ANCIENT MAYAN POTTERY AS A BUSINESS IN BELIZE
contributed by Ray Auxillou
It’s sort of a new idea of doing an old business. The Magana Pottery Works in the village of San Jose Succotz, just back from the white water rapids of the Mopan River, flowing below the temple of Xunantunich, high on the hill the other side of the river. But the Magana family have been doing this for 25 years now. They make replicas of Mayan pottery items found in temple ruins by archeologists around the nation of Belize. They sell at a tourist stall by the Xunantunich tourist ferry. They make sculptures, masks, vessels, ocarina musical instruments, whistles, etc. Stuff that has been around for up to 11,000 years, nearly back into the last Ice Age.
What makes them unique is the style they use. German Magana said they couldn’t compete with imports from China done in the millions. So they concentrate on doing low temperature local clay items, made the same way their Mayan ancestors have been doing it for thousands of years. This is not an industry to get rich at. But they manage to feed their large family and put the kids through school. When I visited, they had three generations making things in the workshop. The technique is difficult. The clay sometimes has bubbles in it which are hard to sieve out. These bubbles cause their pottery to explode when cooked over a pine splint low fire. German Magana said they lose about 50 out of a 100 pieces. They dig the clay right out of their own yard. Material costs are nil, so labor is the only overhead. They will never get rich, but as long as the family eats and the kids can go to school, that is what it is all about, in the villages of Belize. One drawback is the decline in tourists. While cruise tourism is up, the intransit tourist has disappeared for the last two years and this third year doesn’t look any better. Due we assume; to the Guatemalan Express buses siphoning off the tourists down in Belize City and by-passing the local temple ruins. Cruise tourists are notoriously cheap and it is difficult and labor intensive to make something cheap enough for a cruise ship tourist to buy. Hardly worth the while, but people must eat and until the intransit exploring tourists come back to the ruins, they will do the best they can. Another help for this business would be the prohibition of clay masks imported from Mexico. Though they don’t look the same, the Aztec ones and the Mayan ones.
The Director of the Amazonian Arts and & Crafts Novelties Prototype Experimental laboratory in Hillview / Santa Elena, Mr. Gustavo Pinzon is seeking this year to find the materials and the artisans, or train them through trial and error to make some novelty items hoped to find a wider international market. The Magana Pottery Works just might be able to produce a Mayan Clay Flute, or indigenous Ocarina with enough holes tuned to modern Recorder standards, he says. He has supplied hole sizes and measurements for the Magana family and for tuning, the Maganas will soon be getting an electronic tuner, while they experiment trying to tune a soft Mayan clay instrument that will shrink and change size as it is cooked over the open pine splint fire. Tuning is the hard part to get right, German Magana says. Must ocarinas are pure tourist decorative items. They are not meant to play. The changing temperatures and sizes of the holes are something we will have to experiment with a number of times. Mr. Pinzon is also hoping they will make a Mayan Clay Sculpture of a more modern nature and design he has requested. This will be tried to be sold on the International World Market and hopefully if it works, it will produce another sideline income for this locally famous Mayan pottery family in Succotz.