decorative geometric design
decorative geometric design
decorative geometric design

Up Close With a Zapotec Urn

Lucy holding a clipboard and pen

Hi, I'm Lucy, and I'm at the American Museum of Natural History. Today I'm interviewing an urn made by the Zapotec people of ancient Mexico. Come with me as I ask about his not-so-humble beginnings, his amazing discovery, and the responsibilities of being an ancient artifact.

Zapotec Urn outside collection cabinet

Lucy: It's impossible to get a sense of how enormous you are from your picture. What are your exact measurements?

Zapotec Urn: I'm about 21 inches tall. I also weigh about 30 pounds. The jar on my back and my body were made first, from slabs of clay. Then other pieces of clay were added to make my clothes, headdress, and jewelry. All that clay really adds on the pounds.

Lucy: I have to ask about that fabulous mask you're wearing.

Zapotec urn's face mask

Zapotec Urn: This old thing? Many of the best urns were wearing masks like this. The face depicts the lightning god, Cociyo (co-see-oh). Cociyo was very important to the  Zapotecs , who called themselves the cloud people. They believed that when nobles died, they rose into the clouds to be near Cociyo. I'm a person dressed up as Cociyo to show the close link between Zapotec nobles and the god.

Lucy: You mentioned that you were made especially for a noble. How do you know that?

Zapotec Urn: I don't mean to brag, but have you taken a good look at me? There are a lot of clues that I was made for an important person. Notice my grand size and extraordinary detail. Then check out all these accessories: my fancy cape, my big headdress, and these fabulous ear spools, or earrings.

close up Zapotec urn's ear spool

Lucy: Did all the Zapotecs have such cool ear spools?

Zapotec Urn: In Zapotec society, only nobles wore these accessories. In fact, people of the lower class, or "commoners," weren't allowed many of the privileges given to the noble class. They couldn't wear bright cotton clothing, hunt deer, or even eat certain foods like chocolate!

Lucy: I hate to bring up a sore subject, but what happened to your left hand?

close-up of Zapotec urn's arm with missing hand

Zapotec Urn: Yes, my hand. Gone. Vanished. No more. To be honest, I don't know when I lost it. Thank goodness I'm right-handed.

Lucy: I have many more questions about your carving. What does your second little "head" represent? And why are there bells beneath it? And why are you sitting cross-legged?

close-up of 2nd smaller head on Zapotec urn

Zapotec Urn: That would be like asking a magician how he made the elephant disappear. Nope, I'm going to have to keep you and the rest of the world guessing. After all, a celebrity must keep a few secrets to himself.

Image Credits:

Lucy, Zapotec Urn, and cabinet, courtesty of AMNH / Craig Chesek.