Book explores how Maya went for broke


Dr. Mark Van Stone loves Mayan art to pieces…even if it is in pieces.

In his upcoming book, “Maya Mold Made,” Van Stone analyzes the molds the ancient Maya used to create ceramic sculptures en masse, which they then apparently broke en masse.

Archeologists reformed these sculptures from the clay shards found in trash middens located in ancient Maya cities and discovered that many were flute-like ocarinas.

A digital reconstruction of what a humanoid xoloitzcuintli sculpture would have appeared in real life based on a rare Mayan mold.

Reconstructions show that many different types of sculpture were produced in large quantities, including figures of men, women, animals, royalty seated on kingly thrones and various kinds of mythological creatures, including anthropomorphic xoloitzcuintli dogs adorned in warrior’s armor.

Scholars do not yet know the reason for creating and destroying thousands of clay statues, but the importance of ritual sacrifice is well documented across many Central American cultures. Van Stone said this behavior could be part of honoring dead Maya kings or for observing important dates from one of the three Mayan calendars.

Though there are many examples of sculptures that have been reconstructed, molds are much more rare. Scholars resist the temptation to actually use an ancient mold to cast a sculpture because that could damage it, Van Stone said. He had molds digitally scanned, he said, and inverted to give the images the illusion of being a 3D sculpture.

Nearly all surviving mold-produced sculptures are made of clay, Van Stone said. It is possible molds were also used to produce sculptures made of incense or even food similar to the sugar skulls popular during Dia de los Muertos.

A few pieces of Van Stone’s collection are featured in the book, including a vulture-shaped stone pendant and an ancient mold used to mass-produce the pendant in clay.

Van Stone said it was possible for him to tell that the vulture sculpture was not a simple copy when he bought it, since it was slightly larger than the clay mold it was partnered with. Over time clay shrinks but stone does not, he said. Van Stone said no Mayan mold partnered with an original sculpture is known to exist.

Van Stone said he has had to grapple with many ethical issues in his work. Writing about artifacts he owns is a conflict of interest, he said. Increasing the visibility of a fairly unique pair of items in his possession would likely lead to their value increasing. Van Stone said he does not want to sell his objects and much of his collection will be donated back to their countries of origin when he dies. Until then, Van Stone’s collection is available to students in his art history classes.

Van Stone said he has had to walk in the grey zone before, but always tries to make decisions based on the “greater good.”


On the left, a Mayan mold used to mass produce sculptures of a warrior. On the right, a digital reconstruction of what the sculpture would have looked like.

“I bought three ancient Maya inscriptions from an auction house called Arte Primitivo,” he said. “These three inscriptions were the front of stone steps that were sawed off and smuggled out of Guatemala in the 1960s. Dozens of these steps were stolen from La Corona and ended up in museums across the world. They were small objects, so they were easy to steal and easy to sell.”

Until its discovery in 1996, the Maya city of La Corona was known to archeologists as Site Q, short for “¿Qué?” since no one knew exactly where these stolen limestone reliefs originated.

“These objects came onto the market for $15,000 and a couple of my friends and I tried to raise the money to purchase them and we couldn’t come up with the money,” said Van Stone. “A year later the seller offered them to me for half the price. Guy wanted them out of his place and wanted to pay his taxes with the money, and I had just gotten my tax return. Together with a few friends, we put up the money and got the inscriptions for $7,500.”

A mold of a Bufo toad, which the ancient Maya farmed for their hallucinogenic excretions.

Van Stone said the art found its way home.

“I was planning to return them to Guatemala, which is the right thing to do because they were stolen. Somehow one of the archeologists working at La Corona had heard about us and contacted us that he knew someone that would help us get these objects back to Guatemala and had helped a lot of people to return stolen objects. He also offered to repay us the $7,500 we had spent for the objects.”

A mold of a horned owl and it’s accompanying digital reconstruction. The ancient Maya believed owls to be the messengers of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.

Van Stone said that this act of good will drew the ire of some in the art history community who felt that he was encouraging the looting of ancient sites by purchasing stolen goods and that his charity would drive up the prices of other stolen artifacts.Van Stone responded, however, that he would rather have a stolen artifact returned to its rightful place than to disappear forever. Even so, he still gets the occasional dirty look at conferences, he said.

Van Stone’s body of work includes numerous books meant to demystify and legitimize the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica should be enough to protect him when he eventually enters the Mayan underworld of Xibalba, he said with a playful smirk,

Van Stone said he hopes to have “Maya Mold Made” published and printed by Christmas so that he can take copies with him on a trip to Guatemala over the winter break.


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