Link to enlarge vase K7784 © Justin Kerr Charles Zidar


"For the Maya, trees constitute the ambient living environment, the material from which they fashioned homes and tools, the source of many foods, medicines, dyes, and vital commodities such as paper. They provided the fuel for cooking fires and soil-enriching ash that came from the cutting and burning of the forest. Trees were the source of shade in the courtyards and public places of villages and cities, and the home of the teeming life of the forest (A Forest of Kings, Schele and Freidel, 1990, p. 90)."

Despite the importance of plants to the ancient Maya and the many advances in understanding ancient Maya iconography and hieroglyphs, there has been scant identification and interpretation of botanical motifs in Classic Maya art. Many Classic period monumental and personal artworks feature plants, the rich variety of imagery reflecting that of the natural environment. This database addresses the understudied topic of botanical motifs in Maya art.

The database presents identifications of the genus and species for plants depicted in Classic Maya art, beginning with those rendered on the painted ceramics and carved jadeite ear flares. Forthcoming are identifications of botanical imagery in the painted codices, stucco and stone decoration of buildings, painted murals and carved stone stelae. The database also includes photographs or drawings of the identified plants and brief discussions of how and why the ancient Maya may have used them.

The research project and on-line database are a work in progress. A committee of botanists, archaeologists and art historians is assisting with the database, and we welcome the assistance and opinions of all interested parties. Should you wish to contribute your time and talent, please let us know via email botany@famsi.org.

Justin Kerr's photographic archive is the archive's main source of images of Maya artifacts, with additional examples from the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

We seek photographs of artifacts with botanical imagery and photographs of plants from Central America to become part of the database. Please send plant or artifact images and/or comments on any of our identifications via email botany@famsi.org.

The idea for this resource came from Mr. Zidar's attending the 2001 Primer Congreso Internacional de Copán entitled "Ciencia, Arte y Religión en el Mundo Maya" where Dorie Reents-Budet spoke on the interpretation of Maya polychrome ceramics. Her talk, "Loza Fina, Bella Arte y Regalos de Prestigio: La Cerámica Policromada Maya" included a brief discussion of the types of imagery painted on the pictorial ceramics, including unidentified botanical motifs. This led to Mr. Zidar's focused research on plants illustrated on Maya ceramics and jade earspools, which identified distinct botanical features of a wide variety of plant families. His research culminated in a Master's thesis (Sacred Giants: Ethnobotany of the Bombacaceae by the Southern Lowland Maya), and on-going research into other plant families important to the ancient Maya.

Mr. Zidar's research is the basis of the botanical resource database. Its purpose is to identify the plants depicted in Classic Maya art and thereby perhaps discern unknown or forgotten plants used by the Maya. The data may shed light for botanical studies by Mayanist scholars and biological scientists researching Central American plants for culinary, economical and pharmaceutical endeavors.

Working Maya Plant List
Images with plants yet to be indentified
Related Links
Related Research Papers and Articles
Author Biography
Review Committee & Plant List Under Investigation


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