Lesson 8: Memory and Cosmology: Cacao and a Ballplayer: Maya Ceramic Vessel, Mexico

Summary and Objectives. As students explore the iconography of a Maya chocolate vessel they explore topics of hieroglyphics, the ancient ball game, and culinary arts. Other curriculum connections include a focus on the Maya epic, Popul Vuh, in which are told stories of the Hero twins, and contemporary sociological challenges for Maya today. Activities involve research, visual analysis, artmaking, creative writing, and cooking. Students will

  • Explore the iconography on a Maya chocolate vessel through drawing activities and compare these with logographs in our writing system.
  • Explore topics of hieroglyphics, the ancient ball game, and culinary arts of the Maya through a variety of activities.
  • Develop a deeper understanding of Maya civilization through a study of the stories in the Maya epic Popul Vuh.
  • Consider and respond to issues and concerns facing the modern Maya today as they assimilate into new homes, far removed from their highland origins.


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Lesson 8: Maya Vessel Lesson Plan (PDF, 990 KB)

Background Information

Background Information

The ancient Maya civilization occupied the forested lowlands of today’s Guatemala and parts of Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico, primarily in the Yucatan Peninsula. While people there mainly grew crops for their own use, the lowlands were also important for the extensive trade that was carried on among the city-states. Volcanic highlands offered up valuable minerals, basis for much of the trade.

Many of the city-states (really separate kingdoms) were established between about 300 B.C.E. and 300 C.E. In subsequent centuries—300 to 900 C.E.—the Maya fashioned pottery vessels, elaborate jewelry, and masks of jade, and lived in spread-out cities with great pyramid-temples and observatories. Much that we know about the Maya of this era—known as the Classic Period—comes from their art. As they combined text and images, artists communicated ideas about natural surroundings, religious beliefs, daily activities, and the achievements of the various city-states. Works of art served to activate memories of important social situations and ensure cultural continuity.

The pottery vessel from the Classic Period that is displayed in Memory and Cosmology (fig. 2.4) was made to hold cacao or chocolate beverages consumed by the elite. Such vessels are characterized by deep relief carving. On one side of the vessel a ball game is depicted, and on the other a hieroglyphic text.


About the Artist

During the Classic Period, Maya artists were among the elite members of society. On painted pottery they are identified holding paintbrushes and paint holders, and wearing elaborate clothing and jewelry. Often they are shown seated next to the rulers’ thrones. Some artistic styles can be connected with specific regions and cities, and even with specific members of royalty.

Suggested Activities

1. The Dreamtime

Artistic imagery and a complex writing system recorded and asserted achievements of city-states and communicated important dynastic information. This vessel (fig. 2.4) with its drawing of a player recorded the outcome of a ritual ball game, and reflects the powerful place this activity held in Maya royal memory. The writing consists of hieroglyphs formed with a combination of different signs that represent either whole words or single syllables.

Activity. Without giving information to the students, give them time to look closely at the figure. Have them sketch the image (the process will alert them to details) and then describe or write what they see, what they believe to be happening, etc. Then share with them copies of Handout A MAYA VESSEL and the information about the ballgame included in the Play Ball! activity that follows, and let them offer further speculations and/or do further research.

Activity. Understanding that the vessel was utilitarian, what do students think it held? Analyzing residue in the bowl, archaeologists have identified its use as a chocolate vessel. Evidence of chocolate dates from before the Maya civilization and depictions of it being poured for rulers and gods are seen on Maya murals and ceramics. Cacao beans were even used as money.

At this point students could research the origins of chocolate, discover how people learned to extract it from the bitter seeds of the Obrana cacao tree (the tree’s name means “food of the gods”), trace its history from early royal and religious ceremonial use to its current worldwide popularity, and drink a cup of chocolate that they make.

To make a cup of chocolate, use one of the many recipes available in cookbooks or online. To make the drink closer to that consumed in Mesoamerica, include seeded chili pepper and cinnamon sticks, and use grated bittersweet chocolate or tablets of Mexican-style chocolate added to boiling water. As in Mexico it is important that the chocolate, removed from the heat, be whipped into foam. For this purpose you can use a rotary beater, or use a whisk that you stand upright in the cup and rub briskly between your hands, thus creating the foam. In the past and even today an individual would use a carved wooden utensil known as a molinillo, twisting the utensil between the two palms, to make the chocolate drink frothy.

