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Maya Vase

Slip-decorated earthenware with painted designs
20.3 cm tall
Maya, possibly Late Classic Maya Period
ca. 700-800 Peten, Guatemala, Central America
Museum Purchase, Boyer Fund
LMA 7196

How would you like to take a drink from this cup? If you were a Maya priest or king, you could!

Cups like this were often used for a chocolate ritual drink of elite Maya populations. How do we know this? It's actually written on some cups! The written form of the Precolumbian Maya language as depicted on the highlighted portions of this photo (click for a closer look), is similar in general structure to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Each glyph depicts either a word or sound, that when read from left to right and top to bottom, can be deciphered today.

If you are standing in the museum, you will notice that there is a distinct row of glyphs around the rim. This text is known as the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) and is commonly found on many Classic Maya vessels. The PSS often contains text that dedicates and blesses the vessel and the act of painting, while sometimes recording its contents, owners name, artist’s signature, or commentary on the depicted events.

The Primary Standard Sequence is translated and paraphrased in English here:

Here the decoration of the drinking vessel has now been [presented]...


The strong link between image and text has led to great strides in the cracking of the Maya code, but there are still issues with translation of these ancient texts. One problem is the lack of a standard "font" in the Maya Lowland. Scribes had free creative reign in their representation of language, and were often encouraged by their patrons to exercise this artistic freedom. [2] In lieu of writing, a closer look at the images depicted on these vessels can help us understand their function.

The image above is a drawing of the vase as it would appear when flattened out. This view allows us to observe all the figures at once. Depicted here are dancers dressed as a deer, a skeleton, and a jaguar. While most of these cups are used for drinking cacao, the imagery on this piece suggests a procession known as the Dance of Death. Vessels illustrating this dance often hold a liquid hallucinogen used in the ceremony of heart removal and decapitation. [3] Residue testing and additional translation of unknown glyphs would greatly add to the understanding of this object.

Click on any of the figures below to read more about them and the glyphs that accompany them.

Visit our collections highlights page, view a similar vase in the Logan's Digital Collection, or check out these references to learn more about this culture.

[1] Translations by Jeff Beuchler, University of Illinois at Chicago, Aug., 2009.
[2] Coe, Michael D, and Stone M. Van. Reading the Maya Glyphs. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.
[3] Correspondence with Persis B. Clarkson, University of Winnipeg, Aug., 2002.

This page is part of an Honor's Term pilot program for museum engagement by Ashleigh Herrera '12