Modern Mayan culture

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August 26, 2023 – 08:30 am
Ancient Mayan Culture

Mount Holyoke College senior Harrison Gage was intrigued when she learned she would spend the summer cataloguing precious Mayan “poison flasks” during an internship in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress.

Rather than deadly concoctions, however, she learned that the vase-like containers held a mixture of powdered tobacco and lime—the ancient version of an energy-boosting drink. And the recipe revealed more about the Mayan culture than she would have imagined.

“The flasks were used predominantly by the middle class, who were very hardworking people, always on the go, ” Gage said, noting that the containers were small enough to transport easily but big enough to hold enough of the substance to get the user through a day’s work. The paintings on each flask also revealed its purpose and for whom it was made.

Gage, who is pursuing an interdisciplinary major in ancient studies with a focus in art history, was among 49 students selected for the summer 2014 fellowship at the Library of Congress. She learned about the opportunity after consulting with Professor of Classics Paula Debnar and conducting a Google search for professional opportunities at prominent libraries. Library of Congress fellows comprise students from all over the United States; about half are undergraduates and half are graduate students.

The project sparked Gage’s curiosity not only about archaeology but also about digitization as a means of preserving artifacts. And Gage’s contributions were so outstanding that, in October, she was selected as the only student to speak about her experiences at the James Madison Council’s biannual meeting in Washington, D.C. She also gave a presentation about her experiences annual Learning from Application (LEAP) Symposium.

“Harrison exceeded our expectations for a fellow and completed a very complex database project, ” said John Hessler, a curator with the Library of Congress and a lecturer in early American archaeology and the environment at Johns Hopkins University’s graduate school. “She also had an opportunity to work closely with our Preservation Research Division on a highly experimental project that used hyperspectral imaging to examine in detail a series of Mayan artifacts.”

During her fellowship, Gage worked with Hessler to create a database for easy identification of the flasks, which date from 350 to 850 CE. The team assigned a binary algorithm to each piece based on specific physical characteristics such as shape, size, and color. The Library houses the largest collection of Mayan poison flasks in the world and has verified the authenticity of each of the 174 pieces, which recently were donated by a private collector. The flasks are part of the larger Kislak collection of artifacts from the Olmec, Aztec, and Mayan civilizations.

Little else is known about the flasks, so the work was challenging and exciting, Gage said. She drew on her knowledge from ancient civilizations classes she has taken at Mount Holyoke. Her knowledge of the culture gave her an appreciation for the ancient Mayan civilization. Hands-on lab sessions, which included handling artifacts in the Mount Holyoke Art Museum’s collection, also prepared her for handling the poison flasks appropriately.

“They treat you like staff member, all through your project, ” Gage said, noting that she and the other fellows were trusted to work independently with the precious artifacts, which must never be unattended. Even as a fellow, she was granted full access to the flasks and given the freedom to draw authoritative conclusions based on her analyses.

Gage has since been awarded a yearlong internship at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. Following her newly found passion, she is also considering a postgraduate degree in library science after graduating from Mount Holyoke in 2015.

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Popular Q&A
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