January 23, 2015

Maya Block Printing

        In December we went to a special exhibit at the science museum about the Maya, and there I discovered that the Maya did some relief block printing.  This first block is shown beside the image it would make when printed.  I like the two little monkeys and the apparently more abstract design below.  (If I remember correctly, this is not a huge stamp: maybe about 2 or at most 3 inches tall.)  It and the others in the top row of the second photo are single small, flat stamps which were made by pressing clay into molds.  The exhibit didn’t tell whether the molds were made from wood, stone, or some other material, but in any case this production method would have some interesting implications.  First of all, the design to be printed would be carved into some sort of block, meaning that what you carve will eventually be ink-colored, just like intaglio printing and the opposite of most relief printing, since the clay pressed into the mold would then result in raised areas where the mold had engraved areas, which would then be covered in ink and relief printed.  Secondly, not only could each printing block make multiple impressions, but a single mold could create multiple printing blocks.  This is not a system designed for limited editions!  And what were these blocks used for?  According to the information written below, “the raised and decorated areas could be pressed onto cloth, paper, or even human skin.”  I don’t know what evidence the archaeologists have (if any) for how these stamps really were used by the Maya, as opposed to how they could have been used.  There were no examples of printed cloth or paper on display, but of course such things might simply be too fragile for display.
        The stamps in the second row are roller stamps.  According to the blurb, “the Maya covered cylindrical stamps with paint and then rolled them onto cloth in order to transfer the designs.  Stamps such as these indicate that stamping was common during the Classic Period.  Today, Maya women weave similar designs into textiles instead.”  There are a couple of interesting questions this small blurb raises.  Firstly, the archaeologists clearly view these as stamps rather than cylinder seals like those of the Sumerians.  (See my post on the earliest block printing.  Note, too, that if the flat stamps were actually printed on paper, the earliest of them might predate the earliest extant paper prints from Asia.)  Again, I wonder whether any ancient printed textiles actually exist, or whether they are merely assumed.  And secondly, it seems odd to me to go from printed textile designs to woven.  I would have expected the progression to go the other way - designs made in more complex methods would over time be adapted to the simpler reproduction method that is printmaking.
        In any case, despite my questions about how these printing blocks were actually used, I got a kick out of discovering them.  Yet more proof of the universality of the concept of relief printmaking.  Yes indeed, everybody loves block printing!

[Pictures: Flat stamps, pottery from Guatemala, Honduras, or Mexico, AD 250-1500;
Roller stamps, pottery from Copan, Honduras, AD 250-900 (Photos by AEGN, from Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibition at the Boston Museum of Science.)]


  1. Very good questions. Must be frustrating for the experts to have to condense what they know, with all the caveats and uncertainties, into a few phrases that don't allow much ambiguity. Still, it is a pleasure to be able to see these artifacts, and learn some hypotheses of how they may have been used.

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