Activity. Students can look up some samples of Maya hieroglyphs. At first they will probably recognize the picture-glyphs of faces and animals compacted into rectangles or squares and will possibly assume that the pictures stand for events in a story. Further study will inform them that a picture can stand for a being, an idea, or an action. In addition there are symbol signs for syllables of a word and for various combinations of consonants, making the writing system very complex. There are published “syllabaries” that students can use to illustrate words.

Activity. We are familiar with glyphs that represent the meaning of a whole word or phrase. These are called logographs and we incorporate them in our writing system. Students can compile a list of these (i.e., “&” for “and,” “@” for “at,” %, $, =, #). Traffic signs (for “turn left,” “stop,” “narrow road,” etc.), corporate logos, religious symbols, and icons on the computer are all logographs. Students should collect and compile samples, and then make up some of their own that would be useful in the classroom, lunchroom, or on the yard.


2. Play Ball!

The figure on the vessel is a participant in a ball game played by Maya and other cultures throughout Mesoamerica. (Archaeologists have found remains of the ball court in many sites.) The playing field was long (about 90 meters) and narrow, and bordered by two parallel walls that were stepped, sloped, or stood tall and straight. Two stone scoring rings were high up on opposite walls. Nobody knows exactly how the game was played, but most authorities believe that a hard rubber ball had to be passed through the rings to make a score. Players could not touch the ball with their hands, feet, or head—only elbows, shoulders, chest, hips, and knees were used.

Activity. Look again at the drawing (Handout A MAYA VESSEL), this time with the knowledge that the figure represents an elaborately dressed ball player, framed as though he were in a ball court. He is kneeling on his right knee, with his left hand and foot raised, seemingly about to hit a ball with his hip or thigh. His headdress of feathers resembles that of a god of the underworld. He wears thick padding around his waist, forearms, and knees as protection against the heavy ball. The game was played both as sport and as part of ritualistic competition between groups.

We know that Maya texts concerned with ball games commemorate victories and defeats, demonstrating the importance of the game in Maya royal memory. The other side of this vessel contains a text that names the owner of the vessel. What other information might have been included to communicate the significance of the game to others? (Date, location, score, player’s name, name of the ruler or the city-state, victories and defeats, etc.)

Activity. Since experts are not sure how the game was actually played, ask students to develop rules for the game, design a playing court, create an advertisement for the game, or make a ball, etc. (Some versions of the Popol Vuh name this ball “White Flint” and say it was made of flint covered with powdered bone. Other sources say the ball was of rubber and the game came about after the discovery and use of this material.)

Activity. The closest related contemporary game is probably soccer, although some scholars liken the ancient ball game to hockey. Students could tell how the Maya game was apt to be similar to and different from today’s sports. The class could also investigate sports from different cultures—their own, one they’re familiar with, or one new to them. Possibilities include various cultures of the Americas, Africa, Australia, ancient and modern Europe (including ancient Greece), and Asia. Students should consider the history, location, rules, necessary equipment, uniforms, and players (male and female?). Often, as for the Maya ball game, there is a legend associated with the game, and if there is, the students should retell it. Later summarize the study with students talking about what they might have learned about a culture from the sport they researched, and about their own favorite sport or game, both to play and to watch.


3. The Hero Twins of the Popul Vuh

The ancient ballgame of the Maya civilization has its origins in the Maya epic known as the Popul Vuh that celebrates the Maya Hero Twins. The Hero Twins, like their father and uncle (also twins) played the ballgame above the lords of the Underworld. The noise of the Hero Twins’ game, like the game of their father and uncle, so angered the Underworld lords that they summoned the twins to see them. The twins’ father and uncle had similarly been called to visit the Underworld after disturbing the lords, and it was there that they were killed. The Hero Twins, however, were able to outsmart the lords and eventually overcome their enemies.

