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Veiled Brightness

Veiled Brightness
A History of Ancient Maya Color

The first systematic study of how the ancient Maya peoples perceived and used color.

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment, in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere

July 2009
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162 pages | 8 1/4 x 11 | 24 color illus., 25 line drawings, 2 maps, 4 tables |

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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.

  • Prologue
  • 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
      • Red
      • White
      • Black
      • Yellow
      • Yax
    • Maya Terminology
  • Chapter Three. Making Color
    • Prime Colorants
      • Feathers
      • Flowers
      • Shells
        • Spondylus
        • Mother-of-Pearl and Pearl
      • Stones
        • Jade
        • Nonjade Greenstones
        • Obsidian
        • Turquoise
        • Reflective Stones: Pyrite, Hematite, and Mica
        • Translucent Stones
    • Manufactured Colorants
      • Dyes
      • Pigments and Paints
        • Blacks
        • Whites
        • 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
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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.

Christina Warinner is preparing her doctoral dissertation in anthropology at Harvard University.


At U K'ux Kaj, Ulew
At ya'ol rech q'anal, Raxal

[You, the heart of the sky, of earth;
You, the giver of yellowness, of blue/greenness]

—Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh, 2004


It is futile to be dogmatic about color. There can be no consensus about what colors "mean" or how to use them "truthfully."

—Philip Ball, Bright Earth, 2001

Consider two pots, both from northern Guatemala, dating to about the same time, c. AD 750, yet using very different colors (Figure 1.1; K688, K511). One vessel highlights line of variable density against a beige background. The other fills that background with inky darkness. It picks out hair, blood spots, and flesh with reds and a decayed pigment, perhaps a blue-green. Vagaries of survival intrude. The bichromatic vase, with a single rim-band in red, shows signs of recent repainting. Name glyphs smear into illegibility because of poor restoration. According to rumor, the other was smashed at some point in a car wreck, to be pieced together by modern restorers. As with many Maya artifacts, the pots were looted. Perhaps they came from royal tombs, but scholars will never know because of the murk that surrounds illegal excavations.

What can be known, or at least explored, are features of system, intention, and physical effects. System: The vessels were painted with precedents in mind or sight. They came into being through a series of examples, thoughts, customs, and innovations about the making and meaning of color. They imply ideas about what color is and what color does. And as the products of a system, a coordinated and collective web of meaning and practice, they express understandings about the combination and exclusion of color, about how to achieve those colors through technical means. Intention: Sometimes the painter varied from precedent, making a different set of choices in accord with what Michael Baxandall has called the "charge"—do this!—and the "brief"—the constraints, conditions, and "culturally determined possibilities" that enmesh all creativity (1985:32, 42-45). Here, scholars can evaluate the workings of individual intention and innovation at various steps in the design of color, despite the limited sample and intrinsic demerits of operating at great cultural and temporal distance. Physical effects: The creation of color involves technologies of color, with intended and unintended consequences, and the physiological and psychological constitution of color through human eyes and brains. The task, a tricky one, is to reconstruct and relate system to intention to physical expression and, as a work of history, to chart those relations over time.

This book records a history of color use among the ancient Maya, who flourished in and around the Yucatan Peninsula from prehistoric times, perhaps as early as the second or third millennium BC, until the Spanish Conquest, at which time they found ways to survive by the million until the present. The book deals with a subject that has yet to be studied systematically despite the riches at hand. Many thousands of Maya pots display a record of color that hints at many other lost works in perishable media. A smaller number of murals supplement such evidence, along with the vestiges of color on buildings, wood, jade—even the tones of a natural world that envelop the Maya people today—in colors mimicked by painterly skill. Hieroglyphic texts and dictionaries of more recent vintage fill an important gap by telling us how the Maya spoke (and wrote) about color.

The first step in accessing past color use is to examine the basic physiology of color perception. On this basic foundation rest all subsequent steps, including color use in historical and cultural terms, in which indigenous understandings need to dislodge misleading analogies from Western thought; what the Maya themselves said or wrote, from the Early Classic period (c. AD 250-AD 550) to the present day; a reconstruction of the technology of Maya color; and, finally, a history of color use as a basis for further research and reaction. This chapter introduces the subject by comparing various theories of color, especially those views that are anthropological and comparative. Throughout runs a tension between approaches that might be termed "universal" and "cultural." The first reflects the fact that humans do, after all, belong to the same species and can only vary so much from the potential of their shared, physical equipment. The second stresses the near infinity of meanings that can be attached to color, requiring sensitivity to local setting, precedent, and creativity. The interlocking of the universal and cultural features is itself a subject of discussion, whether to be seen as a cultural level layered on natural strata—that is, a "nurture"-like sugar frosting over "nature"—or combined more subtly into a unitary mechanism of perception.

Sensing Color

As a physical effect, color results from vibrations in the electromagnetic resonances of light (Byrne and Hilbert 2003:18-19; cf. E. Thompson 2000:169-173). Oscillations by frequency produce a range from red to blue in the visible spectrum of humans, at wavelengths between 360 nm and 760 nm (Coren et al. 1999:121). Several colors are absorbed, leaving some to register in the eye as color (Ball 2001:26-29). The important detail is that color does not form an integral part of materials. It derives instead from shifting perceptions that depend on variables such as the amount and duration of sunlight, ambient moisture, damage to the eye itself, effects of medium or age of the viewer (R. J. Adams et al. 1994). An emphasis on perception is fundamental. To humans, "colors" exist as variable receptions of light quanta on retinal rods, which discern light and dark, and on color-sensitive cone cells, which respond selectively to yellowish green, bluish green, and bluish violet light. The receptors transmit messages about color to the visual cortex of the brain, which receives and integrates electrical impulses thus stimulated in the retinal membrane (Ball 2001:45).

The sensation of light is thus a complex intersection of wavelength, reception, neural transmission, and processing in the brain. The relation of color to pattern or to the objects so colored also assumes a strong, if not determinative, role, as does the play of contiguous pigment and the memory and expectation of such colors from other contexts (Albers 2006; Anstis et al. 1978; Coren et al. 1999:146-147; Viénot 2002:12). Painters of the recent past understand fully the difference between scanning over colors and observing them as a fixed field. The superlative example of this is Georges Seurat's ongoing, if posthumous, experiment on the eyes inspecting his A Sunday on La Grande Jatte in the Art Institute of Chicago (Figure 1.2; Wurmfeld 2000:38). For Seurat, the painting "makes an optical theory the justification for a technique" (Gage 1993:175).

As sensation, color further reduces to three descriptives: hue, saturation, and brightness. Hue contributes the defining element of color sensation, as a set of perceived wavelengths corresponding to common labels such as "green" or "red"; saturation specifies the intensity or relative dullness of hue, often through mixing with white or black; and brightness characterizes the gradations from dark to light (Abramov 1997:100; Casson 1997:fn. 1). Efforts to map these qualities, sometimes under different names and inferred from quite dissimilar beliefs, constitute a veritable parade of effort, folly, and achievement, along with, at times, an uncomfortable or unresolved encounter between objective quantification and subjective experience (Birren 1979; Gage 1999a:11, 22-26). The presentation of results takes the form of a disk, at first hand-painted and later reproduced by laborious technical printing; a chart; or an oblong solid with gradations. The culmination is the elongated diagram devised by the Commission Internationale de l'Éclairage (Ball 2001:46). These devices acknowledge a near infinity of color, alongside labels with a very different aim: to segment perception through correlations with language and its diverse lexemic description of the world (see Chapter 2).

Theorizing Color in the West

Beyond the facts of physiology, little about color merits automatic acceptance. Consider experimental neuropsychology. It often claims decisive universalism yet at the same time shows few signs of finality in debate or research, at least to passive consumers in outlying fields like anthropology and art history (Abramov 1997:114-115). Incompleteness, too, marks historical writing about color. As a rule, histories, including those of impressive erudition, rarely wander beyond the limited path of Western precept, in part because the main story to tell concerns not only the advance of experimental science but also figures such as Jan van Eyck, Titian and J. M. W. Turner, Wassily Kandinsky and Willem de Kooning, as well as the productions of Mark Rothko and beyond. There is something here that does indeed relate universally to human belief and practice, including those of the Maya, namely, the subtle and continued emphasis on the materiality of color, the historically variable range of meanings attached to colors, and the valuation of certain colors against others. But there is also much that is rooted in the West, including a growing fixation on the optics of color and the belief that color can exist, for the purposes of adequate scientific description, in an abstract state of classification, without reference to the world or the meanings humans attach to it.

Most Western accounts about color trace an intellectual inheritance that begins in the classical world and its notion of antitheses between dark and light, which form part of the "primary colors" that arrange these opposites between red and a pale, inclusive color known as chron (Gage 1993:11-12; Zehnacker 2004:35). It is possible that some of these notions go further back still, to Indian and Mesopotamian theories (Dronke 1974:61). Plato and Aristotle conceived of the same primacy of dark to light but added, in Aristotle's case, a prescient comment on the effects of contiguous colors and "metamerism," the perception that color shifts according to ambient light (Aristotle 1986:173-176; Gage 1993:14; Platnauer 1921). Aristotle also appears to have located color in the surface of things. As an agent, color could move in such a way as to communicate across a transparent medium and convey its essence to the eye (Aristotle 1986:173-176; Lindberg 1976:8).

A fixation on luminosity continued to influence thoughts about color well into late antiquity, as did an aesthetic that prized the gleaming, the smooth, the bright, and the ornate, in direct opposition to the mistaken present-day notion that the Greeks and Romans prized form over color (Dürbeck 1977; Gage 1993:16; Vickers 1987:136-137). As Pliny the Elder observed, the limited palette, such as that of Apelles of classical Greece, was the true marker of skillful restraint, although it is doubtful, in the absence of any surviving works from Apelles, that every painter of the time followed such strictures (Ball 2001:15). Emphasis on tone counterbalanced a varied polychromy that is only now being assigned its due prominence, to judge from stone figures of Greece in the Early Bronze Age to the carvings of the later Mediterranean Basin, many with vestiges of bright pigment (Brinkmann 2004:41, 44; Hendrix 1997-1998:6). Examples like these serve as reminders that histories of color are only as firm as available evidence, which may change dramatically with new finds and refinements to scholarly powers of observation.

Many accounts of color history in the West stress the intersection of two features, the meaning and interrelation of color, with consequences for description and classification, and its procurement and application as technical challenge, in what might be termed the "pragmatics" of color-in-use. Meaning embraces many levels of understanding, from casual association to full-blown theories of color and its linkage to separate orders of expression. It bows to two interpretive constraints: one, that colors seen today depart most likely from colors applied before centuries of material decay and neglect, a red lead paint becoming, say, a chocolate brown (Ball 2001:250-268); and two, that families of color terms recorded by ancient authors bear uncertain relations to current labels. There are doubts, for example, about the precise hue, saturation, and intensity of Homer's glaukos, which flits between gray, blue, yellow, or brown, or about the fluid obscurity of his "wine-dark sea" (Pastoureau 2001:25; Rowe 1974:341). A further difficulty is simply a suspicion of grand narratives, those singular forms of historical tale that report too broadly and glibly, at the expense of the variety of opinion that characterizes human thought (see prologue to this volume; Bynum 1995:33). Scholars should recoil from statements about "what the people of the Enlightenment thought" and "what the Maya believe" yet still, somehow, allow for the possibility of cautious summation.

Despite such problems, there is strong evidence of system and coherent pattern in early sources within the Western tradition, such as Galen's fusion of the four elements with the four primaries and the Hippocratic doctrine of color and bodily humors (Galen 1996, 1:2; Hippocrates 1957; see also Gage 1993:29, for citations of these). These color theories contribute to a world made consistent through an inclusive harmonization that both connects the things within it and reduces them to a comprehensive system. At a later date, a classical concern with luminosity enters the sensory discussions of Christian clerics (Lindberg 1983; Panofsky 1979). Light emanates from the Divinity, to be captured and channeled in stained and painted glass within sanctuaries worthy of divine visitation. In turn, buildings suffused with such light become either panegyrics to God (especially to "chromophiles") or, in others' reaction to them, distillations of all that is arrogant, false, and uncontrolled in human nature ("chromophobes" or, in the Protestant Reformation, "chromoclasts" [Batchelor 2000:22-23, 48-49; Pastoureau 2001:42, 100]). Alongside such discussions are the fiercely colorized visions of interior worlds that pierce and overwhelm external ones, as experienced by Hildegard of Bingen (1990:87-89) and other mystics. Hildegard proclaims a saintly figure viriditas digiti dei, "the greenness of God's finger," or exults, O nobilissima viriditas que radicas in sole, "you most noble greenness rooted in the sun"; or, "[t]hen I saw a most serene light, and within it, sapphire in color, the image of a man" (Dronke 1974:83, 98).

The codes of meaning that dictate heraldic practice take an opposed path by materializing color through derivation from precious substances: sable, a "black" fur, or azur, a "blue" from pricey lapis lazuli (Gage 1993:81-82; Pastoureau 2001a:21). In this scheme, which developed and achieved standardization over a century or more, color exists firmly in the world, not solely as outflow from divine essence (Dennys 1975:126-128; Keen 1984; Pastoureau 1986). The medieval meanings of color attained great elaboration, some of constant use over wide areas, but not a few regionally divergent. In Germany, green signaled the awakening of love, blue its fidelity, while white promised fulfillment and yellow, consummation; in contemporary Spain, that same yellow indicated despair (Dronke 1974:71-72). As an expression of Christian faith, those same colors correlated with heavenly jewels, such as green jasper representing the vitality of belief; a preciousness of material corresponded to the degree of spiritual elevation and, for Michel Pastoureau (2001:50-51), the prizing of one color, blue, above all others through its linkage to the Virgin and her increasing centrality to church doctrine.

Colors served a key social function through use in sumptuary codes of varying levels of successful enforcement (Barber 1999:117; Kovesi Killerby 2002:14-15, 160). Group and profession could be distinguished by the colors displayed through clothing or, similarly, with hues restricted for a variety of reasons having to do with dignity, self-abnegation, or status as outcasts. The court fool, reckless as always, throws aside restraint with dress of many colors (Pastoureau 2001:87-90, 95). Color choice is thus understood as partly a moral decision. What is "good" equates to colors that seem, by local convention, appropriate and decorous; "bad" colors evoke negative moral associations. Even if used, they carry deliberate messages about their wearer and, through sumptuary enforcement, a practice of social inclusion and exclusion.

By the Renaissance and slightly before, light is made less metaphysical and more a matter of optics, giving rise to speculation about human perception and ways to create overall systems of color (Gage 1993:76-77). This might be described as the slow replacement of "Aristotelian natural philosophy . . . [by] the new mechanical philosophy," in which color became the product of sensation and not the inherent property of "bodies . . . exhibited by light" (Shapiro 1994:610). Still, caution is advised when proposing such shifts. It is an overstatement to insist that people of the period focused with single intent on theoretical abstraction or that they prefigured exactly the attitudes of present-day science. According to Mosche Barasch (1978:xv), the Renaissance mindset—if one can generalize about such diverse attitudes and dispositions—rejected a worldview that failed to recognize the role of spirit-force.

The paint on the brush also claimed the attention of Renaissance minds, as theory seldom skirted too far from what painters did in practice. So it was with Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), author of De Pictura, who introduced the notion to a general readership that black and white were palpably different from the primaries he discerned, "red, green, blue, and yellow" (Shapiro 1994:605). Trained in canon law, Alberti discoursed on color after being inspired more by "established workshop traditions . . . [than by] looking at nature" (Barasch 1978:19; also see Ackerman 1980).

For Alberti and others, the materiality of color was ever present. A plausible argument has it that the notion of the primaries resulted in part from painterly craft and the needs of color mixing (Alberti 1972:47; Hall 1992:47). This union of empiricism in scholarship and painting led, through halting steps, to the trichromatic theory of the mid-nineteenth century and to Impressionism (Shapiro 1994:627). It was not a route without obstacle. A few centuries later, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously derided the reductive scientism of Newtonian color theory, which attempted what was, to Goethe, a spurious quantification of sensation (Sambursky 1974:200). To judge from his Remarks on Color, Ludwig Wittgenstein also asserted that logic could reveal matters that science failed to disclose. All the while, in unwitting irony, he used as his baseline a partly arbitrary six-color circle derived from Newton and his followers (e.g., Wittgenstein 1977, 3:21-30; see also Gage 1999a:8; Westphal 1991:160-162).

The presentation of color in wheels or as solids, as became the norm from the time of Newton on, implied ideas about the harmony of wholes, of colors that complemented or jarred (Ball 2001:42). Inevitably, the rainbow, a striking and widely seen performer in the sky, filtered into most notions of "natural" spatial relations between colors (Gage 1993:93-115). The wheel, too, seemed an appropriate motif for unity as well as a convenient mode of display. It presaged the following centuries and their widespread concern with taking the measure of mixed color. Something like this can be seen in Charles Hayter's "colour circle" of 1813 (Figure 1.3), produced for amateur artists, with helpful annotations about which colors were "cold" (green, blue, purple) or "warm" (red, orange, yellow; Stromer and Baumann 1996:69-72). In fact, these signify precisely the opposite of their actual capacities for heat (Gage 1999a:22).

From these color wheels descend the expansive system of chips created by the artist Albert Munsell (1905) at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Munsell chips divide and isolate color in ways that, for Munsell, facilitated the painter's craft but went on to more sustained use among those wishing for close, nonsubjective description of color. Defined by "chroma" (saturation), "value" (brightness), and "hue" (perceived wavelength on color spectrum), color becomes a precise label, an authentic "fact" that encodes an intrinsic property of the thing being described (Latour 1987:25; also see A. Jones and MacGregor 2002:5-6; B. Saunders 1995). It becomes replicable because people can consult a chart identical to the one on which the description was based. Different eyes thus "see" as one and open a shared framework for discussion about the same color. (This discussion bypasses astronomical explication of spectral wavelength, which belongs in another forum.)

The pragmatics of a Western history of color record a related story, in which the acquisition, transport, preparation, mixing, and application of pigment touch on what people thought about color. Some technical terms first: "pigment" is a coloring material; mixed with a base, pigment creates "paint"; "lake" is an organic colorant, usually combined with an inorganic base; and "dye" is the creation of hue through soaking with colorant, taken mostly, with the exception of certain reds and purples, from the plant kingdom (see Chapter 3; also Balfour-Paul 1998:2). It is here where gender, a set of culturally determined roles and statuses, enters the story. As a general and often unproven premise, it is thought that women wove cloth, particularly at the domestic level, but less so in instances of mass production (Barber 1994:220-221). Color certainly could be used to designate, as it did in dynastic Egypt, the difference between men and women and, when muted or suspended, as in Akhnaten's time, a new notion of gender equality (Eaverly 2004:53-55). There is less agreement about the gender of dye experts, who knew how to apply dye directly or through "vatting," a process ensuring fixity of color (Balfour-Paul 1998:119-123; Barber 1994:113-114). The earlier manuals on the preparation of pigment, lake, and dye bordered on the mystical; one treatise even insisted on "the urine of an uncorrupted red-haired youth" (Clarke 2001:26). More practical objectives began to predominate in late medieval works.

Many pigments or lakes were thought to have medicinal properties, a feature that also appears in Mesoamerica. Cochineal, made from the bodies of insects that parasitize Opuntia cacti, remains a prominent example (Donkin 1977:22, 51). The Latin term pigmentum could mean either a pigment for application or a drug for ingestion (Greenfield 2005:83; Harley 1982:8); saffron, too, flavored food but also colored cloth (Barber 1999:117). This means that a connection was established between things that could be good to see and in some cases healthy to eat, although with the greater likelihood that moderate toxicity would result from ingestion or application to the skin. At least the user would feel an effect from such consumption (Balfour-Paul 1997:157-162). The alchemist labored at the intersection of medicine and the incipient science of chemistry. From such people came a failed search for the philosopher's stone, known not coincidentally as the "tincture," yet also new kinds of pigment and approaches to engineering lakes and dyes (Ball 2001:76). This process did not end when people tossed their alchemical tools. In the nineteenth century, modern mauve came about because of a search for a synthetic variety of quinine, the malaria remedy then available only from imported bark (Finlay 2003:352-353).

A history of pragmatics necessarily focuses on particular pigments and their subsequent processing, with implications for terminology and, through scarcity, value. Until the introduction of inexpensive chemical dyes, many colors were costly to create or reproduce—although free in nature, glimpsed on a butterfly wing or in a gaudy sunset, they were highly expensive when used in human craft. Distance from source led to circumstances in which a particular color advertised wealth and status. "Ultramarine," from crushed lapis, came literally from "across the water" (Ball 2001:92). According to Pliny, a pound of indigo equated to ten to twenty times the daily wage of the early first millennium AD, tempting many to indulge in the fraudulent practices of dilution and counterfeiting (Balfour-Paul 1997:11). Scarcity and value compounded themselves through sumptuary codes and the nature of such knowledge as personal or group secrets, which began to unravel with greater rapidity from 1770 on, when an ever-widening array of pigments set ablaze the works of J. M. W. Turner and other colorists (Ball 2001:161-163; that the pigments were not colorfast did not seem to bother Turner, to the extent that, in John Ruskin's words, a Turner work approaches "perfection a month after it is painted" and presumably does not retain it for long after [Finlay 2003:134-135]). Now there was color without limit or, rather, color use restricted only by the relative daring of the painter. The problems became, instead, how to discipline that palette and when to exercise selective choice within a drawer of possibilities.

Comparative Theories of Color

A Western account, though difficult to detach from those of other parts of the world, frames useful questions about what colors meant, singly and in combination, and how they were produced as part of a loose tradition evolving in fits and starts over centuries. But it is still a Western account. It tells one set of stories out of many (for a useful bibliography, see A comparative perspective is at once more universal and more relative. Potentially, commonalities in widely different regions and times arise from basic human physiology and cognition. In turn, a sense of difference stems from alternative understandings of what color is and what color does. The first, a notion of universal commonality, bends to evolutionary process. By expressing relative value, the second submits to history in its nature as a procession of unique sequences, shifts in meaning, and patterns conditioned by innovation and varying legacies of acceptance or rejection.

Universalism makes itself felt through chemistry, mimesis, cognitive effects, and nomenclature. The first is the easiest to consider, because chemicals react the same way under similar conditions, regardless of cultural setting, with a superlative capacity for reproducibility. As material products, they can be understood precisely, given enough samples and time for testing. This might also apply to the related topic of physics, by which humans perceive murals or colored objects according to varying conditions of light. A more subjective matter, mimesis is the painter and pigment user's response to the questions, what is this thing I see? and how do I reproduce it? As Willem de Kooning said, "Flesh is the reason why oil painting was invented" (Ball 2001:113). In mimetic views of art, green is "naturally" the color of lush growth; blue, of "intensity"; black, of the night; red, of the color of blood, of agitated states because of flushed faces (Greenfield 2005:2). When red ocher occurs archaeologically—along with black, it serves as the earliest pigment known to humans (Clottes 1998:119; Wreschner 1980:632)—the pigment is said to signal, often in unprovable fashion, the blood of the dead, of prey, or of "sham menstruation" (Knight et al. 1995:96-97), and, just as "naturally," white refers to semen (Tilley 1999:270; Turner 1967:61, 78). To be sure, a recent report suggests that color space—the arrangement of colors into a comprehensible system—arises from a distinction between light and dark and the biologically salient red (Jameson and Alvarado 2003).

Universalism also extends to the emotional associations of color. Yellow is held to be "cheerful" cross-culturally because of its light and saturated quality; black is "bad, strong, and passive"; blue is "good"; green is "restful"; and red is agitated and energetic (F. Adams and Osgood 1973:148; D'Andrade and Egan 1974:62; A. Johnson et al. 1986:679). Chromotherapy, or healing by exposure to certain colors, represents another universalistic claim that remains unconfirmed (Birren 1978:94-95; Lüscher 1969).

Innate plausibility is seldom persuasive when "common sense" itself falls into doubt (Geertz 1983). A radical universalism explains all and, in doing so, prompts an inevitable skepticism from those asked to accept its inclusive claims. Consider: the perception of color is always mediated by the mind. Insofar as the human mind considers meaning, this must involve a particular process of semantic vesting, in which systems of understanding and relations between them are implicated in the perception and evaluation of color (Gage 1999b:110; Lucy 1997:340-341). It is doubtful that scholars can still entertain the opposition of a "world-less subject [the perceiver and interpreter] confronting a thought-less subject [color in the world]," or suppose that there is no place for varied meanings attached in structured fashion to systems of hue, brightness, and saturation (Sahlins 1976:11). And where there is meaning, there are many meanings, depending on setting: white on an American bride brings joy and expectation; white in China, an evocation of death and mourning.

Color is revealed, then, as a semiotic code, a form of configured information, "a differential system of meaningful values," to be used for the purposes at hand (Sahlins 1976:9). The common, comparative claim that certain colors equate invariably to particular concepts (e.g., red = menstrual blood [see above]) now seems to simplify the meaning of colors beyond any practical use, more so, as is often true in archaeology, when the targets of interpretation are temporally distant, such as the stone monuments from Neolithic Britain studied by some prehistorians of color (Darvill 2002:85; Owoc 2002:137; Tilley 1999). A semiotic view of past meaning must bring Ferdinand de Saussure into the picture: his linguistic ideas make it impossible to see one meaning in isolation from other meanings. Intrinsically relational, a notion connected to one color implies a contrastive set of meanings assigned to other colors. These relations are necessarily subtle and complex, and best elicited by direct contact with makers and users of a particular system of color (Witherspoon 1977:145).

The same dilemma afflicts another kind of universalism. This is the approach that spies a connection between the colors of the external world, as seen and employed by artisans, and visual phenomena arising from neuropsychological effects. Altered states of consciousness, stirred by deprivation of light or food and water or triggered by psychoactive agents, rhythmic movement, hyperventilation, temporal lobe epilepsy, or schizophrenia, result in "incandescent, shimmering, moving, rotating, and sometimes enlarging patterns" (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988:202; Schultes et al. 2001:12-14). These are known to specialists as "entoptic phenomena," meaning "within the vision," and they derive from physical stimulation of the optical system, including pressure on the eyeball, along with purely cortical events or "hallucinations" (Furst 1976:4-15; Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988:202; Siegel 1977, 1984). The overall effect is something other than dreaming. It follows a more "intensified trajectory" that eventuates, finally, in "stage 3," as iconic patterns, an urgent sense of transformation, and synesthetic or plurasensory experience that couples vision with a swarm of other senses (Howes 1991:6; Lewis-Williams 2002:124, 129; the extent to which plurasensation is seen as distinctly non-Western is plain exaggeration [Gage 1993:226-246]).

Many theories invoke entoptic phenomena and hallucinations as foundational influences in religion (D'Aquili and Newberg 1999; Furst 1976; Harner 1980; La Barre 1970; Lewis-Williams 2002; Wasson 1980). The temptation is equally strong to highlight the role of entopticism in color use, more so when, as among the Huichol of western Mexico, brilliant color "paintings" in yarn express the experience of peyote ingestion (MacLean 2001:306-307). But always there is the matter of meaning. As active participants, those who "see" entoptically do not leave their minds to the side. They cannot. This frustrates attempts to use entopticism as a route into remote images from the Paleolithic. Scholars can show and share brain effects with painters of the Magdalenian period, but they cannot fathom meanings that are preliterate, local, and historically ephemeral. Those vanished with their makers, unless summoned by vague analogies to San or Yokuts "shamans" (Lewis-Williams 2002:60).

A final form of universalism relates to nomenclature, how language divides an array of color experience into terms intended to be understood by others (Gatschet 1879:483-484). The essential problem is whether nomenclature corresponds to experience. Notoriously, the statesman William Gladstone (1877) thought so. For him, in a moonlighting essay on "colour-sense," Homeric Greek demonstrated through its impoverished terminology that color perception must be relatively recent, just as, to a slightly later author, Englishmen clearly possessed a keener sense of blue than the inhabitants of the Torres Strait region north of Australia (Rivers 1901). These reports do not now enjoy support. It has been understood since the time of Ernst Krause, reacting to work by the ophthalmologist Hugo Magnus, both of whom were active in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, that color perception discriminates vastly more than does color terminology (Bellmer 1999:29-31, 35; Heider and Olivier 1972:351). This is why John Baines was able to find a considerable lag between ancient Egyptian color use and the terms for such colors. Plainly, "color is more easily painted than talked about" (Baines 1985:289; see updated version in Baines 2007). The actual use of pigment expanded, above all in the New Kingdom, according to new imports or technologies, and especially in response to a desire for "unusual color effects" (Baines 1985:290).

The touchstone for all color nomenclature is the work of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969), regarded as "among the most remarkable discoveries of anthropological science" (Sahlins 1976:1), "a landmark book" (Conklin 1973:932). In the first presentation of their work, Berlin and Kay postulate that most languages have a limited number of "basic" or focal terms for color. These terms should be common or "salient," applied to more than a few objects, and bear evidence of long usage (B. Berlin and Kay 1969:6-7). All were selected with the help of native speakers presented with Munsell chips. Consistency of response increased with colors at the "center" of particular wavelengths, hence the expression "focal colors." Colors arrange themselves universally in a fixed order of introduction, so that some languages distinguish only between black and white and red, others achieve green or yellow, then yellow or green, and on to blue, brown, and other elaborations (Figure 1.4). Stages of distinction correlate with "stages" of language. Mayan languages would typically fall at "Stage IV," prior to the lexemic identification of "blue"—thus black, white, red, green, and yellow—and Mexican Spanish would lie at "Stage VII" and contain a full set of the eleven possible terms for "basic" color (Gage 1999a:105).

Berlin and Kay have since refined the scheme, acknowledging "factual" errors and highlighting, not the successive encoding of focal color, but "the progressive differentiation of color categories" (Kay and McDaniel 1978:617). Others offer confirmation and supplementary evidence. The order by which terms in Mam Mayan and Spanish are learned is thought to replicate the evolutionary order posited by Berlin and Kay (Harkness 1973:199), just as some dialects of Italian appear to regress in their scheme, only to re-elaborate color terminology at a later date (Kristol 1980:145). The Chinese language of the Shang period seems not to have the fuller terminology of a thousand years later, when black is distinguished from "grue" ("green" and "blue"; Baxter 1983:1, 21-23). A study of Middle English yields a consistent shift in terms from ones that emphasize brightness to those that emphasize hue, as well as the development of secondary color terms in the late medieval period by means of "ontological metonymy," in which "an entity stands for an entity's color" (Casson 1994:17; 1997:238). This shift motivated a burst of secondary terms, most relating to pigments, cloth, or dyestuffs (Casson 1994:18; Jameson 2005:197): thus, "azure," "vermilion," "ocher," "ash," "violet." The supposition is that "the relative abundance and proliferation of objects (natural and cultural)" required effective description (Bolton and Crisp 1979:249).

Most criticisms of Berlin and Kay focus on two points of debate. The first concerns the psychological underpinnings of color distinction and whether language terms shape perception, including that of color (Kay and Kempton 1984:75-77; Lucy 1997:337-341; Lucy and Shweder 1979:602-603; Roberson and O'Hanlon 2005:505-506). Universalists, among them Berlin and especially Kay (2005), vary in opinion, with some moving toward an uneasy compromise with linguistic relativists, namely, those holding the view that perception and color names interweave deeply and pervasively. This approach accords with the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis," so called after its principal proponents, Edward Sapir and his protégé Benjamin Whorf, and an early, clarion statement of the reciprocal influence of language and worldview (Sapir 1951:160; Whorf 1956; see also Kay and Kempton 1984:65-66). Brightness and reflectivity frequently dominate aesthetics in places as diverse as Arnhem Land in Australia and Mesoamerica (Morphy 1992:202-203; N. Saunders 1999:253-254; 2001:232-233). Others point to the importance of "visual diet," the environment around the user of color, to the configuration of color terminology. Visual stimuli will differ in equatorial forest, tundra, and seacoast (Roberson 2005:66). Terms develop in part to describe such stimuli. Circumstances require them, in response not to Munsell chips, but to tangible things, their texture, reflectivity, shape, distance from observer, superficial or internal properties (Brenner 1982:10).

The second criticism is that a study of "color" often begins with a Western concept of what "color" might be. A method based on certain categories will necessarily maintain those categories throughout, as a set of premises leading to prefigured conclusions (Lucy 1997:338). For those interested in meaning and the finer points of cognition, Munsell colors miss a great deal. Though they may be psychologically intriguing, the results from a Munsell array may still dissatisfy the ethnographer, historian, and archaeologist. Harold Conklin (1955:343) discovered that the Hanunoo of the Philippines focus on varieties of light and moisture in their color system, and Eleanor Heider (1972:458-459), that informants varied in their responses, itself an intriguing problem. Among the Mursi herders of Ethiopia, David Turton (1980:334) found some correspondence to the Berlin and Kay scheme but with main reference to the shades of cattle, which interest the Mursi greatly as objects of wealth and prestige. In Tamil ritual, colored things trigger hot or cold states and, in combination, afford a means of enhancing human potency (Beck 1969:566). Then there is the case of Bellona Island, a Polynesia outlier; abstract color terms play little role on the island, where color terms are contextualized and assignable to changes in appearance: a sea that becomes still where once raging, a newly tattooed arm, a tree pendant with fruit (Kuschel and Monberg 1974:230). There is even disquiet with the evolutionary scheme at the heart of Berlin and Kay's proposals. A historical perspective on Uto-Aztecan finds far more "basic color" terms than they had contemplated (Hill and Hill 1970:236).

An emphasis on universals will tend to find them; local nuance, richly reflective of setting, soon drops from sight. Universalism ignores many questions: how and when to use colors; when not to use them; whether colors in combination "mean" something, or nothing beyond a certain aesthetic result; what changing values color and its associates might have; the nature of individual choice (Izutsu 1974:462-463). Michael Baxandall's stress on system, intention, and physical effects finds little full response in the grand yet pinched world of universalism. What can do service here, in addition to detailed study of regional traditions and their contributors, are approaches such as "visuality" or "visual culture" that look widely at how people look or see (Nelson 2000:2). But they require caution, too, particularly if reduced to mere concern with "politics"—who defines what is seen and when—or with "scopic," sight-oriented research that pays slight heed to the content of sight (Mirzoeff 1999:24-25). A common flaw in such research is a confusion between "visuality," as a way of looking, and "representation," which properly reflects an editorial process by which appropriate depictions are selected or favored (e.g., Quilley and Kriz 2003:2-3). Visuality, by contrast, concerns the process of sight and, secondarily, its products.

Colorizing Mesoamerica

A volume on Maya color, as directed along paths of history and meaning, needs to explore, as well, a regional setting that influenced and received input from the Maya. So far, this chapter has focused heavily on Western ideas simply because a Western context envelops most of those who might be reading this book. It is their, our, unwitting equipment. As a result, color theories from an occidental perspective must be presented, dissected, and then understood to be one account among many. Although not fully achievable, the task in this book is to approximate a Maya history that is able to chart a comparable domain of one category of perception, that of color. Here, the setting is Mesoamerica, a region stretching, depending on period, from as far south as Nicoya, Costa Rica, to the northern reaches of Mexico and perhaps beyond. Paul Kirchoff (1943) defined it by attributes that now invite skepticism for their ahistorical and "essentialized" nature—read: an idea or label with attributes that are said to be permanent, unchangeable, and unreceptive to variety. However, much the same could be said of "Europe" or "Southeast Asia," both regions that are in close historical contact, united or divided by religious precepts, yet coherent in study. Mesoamerica has both the demerits of regional groupings and their advantages. There is a strong chance that shared ideas came from ancestral roots or from later, direct contact, both of which were known to exist through shared biological and linguistic heritage, the diffusion of agricultural technologies, and wide networks of trading and conquest. Mesoamerica can be said to be, through its indigenous textual tradition and polychrome murals and pottery, intensely focused on color: Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, has at least fourteen color terms and a linguistic prehistory that deviates in its richness from the expectations of Berlin and Kay with regard to color terms (Gage 1999a:107; Hill and Hill 1970:232-236). Nahuatl is also known to maintain a strong relation to the material or thing that exhibits a particular color, including the five colors of maize (Dehouve 2003:70-71, 93). Description was not enough; the goal was to "symbolize" and establish linkages to the transit of the sun, the twin seasons, and sundry crops (Dehouve 2003:76).

