Hand Carved Slate
From nearby quarries, local Mayan artisans use machetes and other tools to hand cut and extract slabs of slate rock that are hauled back to San Jose Succotz. The largest pieces of raw stone can weigh several hundred pounds and are taken back to the artisans' homes for further work. Only after carefully evaluating and cleaving off the topmost layers of the rock can the usability of a piece be established. To the right, Edwin Magana demonstrates the natural grey color that all slate displays before it is cut and polished.
Because larger slate carvings are more difficult to work with and can take months to complete, artisans typically transform complete these magnificent works by request only. Customers often include museums, local businesses, and collectors of Mayan artwork. Using archaeological texts and other scholarly sources, slate reproductions of classic Mayan carvings are created using only chisels, razors, compasses, and other hand tools. Working from home on larger pieces also allows artisans to work during the evening and night, when the Riverside Shops have closed for business. Here, working in his open-air dining room, Edwin Magana demonstrates his latest masterpiece to fellow artisan Ishmael Chan.
The majority of slate carvings, however, are smaller pieces that weigh a pound or less and which the artisans design and carve at the Riverside Shops. Artisans spend the majority of their day joking and socializing with each other at their shops - roadside stalls that have been manned by their families for more than a decade. Some of the more common designs include traditional Mayan calendars, representations of the Xunantunich ruins, and animal figures (such as jaguars, iguanas, howler monkeys, and turtles) that are stylized into wall hangings, necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. To the right, peering over the majestic Mopan River, Barnabe Camal puts the finishing touches on an incised calendar.
In San Jose Succotz, craftsmanship is a family business. Men often learn to cut and carve slate, although women are no less talented, and are expert seamstresses and jewelry makers. And, when the men are hacking a machete trail through the jungle to bring back the finest quality slate, their families - including wives, children, and parents - all step in to work in their shops. To the right, Mr. Itza works in his family's store and proudly demonstrates a Mayan calendar carved by his son, Arden Itza.
To the right, Ismael Chan adds the final polish to a slate carving while his father-in-law Mr. Itza watches closely. Black and brown shoe polish are often used to add a permanent glossy sheen to slate carvings. Artisans sometimes alternate colors, introducing variegated designs that blend black and other colors. Etching can add further texture, by "roughing up" portions of a carving with a razor to produce scalloped designs that maintain the original gray color of the raw slate stone.