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Production and Distribution of Plumbate Pottery: Evidence from a Provenance Study of the Paste and Slip Clay Used in a Famous Mesoamerican Tradeware
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Figure 2: Tohil Plumbate effigy in the collection of the Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala.

Research Year:  1999
Culture:  Maya
Chronology:  Late Classic
Location:  SW Mesoamerica
Sites:  Various

Table of Contents

Previous Research on Plumbate Provenance
FAMSI Funds a New Investigation of Plumbate Sources
Ceramic Raw Material Survey on the Pacific Coast Near the México-Guatemala Border>
Laboratory Analysis
Results 1: Raw Material Sources for Plumbate Pastes
Results 2: Plumbate Slips and Their Raw Material Sources
List of Figures
Sources Cited


The pinnacle of the potter’s craft in the Prehispanic New World was reached around 1100 A.D. by potters living along the Pacific coast near what is today the border between Guatemala and México (Figure 1). In this region, potters of the Late and Terminal Classic periods (600-900 A.D.) and Early Postclassic (900-1200 A.D.) period combined a unique ceramic technology with special raw materials to produce a highly distinctive glazed ware that archaeologists today call "Plumbate." The Early Postclassic (Tohil) variety of Plumbate (Figure 2) reached all corners of Mesoamerica and Central America, from Panama to Chichén Itzá to Nayarit. Although previous research has identified the general area where Plumbate originated, the precise locations of raw material sources and production areas and other conditions surrounding the emergence of specialized production for long-distance commerce remain poorly documented.

Plumbate ware has been an object of fascination for explorers, collectors, and archaeologists for more than a century and a half, since Stephens and Catherwood first recorded a shiny gray vessel among the furnishings of a tomb at Zaculeu, in the western highlands of Guatemala (Dutton 1943). The hardness and unusual color of the surfaces probably led to the appellation "Plumbate." However, the implication that Plumbate surfaces have a lead glaze was conclusively disproved by Anna O. Shepard (1948), who found that an unusual, high-alumina, high-iron slip clay combined with partial reduction firing created a vitrified surface with the unusual, gray or olive-green color. Shepard also demonstrated that fancy, Early Postclassic vessels called Tohil Plumbate have a paste that is petrographically distinct from vessels rendered in a simpler style, called San Juan Plumbate.

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Production and Distribution of Plumbate Pottery: Evidence from a Provenance Study of the Paste and Slip Clay Used in a Famous Mesoamerican Tradeware  (1.54 MB)

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Submitted 05/01/2001 by:

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