Pre-Columbian ceramic from Costa Rica

Object of the Month: 01/2003

What is it?:

Pre-Columbian ceramic from Costa Rica


Dimensions:

~18cm H x 26.5cm L


Accession #: A83:23:18

Pre-Columbian ceramic from Costa Rica
Pre-Columbian ceramic from Costa Rica

Ceramics in the Birmania style began to be made close to 1,000 years ago in northwestern Costa Rica. They are distinguished by animal shapes, often four-legged with two heads on opposite sides and a bowl on top. Realistic features and abstract designs are painted in clay slips of several colors on a light background. Pieces like this one with tilted jaguar heads have been found in elaborate graves. Did it have a function in a ritual involving food or drink or the burning of incense? Was it possessed by a chief who obtained it through ceremonial trade? In this case we don't know the significance to the people who made and used it. Ceramics found in residential areas, presumably for everyday use, are much simpler and sturdier.

This object is part of a reference collection covering much of the Americas and containing a few examples from various time periods representing various styles. The Science Museum provides access to objects in the collections for research and teaching purposes, and some go on display in exhibits. The ancient piece shown here was part of a recent exhibit at the College of St. Catherine presenting a contemporary Costa Rican ceramics industry. It appeared next to a similar piece made in the same style - a replica produced in the twenty-first century. While responding to a market fostered by the rise of tourism, the artisans offer insights about the lives and livelihoods of their ancestors.