Costin, Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, 2016, p. 7
The masterfully conceived conch shell is one of the very few surviving shell pigment containers, used by Maya artists and scribes. Various polychrome and codex vessels show the artist deeply focused holding a brush or stylus and a carved shell container. The conch shell’s undulating form and non-porous smooth interior, lends itself to its function as a bowl to mix pigment, and the elongated ends and cut edges allow the artist to modulate the brush -and ink flow (Reents-Budet, ed., Painting the Maya Universe, 1994, p. 38).
This conch shell is carved in the form of the left hand, with long graceful fingers folded over in graduated line, with the whorl of the shell as the outstretched thumb. The fingernails are shown in varying lengths. This cupped hand gesture is shown on codex vessels where the scribe is motioning toward the codex or book he is creating. The visual and conceptual dynamic of the natural object as an artist’s own hand is a classic interplay of functional form and symbolism with Maya art.
The art of hieroglyphic writing and fine-line painting is one of most sophisticated and eloquent legacies of Maya art. Within most Maya languages, there was no separation between writing and painting, or artists and scribes; Reents- Budet notes that this ‘[…] indicates a conceptual equivalency of these two artistic activities’ (ibid., p. 45). The most esteemed person of the Maya court aside from the king or ruler, was the scribe/artist, given the title ‘ah ts’ib’. The glyphic phrase ‘u-ts-ib’ (his writing/painting) is one of the key phrases within the Primary Standard Sequence on elite polychrome and codex style pottery.
The elite nobility were trained in writing and scribal arts, and their mastery of technique enhanced their status and otherworldly powers. Scribal arts were imbued with supernatural elements, just as the half-brothers of the mythic Hero Twins were the patrons of the art and writing.
For another shell container in the form of a hand, see Lin & Emile Deletaille, eds., Trésors du nouveau monde, 1992, p. 235, fig. 191; see also Reents-Budet, ibid., p.42, fig. 2.8, for a shell container, and ibid., p. 43, fig. 2.10, for a ceramic pigment container made in the form of a conch shell. An Early Classic effigy vessel of a deer from Copan was found with a shell scoop in the shape of a hand (Fields & Reents-Budet, Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, 2006, cat. No. 106).
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