to the same genus or family.


Example of how the hierarchical term list labels a jaguar at each of the levels.

Animal Entry

For each animal term, several aspects were defined:

  • Photograph of the animal: Images of the natural animal were taken from the CONABIO website (http://bdi.conabio.gob.mx/fotoweb/cmdrequest/HomePage.fwx).
  • Other terms: plural use of the term and other Maya terms applied to this animal.
  • Spanish term: common names in Spanish
  • Related Linnaean terms: other common names or scientific names applied to this animal (e.g., cougar for puma).
  • Biological features: Geographic range, phenotypic characteristics, biological features, etc. relating to the biology of the animal that were of importance to either recognizing the animal in the iconography or its symbolism.
  • Iconography: How the animal can be recognized, common themes/forms where the animal is depicted.
  • Symbolism: What the animal symbolized based on the current literature on Maya archaeology, as well as in greater Mesoamerica.
  • Deities/rulers/names: Allows us to name variant forms the animal takes
  • Example: An example of a Kerr vessel with a depiction of this animal.

Below is an example of the entry for the jaguar.

Panthera onca

Image of a Jaguar from the CONABIO website.

Jaguar(Panthera onca)

Other terms: Balam, Bahlam

Biological features: Largest predator on the landscape (1.10-1.60 m), unique coat marked with black rosettes over an orange yellow or tan background that phenotypically distinguishes the jaguar from the puma (de la Rosa and Nocke 2000; González Torres 2001). The jaguar can see in the dark, as their eyes have a light-reflecting retina cells (tapetum lucidum) that acts like a mirror when light shines onto them (Saunders 1990:165). This is why they are often associated with sight, mirrors, and darkness. Emphasis on the round head, large canines, and usually clear black spots on the coat (Seler 2004:33-40).

Iconography: As ferocious animals, their body parts are worn by warriors as military regalia, as emblems of royalty (jaguar thrones). Its head, skin, tail or paws are depicted in the iconography (Stone and Zender 2011:195). The tail of the jaguar was very characteristic, in fact, the hieroglyph for “tail” (neh) was of a jaguar’s tail (Stone and Zender 2011:88). They are often displayed as ritual regalia, costumes warn by warriors, royalty and shaman, and as sacrificial victims, often of adult and baby jaguars (González Torres 2001:251; Reents-Budet 1994).

Symbolism: Jaguars were conceived as the master guardians of animals, symbol of strength, fierceness and valor (Saunders 1991; 1998). Close association with warriors, “to spread out jaguar skin” references war, implements of war (e.g., shields), references wealth and royalty (Miller and Taube 1993:102-104; Stone and Zender 2011:195). Closely associated with shamanism, particularly in depictions of human-animal transformations. Because they fish and like to hunt around water, they are associated with water. Jaguar is fourteenth day sign in the Maya and Aztec calendar, represented by a only its head in profile with its characteristic pelage (Aguilera 1985:15-17).


  • Water lily jaguar: Always zoomorphic with a water lily on its head, a collar of extruded eyeballs around the neck or a scarf (Miller and Taube 1993:104). Often depicted marching in Underworld procession scenes, sometimes with a star sign on his back (see K1208 under rabbit).
  •  Jaguar-serpent-bird: frontal image of the war serpent (Kubler 1972; Miller and Taube 1993:104).
  •  Jaguar god of the underworld: patron deity of the number 7, often depicted in full-body with clear jaguar ears. Can be anthropomorphic, with a hank of twisted hear over his forehead, and a “cruller” between nose that can reach its eyes (Miller and Taube 1993:104). This god is said to be strongly associated with the fire-drilling ritual, maybe even the supernatural patron of fire and fire making (some depictions render k’ak’-fire hieroglyph on its forehead) (Stuart 1998)
  • Jaguar baby: hybrid of jaguar and human. Anthropomorphic jaguar usually in opposition to chac in sacrificial scenes, usually reclining on a stone altar (Miller and Taube 1993:104). These scenes are said to depict the transformation of a baby into a supernatural being (jaguar-baby) through sacrifice acquiring markers of jaguar-ness (tail, ears, paws, spotted skin) (Geller 2012:90).
  • Jaguar paddler: manages the fore craft when guiding the waters of the underworld that is old with sunken cheeks (Miller and Taube 1993:104)
  • Jaguar way: For a list of different way characters that incorporate the jaguar see (Grube and Nahm 1989:687-692)


K533_jaguar costume

K533 in Maya Vase Database

K533: This is an example of the use of jaguars as costumes. The figures, called “fat caciques” in Kerr’s description clearly wears the jaguar costume. Just (2012:158-169) interprets this as a dancing scene of hybrid animals. Several animals are featured here, on two of the principle dancers we can see the jaguar pelt is the base of the costume, onto which elements of the brilliant green feathers of a quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), the long forward projecting antennae and prefemoral processes of a giant centipede (Scolopendra gigantean) mark these dancers as representing the god Radiant Seven Centipede Eagle. One of the other secondary figures has been identified as a jaguarondi (Puma yagouaroundi) with a crested head of the great curassow (Crax rubra).


In total 112 references that relate to this faunal iconographic concordance project were entered into a shared Zotero bibliography. This includes references on the biology of the animal (mammal/bird/reptile guides), museum catalogues where the vessels photographed by Kerr were featured, publications that discuss the iconography of the vessels included in the Kerr database, and general literature on faunal iconography and animal symbolism. Many of these references were cited in the animal hierarchy guide.

Concluding remarks

This project highlights the need to develop rigorous standardized criteria for identifying the fauna in the iconography. It should also allow for the inclusion of multi-layered hybrid forms which can sometimes only be identified with more general categories. Ideally, such a system of recording fauna in Maya iconography would also be applied across a broader geographic range. While the list prepared during the Tyler Project is by no means exhaustive, it provides a framework for expansion in the future as more animals are identified in the database.


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