Art Spotted: Ancient Mayan Dental Decoration

Mayan jeweled dental inlay.  Picture courtesy José C. Jiménez López of National Geographic.

Today’s Art Spotted comes from the Late Classic Mayan Period (from 700 to 900 CE/AD).  Intentional dental modification in the Mayan culture dates back to at least 2,500 years ago.  Jeweled inlays on the outer side of the teeth (the labial surface) required extremely skilled dentists as it would be easy to injure the pulp cavity.  Inlays of turquoise, gold, pyrite, and jadeite were common and anthropologists believe that this type of dental modification was linked with high social status.  Filing crosshatched grooves into the labial surface of the teeth, filing the teeth into points, or altering the shape of the dental crown in other ways were also common.

Crosshatch design on the labial surface of the incisors. Image courtesy UIC.

The Mayans were not the only culture known to intentionally modify their teeth.  Archaeologists have also found evidence of horizontal grooves filed into the teeth of young Viking males dating from 800 to 1050 CE/AD.  It is also interesting to note that intentional dental modification continues into the modern era in both permanent and non-permanent forms.  The piece of jewelry known as the grill, a fitted metal cap worn over the teeth and typically studded with gemstones, appeared in the early 1980s and became widely known and popularized in America during the mid-2000s.

Horizontal furrows filed into Viking teeth. Image courtesy Caroline Alcini, via National Geographic.
USA gold medal Olympian Ryan Lochte with his American flag grill on 28 July 2012. Image courtesy Michael Dalder.

How do you feel about dental modification?  Would you ever consider wearing a non-permanent grill or getting your teeth permanently modified/inlaid with jewels?

For more information on Mayan inlay dental modification: click here to read the National Geographic article.

For more information of the different types of Mayan dental modification: click here.

For information of Viking dental modification: click here.

Also visit the original article from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology: click here (pdf file).

To read about grills: click here.


Silly Symphony Skeleton Dance

“The Skeleton Dance” is a short animated film produced by Walt Disney and animated by Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney, Les Clark, Roy O. Disney, and Wilfred Jackson.  It was released on the 22nd of August, 1929, and has become an iconic, classic animated short to watch during the Halloween season.  The total budget for the animation was $5,386, which calculates out to $72,886.44 if it had been produced in 2012.

Dancing skeletons, black cats, and other spooky, traditional Halloween imagery are used in the animation.  While we may watch the short and simply enjoy it for a sense of nostalgia, having seen it as children, or find the idea of skeletons dancing in a graveyard humorous and silly, the imagery in “The Skeleton Dance” has an extensive history in Western Art that dates back to the early 1400s.  It is a modern adaptation of the danse macabre, or “dance of death,” which commonly features skeletons dancing and other images of death.

The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut, 1493, a woodcut illustration for the Liber Chronicarum. This is one of the most well known examples of a danse macabre.

The earliest danse macabre images appear in Paris and were dated to 1424-25.  Unfortunately, this mural at the Saints Innocents Cemetery was destroyed in 1669, when the charnier housing the mural was demolished to widen the road behind it.  These images appear only 75 years after the Black Death swept through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia absolutely decimating the population.  In Europe it is estimated that anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the population and anywhere form 75 to 200 million individuals worldwide perished during the 1300s.  A charnier is a structure built on a burial ground that typically housed the bodies of people that died during the cold winter months until they could be buried after the ground thawed in the Spring or Summer.

An illustration of what the charnier at Saints Innocents Cemetery, Paris, France, with the original danse macabre mural would have looked like during the 1400s to mid 1600s.

The people of the Late Medieval period in Western Europe lived in a world that was dark and full of death.  When these macabre images of dancing skeletons became popular, not only had they lived through the plague within recent memory, but they had also experienced a drastic change in climate with the Little Ice Age intensification during the early 1400s, recurring episodes of famine, and social unrest ran rampant through all of Europe.  During this period wars such as the Hundred Years War claimed around 3.5 million lives.

Medieval people lived in a world where death was an ever present and a pervasive entity.  Scholars believe that genres like danse macabre express the fact that sudden death was always just around the corner, thus heightening the need for religious penitence and constant preparation for death.  They also postulate that portraying images of death and skeletons dancing or doing other humorous activities allowed medieval people to gain some amusement where little was available.

Happy Halloween season, everyone!

The Abbot by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538, woodcut as part of his Dance of Death series.