The color legacy of Mesoamerica builds on a historically deep and widespread idea that probably came across the Bering Strait, to judge from parallels in Asia (cf. Grieder 1982:100-101). This is the linkage of color to directions or, more accurately, "world quadrants" whose borders were defined, perhaps, by solstitial intersections with the horizon (see Chapter 2; Charencey 1879; DeBoer 2005:73; Dixon 1899:10-11; Riley 1963:50; Vogt 1983:491). Quadrants also imply a center, similarly expressed as color—the "quaternary" nature of these systems is an oversimplification—and a relation that adopts a rotational form, shifting clockwise or counterclockwise depending on the area, usually starting in the east. Rotational ordering is, to Warren DeBoer, a "detectible phylogenetic signal" of linguistic contact or descent (2005:74-78).

Color directions also provide a means of grouping and arranging color, much like Newton's wheel, but with an authentic connection to space and, through movement, to time (see Chapter 2). Dance, music, and song were partly structured by directional beliefs, as were the locations attributed to particular deities (Martí 1960:112-114). In fact, the primordial movement of gods was thought to create and diffuse colors (Ferrer 2000:207; Robelo 1951). There is some regional grouping of color schemes that employ black, white, yellow, red, blue-green ("grue"), but also variety within groups. East-west colors trend toward greater fixity, but this is less so with north and south. The system of Colonial Yucatan was red = east, yellow = south, black = west, white = north, grue = center (J. Thompson 1934:211); that of the Aztecs (at times) was red = east, grue = south, white = west, north = black (Ferrer 2000:207-208). In the Berlin and Kay scale of color development, most Mesoamerican languages at the time of contact, and especially Mayan languages, fit into "Stage IV," prior to the systematic distinction of "blue" and "green" (B. Berlin and E. Berlin 1975:84-85; Kay 1975; MacLaury 1997:23-26). Robert MacLaury (1997:358-359), late author of a magisterial work on Mesoamerican color, characterizes Mesoamerica as a region that stressed hue over brightness and saturation when "state societies" began to develop. This does not accord with ethnographic observation. The Lacandon Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, a group not known for urban living arrangements or for living comfortably in the shadow of empires or states, much prefer highly saturated color (Vargas Melgarejo 1998:90). Mesoamerica is held by some to be "the world's richest area in diversity and use of hallucinogens," despite a relative poverty of floral species that induce such effects (Schultes et al. 2001:26). Through psychotropy, this may have had some influence on saturation as a preferred attribute of color.

The second legacy is the pan-Mesoamerican relation of chromatic effects to an overarching concept of paradise (Figure 1.5; Hays-Gilpin and Hill 1999; Hill 1992; Taube 2004a). Flowers, birds, and other iridescent creatures or things reside in the "Flower World," a timeless landscape abounding in beauty, song, and sacrality. This is where the living spirit flourishes and, in death, returns (Hill 1992:127-128). The flash of brightness, the unstable hue, the evocation of floral imagery—all attest to a land that is wonderful to see and, through song and fragrance, wonderful to hear and smell. The plurisensory quality of the Flower World expresses a "cult of brilliance" that is, in Nahuatl devotional literature, a metaphor for the reality of the world we occupy, a place of supreme loveliness just beyond the veil, sensed and glimpsed, seldom in full view (Burkhart 1992:89). The sound of metal bells creates comparable sounds. In the Cantares Mexicanos, a collection of Nahuatl poetry, "songs are radiating green . . . I, the singer, in this gentle rain of flowers sing before the Ever Present, the Ever Near" (Bierhorst 1985:141; Hosler 1995:112).

A Book on Maya Color

Color is ultimately ineffable: no amount of talk or writing will re-create its full impact on human vision, so this book will not even try. Instead, it charts a history of Maya color from multiple vantages, with the lessons learned so far in full view—that is, approaches stressing decontextualized, absolute "color" reveal little about a range of richer meaning. The first step, in Chapter 2, is to address the terminology of Maya color over time, from its first reference in the Early Classic period to the Colonial dictionaries to the ethnographic collections of recent date—all with strong emphasis on color as a key element of the ambient, physical world, a strand running through Western accounts as well. The third chapter confronts pragmatics, how colors were made and employed as a technical practice, and the fourth chapter provides a discussion of color-in-use, from earliest times until the conquest, when the indigenous palette collided with Spanish practice. A final statement reviews conclusions of earlier chapters, relates them to the narratives presented in the West and elsewhere, and signals work not yet done and problems still unsolved.