Defining the Red Background style: the production of object and identity in an ancient Maya court
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As one of many other distinct painting styles that appeared on ceramics throughout the Guatemalan Lowlands of the Late Classic Period (AD 600-900), the Red Background vases represented the economic reach of the owner into local and foreign courtly culture. Supernatural processions, playful hieroglyphic texts, and the distinctive red background circulated on vases, plates, and bowls in order to perform prestige and the elite identity in public feasts. The diverse narrative content of these vessels reveals the importance of mytho-historic origin stories and supernatural identities to the prevailing political order, while the unique hieroglyphic texts link the style and its imagery to the royal court of Pa’ Chan. However, the lack of context for most of these vases thwarts a straightforward understanding of their role in Maya society as objects from a specific geographic place with archaeological provenience. Despite this inability to embed the Red Background vases within a robust archaeological framework, the production and circulation of a visually distinct style by a named community still indicates that the creators of these objects wished to communicate a unique artistic identity through an intersection of formal qualities. Refocusing the question of agency through the lens of the final product reveals that these works acted as part of a larger campaign to create the typical courtly trappings of master artisan production and public social feasting with representatives of other powerful polities. This Master’s Thesis aims to examine the current corpus of almost sixty vases in order to describe how the Red Background style manifests. In addition, my study explores the tendency of many polychrome styles to link a specific royal court with the artistic product through hieroglyphic emblems. I conclude that the unique Pa’ Chan emblem takes this extroverted statement of belonging to a higher level, providing an emic classification of the vase where the text comprises a social category of art that performs identity through its distinct visuals.