History Notes: Maya Poison Flasks

Let’s talk about history today.  Let’s hunker down against this immature spring wind that’s been tossing our hair all week and talk — or shout, if you prefer — about something old.


First, I have to tell you about the Library of Congress’ Exploring the Early Americas exhibit. It’s sort of the Ringo Starr of the Library of Congress, compared to the John Lennon that is Jefferson’s Library and the Paul McCartney that is the Main Reading Room overlook.  (Metaphorical space for George Harrison is pending … feel free to weigh in.)  Visitors to the Library come to see Lennon and McCartney, but they’re delighted when they stumble across Ringo and discover how unexpectedly talented — and, it must be said, cool — he is.

This is not to say that the Library doesn’t get the word out about Ringo.  We talk about him all the time. I’ve been known to drag unsuspecting tour groups back to see him, enticing them with promises of pirate gold and mysteriously complete 16th century maps.  They always come around.

The exhibition itself is special for the Library because it just doesn’t contain our usual paper (books, maps, manuscripts, etc.).  It has pottery, tablets, coins, flints, earspools.  Archaeological findings.  We don’t get this kind of thing very often, people.  A Ringo Starr isn’t born every day.

Given all this, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that whenever a gallery talk is offered in Exploring the Early Americas, I’m there, blocking everyone’s view with all 5’10.5″ of me, furiously scribbling in my Steno Pad.

The week before last, I went to a talk entitled, “Women in Archaeology: Tatiana Proskouriakoff and the Jade from the Cenote of Sacrifice.” And Wednesday, I went to one called “Name your Poison: Maya Medicinal Flasks in the Jay I. Kislak Collection.”  Both talks were given by John Hessler, curator of the Kislak collection. The latter talk is the one I want to tell you about.  Ms. Proskouriakoff is magnificent, but it’s hard to beat mysterious poison flasks.  (And I took better notes at the poison flask talk, c‘est la vie.)

Here’s what I learned.

The Library of Congress collection of so-called “poison bottles” or “poison flasks” contains 174 flasks, dated between 200-900 C.E. The “poison” comes from speculation about their contents, based on their small size, but we don’t know for sure what the bulk of them were used for.

Only one flask has had its contents identified (by a Library of Congress Kislak Fellow, no less!).  The flask had trace amounts of residue inside, which was found to be tobacco.  Not just any tobacco, though; tobacco with very, very high nicotine content.  Perhaps strong enough to be a hallucinogen. More about tobacco and the Maya here.

Some of the flasks have scenes carved into them, of ball games, and one choice depiction of a man giving himself an enema (sorry).

Other flasks have glyphs.  Today, we can make sense of about 80-85% of Maya glyphs, due in large part to some breakthroughs in Russia in the 1950s (that would be Yuri Knorosov, who realized that Maya glyphs didn’t stand for letters in an alphabet, but rather for syllables, or sound values).  We now know that Maya glyphs are a combination of these syllabograms and logograms (glyphs that express meaning; represent words or phrases).  In short, using glyphs, the Maya could write anything they could say.  The Maya were, in this way, the only fully literate New World civilization — that we know of — prior to European contact.

As a side note, and because it all fits together just too beautifully, it was our friend Ms. Proskouriakoff — using Mr. Knorosov’s findings —  who determined that some of the Maya glyphs were in fact histories of the Maya people and their rulers.  Prior to her discovery, the only glyphs that had been translated were astronomies and calendars [source].

Here’s the rub: our “poison flask” glyphs seem to be purely decorative.  They’re real glyphs, but when translated, the effect is nonsensical.  Why?  One theory (credit to Graham Atkinson) is that the flasks were made by craftsmen who were perhaps producing them to be sold cheaply to the masses.  The craftsmen liked the look of glyphs on pots — added prestige, perhaps — but were illiterate themselves, so they simply carved random glyphs for effect only.  More finely-crafted pots, made for the literate elite, were carved with translatable glyphs.

The “poison flasks,” in other words, could be the knockoff Prada wallets of the ancient world.

Ringo, you’ve done it again.



Pictures of some of the flasks in the Jay I. Kislak collection at the Library of Congress can be found here.

I feel compelled to mention to you — as was mentioned to us at the gallery talk — that these flasks are here for researchers to study.  Little has been done with them as of yet; they’re an intensive project waiting to happen!  Details about the Library of Congress Kislak Fellowship here.

And if you’re a wants-to-know-everything-about-everything history nerd like me and live in the Washington DC area, you should know that gallery talks at the Library of Congress are free and open to the public.  They’re usually on Wednesdays at noon.  A full list of upcoming talks and other public events can be found here.

While we’re on an archaeology kick, how about those Vikings in North America?

This post isn’t written on behalf of nor endorsed by the Library of Congress. Notes, opinions, any inaccuracies, and weird Ringo Starr references are my own.

One response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *