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This vessel comes from the mountains of Southwestern Guatemala, a region populated by the Maya. Curator Matthew Robb.

Jaguars and other powerful felines were often associated with nighttime and the underworld, in addition to their association with rulers. The Maya word for jaguar is 'balam.' And many Maya kings are identified with balam in their names and in their royal titles.

This pot was probably used as a burial urn. And if you think about the associations that a jaguar would have had, it makes perfect sense to decorate a burial urn for an important ruler with a jaguar, both as a symbol of that ruler's power and a symbol of that ruler's identity, as well as potentially having the jaguar as a guide or companion through the underworld.

In this region, the Maya burial tradition was to prepare the body for its journey to the afterlife by placing the bones or cremated remains inside the urn. The urn was then buried, like a seed of corn.

In many respects, they understood life and death in agricultural terms. As corn grew from a small seed into a towering stalk and then withered and returned to the earth, so too did humans. And like maize, they would eventually reemerge as the agricultural and life cycles began anew.

Step7-Urn with Jaguar Effigy, Maya Culture, Highland Guatemala

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