Female-Effigy Second Burial Urn

South America, Northern Andes, Colombia, Lower Magdalena River, Chimila. AD 1000 – 1500.
Ceramic. 23 x 40 in. circum.
1990.11.2a,b.
Gift of William C. and Carol W. Thibadeau

In ancient Colombia the bones of the dead were deposited and buried in large urns. Nearly two feet tall to accommodate the long thigh bones of the deceased, the urn’s top opening was wide enough to insert the skull. This function challenged the ceramic artist to successfully hand build and fire on a grand scale; at this size moist clay is much more prone to collapse on itself while the piece is being formed or to explode from a trapped air bubble during firing. To focus on the bones as the permanent elements for burial meant that the body was first allowed to decompose for a fairly long period of time. Death was considered less a sudden change than a gradual transition and final burial was reserved for the completely essential body, reduced to its most lasting form. Placed in the urn, the bones, plus the deceased’s sparkling gold jewelry, were given a new permanent ceramic body. Here a pregnant female image was chosen (only in advanced stages of pregnancy does the navel take this everted form). Placing the dead inside a gestating female conveys a message about the circle of life and death, perhaps even an ancient belief in reincarnation. It is significant that in the Chibchan languages of this area the words for “seed” and for “bone” are the same. Thus, to place the seed of the dead in the image of the life-producing womb was to show how life grows anew time after time.