To read more about the Silly Symphony Skeleton Dance: click here.

To read more about danse macabre imagery: click here.

To see a great gallery of medieval images of death: click here.

To read more about the crisis of the Late Middle Ages: click here.

Art Spotted: Weaver Nests, Virginia, South Africa

These hanging nests were made by an undetermined species of weaver bird in the small town of Virginia, South Africa.  Weaver birds belong to the family Ploceidae and are related to finches (family Fringillidae) and are sometimes called “weaver finches.”  These birds are amazing builders and usually build large, intricate nests like these in a day or two.  They are common throughout sub-Saharan Africa and there are 23 species native to South Africa.

Nature photography, which focuses on outdoor photography of plants, animals, landscapes, and macro images of natural elements, has been around as long as photography itself.  In fact, the first photography ever taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 was a landscape image taken from his window in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France.  This image included ghostly renderings of trees, outbuildings, and the courtyard he could see from his room. A large part of nature photography is working to make yourself aware of the beauty and art inherent in the natural world around us.  People weren’t photographed until late 1838/early 1839, approximately 12 years after Niépce invented photography.

View from the Window at Le Gras by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1826, the first photograph ever taken

To discover more about weaver birds: click here!

To discover more about South African birds: click here!

Art Spotted: Wayang Kulit with Gamelan Orchestra

Wayang Kulit is a traditional form of Javanese shadow puppet theater and is accompanied by a gamelan orchestra.  It consists of two dimensional intricately carved and painted puppets traditionally made of water buffalo hide and attached to bamboo sticks.  The dalang, or puppet master, manipulates the puppets behind a screen with a bright light to create the shadow imagery.  Adaptations of epic romantic Indian myths as well as modern local events are used for the productions.  Performances can last for hours, sometimes even overnight.  The first Wayang play was recorded in 930 CE (AD).

Click here for more information on Wayang Kulit: here!

Click here for more information on gamelan orchestras: here!

Art Spotted: Amelanistic Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

The American International Rattlesnake Museum is located in Albuquerque, New Mexico and houses the largest collection of live rattlesnakes in the world.  Among them is a very rare amelanistic Western Diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) named Marilyn.  Amelanism is a rare, but naturally occurring, condition caused by the lack of the biological pigment melanin.  In snakes this condition typically expresses with a unique yellow coloring on the scales.  Marilyn looks especially yellow given the contrast between her scales and the dark rocks of her habitat.  Amelanistic coral and corn snakes typically express with bright red and yellow coloration on their scales.

Albinism, sometimes used interchangeably with amelanism, is characterized by the lack of all biological pigments in the body, of which melanin is only one of many.  When amelanistic and albino specimens occur in the wild they usually do not survive to adulthood as they are more visible to predators.  Marilyn should live a long life of 20-30 years and grow to a length of over 6 feet at the AIRM.  The museum is dedicated to promoting principles of animal conservation and education about rattlesnakes to the public.

The American International Rattlesnake Museum’s homepage: Click here!

Marilyn’s bio page: Click here!

Art Spotted: The Fremont Troll, Seattle, WA, USA

In the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, there lives a strange and monstrous creature.  It makes its home under the north end of the George Washington Memorial Bridge (also known as the Aurora Bridge) and stands 18 feet tall (5.5 meters).  Weighing in at over 13,000 pounds (6,000 kg), it waits for unsuspecting cars to pass a little too close…

The Fremont Troll by Badanes, Martin, Walter, & Whitehead (1990)

The Fremont Troll, completed in 1990, is a mixed media statue constructed out of steel rebar, concrete, and wire.  The concept for the statue, also known as The Troll and Troll Under the Bridge, was submitted as an entry in a contest created by the Fremont Arts Council to clean up and rehabilitate the area under the Aurora Bridge.  In 2005 the Fremont Neighborhood renamed the street passing by from Aurora Avenue North to Troll Avenue.

The Fremont Troll (1990) clutching a Volkswagen Beetle

It is interesting to note that the Troll is grasping a real Volkswagen Beetle.  Reportedly, the Bug had California license plates until they were stolen in 1998.  Every year on October 31st the neighborhood hosts a “Troll-a-ween” art party where people gather at the Troll and then moving on to visit other public art sites and events in the area.  If you’re ever going over the George Washington Memorial Bridge, be careful not to wake the troll unless you have three very clever billy goats to distract him!