Of the many traditions of figurine making among the ancient Maya, the figurines of Jaina Island are the most notable. The reasons are the great number, the duration of facture, and the quality of many individual works.
Jaina Island lies just off the coast of the Mexican state of Campeche, easily accessible by canoe and without relationship to any larger Maya site. A plaza separates two small complexes of architecture from one another on a limestone outcropping that rests above swampy areas below. Although only a small number of graves have been excavated legally, many more have been looted, and the figurines belong to collections of museums worldwide. There may have been tens of thousands of burials on the island; some were secondary burials, suggesting that the island was a choice for funerary veneration.
Román Piña Chán excavated several burials in the 1960s; he found no tombs with masonry chambers, only shallow graves. Because the preservation was poor, he did not determine a relationship between the gender of the figurine and the gender of the interred; interments received multiple figurine offerings, of varying quality, along with items of shell and bone, vessels, and stone tools.
Although artisans fashioned most figurines using molds (multiple examples survive from single molds), they formed the finest ones by hand, shaping solid bodies onto which clothing and other accoutrements could be layered, along with elaborate headdresses, sometimes using mold-made parts. Many depict warriors, captives, artisans, and courtly attendants; almost a quarter represent women, more than in any other medium of Maya art.
Most figurines are from 8 to 12 inches in height, and their gestures have made them appealingly lifelike. A number of paired examples survive, including male-female couples. Many are rattles or whistles, suggesting funerary music and dance. Once fully painted, the figurines retain traces of tenacious Maya blue, white, yellow, and red pigments applied after the firing process.
Piña Chán, Román. Jaina, la casa en el agua. Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropología, 1968.
Mary Ellen Miller