Activity. The epic Popul Vuh has been retold for readers (or listeners) of all ages. Look over the copies you select to bring into your classroom, not only for reading level, but also for content since some editions graphically describe trials and punishments endured by the twins. When the students are familiar with the story, let them retell it in pictures (in essence, create a storyboard), which can then be mounted onto an accordion-folded book, using heavy stock. This type of book will simulate the codices on which the Maya people left their written records. A simplified version for students to read, or for you to read to them, is included in this lesson as Handout THE HERO TWINS.

Activity. A film entitled Popul Vuh: The Creation Myth of the Maya uses imagery drawn from actual Maya ceramics, such as the Fowler’s chocolate vessel with its depiction of a ball player. The filmmakers animated the figures to illustrate the narrated story. Suitable for classroom viewing, it is available for rent through UCLA’s Educational Media Center.


4. The Maya Today

Activity. In Guatemala and Mexican highlands, Maya retain ties to their past when performing the same rituals as those of their ancestors. As they embroider their woven goods, women use motifs identical to those found in structures on ancient Maya sites; thus they recall the cosmological beliefs of the past.

In recent decades, the Maya of Mesoamerica have been in the news many times. Students can read about recurring civil strife in Chiapas, about the syncretic religious practices combining ancient Maya beliefs and rituals with Christian practices, and about the Guatemalan heroine, Rigoberta Mench’u Tum, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her struggles on behalf of the Maya. Use the Internet to learn about pertinent writings of famed novelist and human rights advocate Carlos Fuentes who has been concerned with Mexico’s indigenous peoples.

Activity. The Maya in Los Angeles today number over 20,000. Most arrived in the 1960s, fleeing civil war in Guatemala. An article written by staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in the Los Angeles Times (1998, A1: 1, 10) chronicles the difficulties—and the importance—of preserving and passing on their Maya heritage in this large U.S. city. Using Handout THE MAYA TODAY, which features excerpted quotations from that article, students can react and express their feelings about the issues raised by those quoted.

Useful Readings

Coe, Michael
1992 Breaking the Maya Code. London and New York: Thames and Hudson.

Coulter, Laurie
2001 Secrets in Stone: All about Maya Hieroglyphs. Boston: Little, Brown. *

Garneri, Anita
2005 The Ancient Maya. Minneapolis: Compass Point Books. *

McDonnell, Patrick J.
1998 “For Maya in Southland, Worlds Collide.” Los Angeles Times (May 7): 1, 10.

Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube
1993 Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London and New York: Thames and Hudson.

Orr, Tamra
2005 The Maya. New York: Scholastic, Inc. *

Rhoads, Dorothy
1956 The Corn Grows Ripe. New York: The Viking Press. *

Takacs, Stefanie
2003 The Maya. New York: Scholastic, Inc. *

Tate, Carolyn
1983 “The Carved Ceramics Called Chocholá,” in Fifth Palencque Round Table, 1983.
Edited by Viriginia M. Fields, 123-33, (San Francisco: The Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, 1985)


* Children’s books

Photograph Captions

Ceramic vessel. Maya, Yucatan, Mexico. Classic Period, 250-900 C.E. Ceramic. H: 16 cm.
Fowler Museum at UCLA. Anonymous Gift. X91.632. Drawing by J. T. Hales in “The Carved Ceramics Called Chocholá,” in Fifth Palencque Round Table, 1983.

Notes to the Teacher

This lesson is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. Although this and companion lessons are self-contained, each will be enhanced when used in conjunction with others in this resource. Addressing several lessons within each unit will facilitate the incorporation of the study of world arts and cultures into your curriculum.

The lesson is based on works in the second section of the exhibition called Art and Knowledge. In this gallery works are introduced that served to communicate knowledge and a sense of history. See “Unit Two—Art and Knowledge” for an introductory statement on the unit, along with some provocative “Questions for Thought,” and suggestions that will inspire the students to relate the unit to their own lives.

Images of objects to be shown to students may be printed as handouts (from within each lesson), viewed online at the Intersections web link http://collections.fowler.ucla.edu, or downloaded from the curriculum page on our website.

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