Jaina-Style Vulture-Headed Whistle Figurine

Jaina-Style Vulture-Headed Whistle Figurine

A.D. 600-900
Campeche Jaina Island
Mold-made, hand-finished earthenware with remnants of white, blue, and yellow paint.
Gift of Cedric Marks

Jaina-Style Vulture-Headed Whistle Figurine, Maya
Jaina Island, Campeche, Mexico
A.D. 600-900
Ceramic, polychrome
5 x 2 1/4 x 2 3/4 in.
Denver Art Museum: Gift of Cedric Marks, 1971.402
Photography (c)Denver Art Museum


This object is currently on view
height: 5 in, 12.7000 cm; width: 2 3/4 in, 6.9850 cm; depth: 2 1/4 in, 5.7150 cm
Mayer Center, Art of the Ancient Americas
Art of the Ancient Americas

Jaina-Style Vulture-Headed Whistle Figurine
About A.D. 600-900
Mexico, Campeche region, possibly Jaina Island
Earthenware with colored paint
Gift of Mr. Cedric Marks, 1971.402

This mold-made Jaina-style whistle depicts a vulture-headed figure with a human body. Vultures are commonly seen in ancient Maya art. A vulture head, for instance, is used as a hieroglyph in one of the most commonly used phrases for the accession of kings. Vultures in general, as winged harbingers of death, appear to have been associated with omens, transitions, sacrifice, and both celestial and underworldly themes. On this figurine, the vulture face is enlivened by deep wrinkles, painted in yellow and blue. The long beak is tucked closely against the body, as are the arms and hands. The figure wears a long beaded necklace with a shell pendant and a long skirt marked along the edge with highly detailed embroidery.

Although this could represent a supernatural, it more likely represents a human figure wearing a vulture mask. It is unclear whether the figurine represents a female or a male. The lack of breasts, the bare chest, and loincloth flap that hangs outside of the skirt suggest it is a male. The length of the skirt, the hand position, and the cape that wraps around the figure's shoulders are, however, more commonly associated with depictions of females. The rattle in the figure's proper right hand indicates that this is a musician, captured in the midst of a musical performance of some kind. The blending of male and female iconography may indicate that this figurine represents a male performer dressed as a female vulture.

To create this figurine, the artist pressed clay into a ceramic mold. He then finished it by hand, adding three dimensional depth to arms, hands, and clothing, as well as adding in details such as the embroidered edge of the figure's textile skirt. After firing, the figurine was painted in bright colors. A nearly identical figure is currently housed in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico, demonstrating the frequency with which multiple Jaina figurines were made from the same mold.

To sound the whistle, one must blow into a hole at the base of the figure's tail. This figurine, then, does not simply represent a static image of a musician but would have been used itself to produce music.

For another vulture-headed figurine in the museum's collection, see 1983.412.

-Lucia R Henderson, 2016

Known Provenance
Gifted 15 May 1971 by Mr. Cedric Marks to the Denver Art Museum. Provenance research is on-going at the Denver Art Museum. Please e-mail provenance@denverartmuseum.org, if you have questions, or if you have additional information to share with us.
Exhibition History
  • "Grand Gestures"-- Denver Art Museum, 12/2015-12/2016.
  • “Stampede: Animals in Art” — Denver Art Museum, 9/10/2017