Artifacts from Lake Amatitlán

Figure 8. Face-neck jar with mercury and jade, from Lavaderos. Kitchen collection, Guatemala.

Figure 9. Censer with four skulls as decoration from Morlon. Salazar Collection, Guatemala.

Figure 10. Censer from El Zarzal. MPM 50939/18048.

Figure 11. Amatitlán Man. Salazar Colletion, Guatemala.

Figure 12. Sartenes. MPM accession 18048.

Figure 13. Spiked censer with skull decoration, from El Zarzal. MPM 50962/18048.

Figure 14. Jaguar censer cover. MPM 50913/18048.

Hundreds of objects have been recovered from Lake Amatitlán since amateur divers began exploring the lake in 1955. The majority of them are ceramic censers, containers used to burn copal incense, an important part of Maya rituals. Stone and bone objects have been found in the lake as well.

The largest variety of artifacts has come from Lavaderos (site 1). Ceramic censers and jars, jade, bone, shell, and stone items have all been recovered. Several items are of special note. A crocodile (Crocodilus acutus) femur and a deer antler carved in the form of a crocodile with open mouth may be related to a ritual cult. While crocodiles typically inhabit lowland saltwater marshes, Fray Antonio Vázquez de Espinosa and Fuentes y Guzmán wrote in the 17th century of crocodiles living in Lake Amatitlán (Borhegyi 1969:284-85). Additionally, a cranium fragment of a young human female, stained with cinnabar or red ocher, was found embedded in mud inside a Middle Classic round-sided ringstand base bowl. Human humerus and tibia fragments, probably from different individuals, were also at Lavaderos (Borhegyi 1969:276-77). Another noteworthy find is a large face neck jar that contained liquid mercury, cinnabar, graphite, and about 400 smashed jade pieces. Liquid mercury is an extremely rare discovery in Mayan archaeology since there are few natural sources in the area; all are related to volcanic activity. The jade earspools and other ornaments may have been ceremonially broken.

One of the most famous pieces found in Lake Amatitlán is from Morlón: a large censer with four skulls molded on the sides and four heads with long headdresses and earplugs above them. The censer is in the private collection of its discoverer, Enrique Salazar, in Guatemala.

Artifacts from El Zarzal are characterized by censers in the form of anthropomorphic figures sitting cross-legged holding bowls in their laps. These figures have a well-worked face, earplugs, nose ornaments, and other large ornaments on the head.

The most significant discovery at La Barca (site 8) is a censer style called the "Hombre de Amatitlán," or Amatitlán Man. The pottery censer is in the form an elaborately dressed standing man whose head and shoulders are made as a separate piece that can be removed in order to put in the copal incense.

The most frequently found item from the lake is a sartén, a round, flat-bottomed dish about 15 cm in diameter with short vertical walls and two tab handles. These typically have no decoration, although they may have been painted white at one time. The sartenes have been found singly, or stacked inside each other with up to 10 vessels in a stack.

Another common form of censer is a flat-bottomed bowl with molded spikes affixed to the outside. Sometimes these vessels have representations of skulls or animals on the outside as well.

The spikes strongly resemble the spikes on the Ceiba tree (Ceiba pentandra), the world tree of the Maya that represents the structure of their cosmos. The canopy of branches represented the heavens and home of some of the gods. The long straight trunk is branch free, a path through the middle level, the human sphere. The roots, reaching down into the ground, represented the Underworld, Xibalba, another realm of the gods.

Another decorative motif frequently found in Lake Amatitlán is the jaguar. Jaguars were powerful creatures associated with the Underworld, as well as caves, nighttime, hunting and stealth, and were important shamanic creatures. Humans could change themselves into jaguars during ritual transformation.

Of all the censers found in Lake Amatitlán, no two are exactly the same. Certain styles and decorative motifs are seen often, but the individuality of all the censers is part of what makes the lake so unique.