Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color

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Color is an integral part of human experience, so common as to be overlooked or treated as unimportant. Yet color is both unavoidable and varied. Each culture classifies, understands, and uses it in different and often surprising ways, posing particular challenges to those who study color from long-ago times and places far distant. Veiled Brightness reconstructs what color meant to the ancient Maya, a set of linked peoples and societies who flourished in and around the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and Central America. By using insights from archaeology, linguistics, art history, and conservation, the book charts over two millennia of color use in a region celebrated for its aesthetic refinement and high degree of craftsmanship.

The authors open with a survey of approaches to color perception, looking at Aristotelian color theory, recent discoveries in neurophysiology, and anthropological research on color. Maya color terminology receives new attention here, clarifying not just basic color terms, but also the extensional or associated meanings that enriched ancient Maya perception of color. The materials and technologies of Maya color production are assembled in one place as never before, providing an invaluable reference for future research.

From these investigations, the authors demonstrate that Maya use of color changed over time, through a sequence of historical and artistic developments that drove the elaboration of new pigments and coloristic effects. These findings open fresh avenues for investigation of ancient Maya aesthetics and worldview and provide a model for how to study the meaning and making of color in other ancient civilizations.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780292719002
  • Publisher: University of Texas Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 8.80 (w) x 11.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

STEPHEN HOUSTON serves as Paul Dupee Family Professor of Social Science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

CLAUDIA BRITTENHAM holds a Ph.D. in the History of Art from Yale University and is now a member of the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan.

CASSANDRA MESICK is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Brown University.

ALEXANDRE TOKOVININE is Research Associate, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

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Table of Contents


Chapter One. Seeing Color
Sensing Color
Theorizing Color in the West
Comparative Theories of Color
Colorizing Mesoamerica
A Book on Maya Color

Chapter Two. Naming Color
Simplex Terms
Complex Terms
Organization of Colors
Maya Color Terms
Maya Terminology

Chapter Three. Making Color
Prime Colorants
Mother-of-Pearl and Pearl
Nonjade Greenstones
Reflective Stones: Pyrite, Hematite, and Mica
Translucent Stones
Manufactured Colorants
Pigments and Paints
Reds, Yellows, and Browns
Blues and Greens
Ceramics: A Special Case
Making Maya Color

Chapter Four. Using Color
Approaches and Limitations
The Preclassic and Early Classic: Colors of the Earth
Red, Black, and White
The Late Preclassic: New Colors
The Early Classic: Tradition and Retrenchment
Color Use in the Preclassic and Early Classic
The Late Early Classic and the Rise of Maya Blue
Experiments in Ceramics
The Invention of Maya Blue
Architectural Color
The Conservative Colors of Death
Color Use in the Late Early Classic
The Late Classic: Naturalism and Its Dissenters
The Naturalistic Revolution
Color and Dimension
Rejections of Polychromy
Color Use in the Late Classic
The Terminal Classic: Rupture and Reinventions
The Postclassic: The Colors of the Gods
Early Postclassic: Five Basic Colors
Late Postclassic: The "International Style"
The "Blue-and-Black Style"
Color Contrasts
Color Use in the Postclassic
Using Color
Epilogue: A History of Maya Color

Appendix: Dyes and Organic Colorants of the Maya and Aztecs

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