Eccentric flint depicting a crocodile canoe with passengers

CULTURE:
Maya
DATE:
600–900 CE
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General Description

The Maya perfected the art of chipping flint to create thin, flat blades (tok’) for sacrificial and ceremonial use. The complex shapes of many of these objects, which are too fragile for use as cutting tools, have earned them the designation "eccentric flints." Archaeologists have found them in elite tombs and in offertory caches associated with dedication and termination rituals for architecture and stone monuments. Such symbolically charged objects may also have functioned as talismans for living kings. This extraordinary flint was reportedly found together with another in the Dallas Museum of Art's collection (2009.26), as part of a cache that included a third example now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.[1]

This particularly elaborate flint is shaped as a monstrous crocodile-shaped canoe. Silhouetted human heads mark the stern of the boat and the foreleg of the animal. Three passengers, shown as profile heads facing right, are thrust backward by the force of the canoe’s dramatic downward plunge. Maya scholars Linda Schele and David Freidel have interpreted this image as a moment in the Maya story of the Fourth Creation of the world on August 13, 3114 BCE, when a crocodile canoe, paddled by gods, takes the soul of the sacrificed Maize God, or First Father, to the place where he will be miraculously reborn. The creation story seems to have been closely connected with Maya astronomy, in which the movements of the stars annually reenact these events. Looking skyward on August 13, the Milky Way stretches from east to west, resembling a cosmic monster, or canoe. After midnight the Milky Way pivots to a north-south position, and the canoe sinks to the underwater spirit world. The Maya saw this pivoting as the sinking of the canoe and the raising of the precious maize tree. Just before dawn the three stars of Orion appear overhead, signifying the three hearthstones of creation where First Father was reborn as Maize, the sustenance and flesh of humanity.

In this example, water flowers decorate the crocodile canoe's belly as it sinks down into the dark waters of the spirit world. Inside are the soul of the sacrificed First Father accompanied by two attendants, who may be embodiments of his parents. Because it represents this mythic act, this blade was probably an especially powerful talisman of a living king, who became the reincarnation of First Father as he held the blade. The blade itself, bundled in textiles, was probably carried by the king into battle as the focus for his spiritual energies and as his tactical inspiration. The flinty stone connoted lightning to the Maya and was called by the same name as the bright but dangerous bolts of light that accompany life sustaining rain.

[1] For more information on the Houston flint, please see the Web Resources section on this page.

Adapted from

  • Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Eccentric flint depicting a crocodile canoe with passengers (1983.45.McD) and Eccentric flint with heads of K'awil, the god of royal lineage (2009.26)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 44-45.

  • Carol Robbins, "Eccentric flint depicting a crocodile canoe with passengers (1983.45.McD)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection,_ _ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 189.

  • Carol Robbins, Label text, A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

Related Multimedia

Collection smARTphone video; Carol Robbins discusses Eccentric flint depicting a crocodile canoe with passengers, from Mexico or Guatemala, Maya culture (DMA collection, 1985.45.McD)
Learn about the Maya culture.

Fun Facts

  • This eccentric flint, a second flint in the DMA's collection, Eccentric flint with heads of K'awil (2009.26), and a third flint now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (Ceremonial Flint with K'awiil and Two Lords in a Monster-Headed Canoe) were found together as part of cache, reportedly in Guatemala. All three were acquired from the collection of Peter Wray, Phoenix, AZ. For more information on the Houston flint, please see the Web Resources section on this page.

  • The following poem is inspired by the Eccentric Flint: “Eccentric Flint” by Gene Scheer (2008): Carve away-what does not bring me closer to the sky. All that slows-the current racing towards what cannot die. The fertile dust of starlight Never quite dissolved, The bloom of endless echo Of a chord yet unresolved. Over and under, over and under, We are more than the wing we pray. Over and under, over and under, Through the waves of the Milky Way. A grammatical constellation A syntactical splash of sparks As the stars undulate the heavens Twisting into question marks. And you wonder where you’re going. Where did it all begin? Does the voyage to each destination Take me back to a place I’ve already been? Over and under, over and under, We are more than the things we pray. Over and under, over and under, Through the waves of the Milky Way.

  • Called "the most astonishing image of death in Maya art," the Eccentric Flint represents an animate canoe as it dives into the Maya Underworld, Xibalba. The monster head on one end of the Flint has an upturning snout and jade noseplugs. The front foot of the Monster/Canoe terminates in a human head. On the Monster/Canoe's back ride three individuals, presumably deceased kings, whose heads are thrown back by the force of the monster's dive. The dorsal end of the Monster/Canoe is another head of a king, as indicated by the projections from the forehead of the heads, known from other imagery to be smoking axes or cigars that identify the face as God K, the First Royal Ancestor. This flint was found with two other extraordinary eccentric flints in a single cache somewhere in the Maya area. Each is too complex and too fragile to have been used as a cutting tool. Instead, they infused spirit into the monument under which they were placed. In Maya art, the image of a canoe with several supernatural passengers usually indicates a journey of deceased royalty into the Underworld. A well-known image of Lord Chocolate of Tikal being paddled into the watery depths is seen on the Incised Bones of Tikal which were deposited in the tomb of Lord Chocolate under Temple I. The DMA Eccentric Flint has been widely published (Schele and Miller, Blood of Kings, 1986; Philip Kopper, The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians, 1986; Rediscovered Masterpieces of Mesoamerica, 1985) and was included in The Blood of Kings exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art (1986).

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Web Resources

Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Read more about the flint in the MFAH's collection.