Maya ceramics

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Painted Classic Period vase from Sacul in Guatemala

Maya ceramics are ceramics produced in the Pre-Columbian Maya culture of Mesoamerica. The vessels used different colors, sizes, and had varied purposes. Vessels for the elite could be painted with very detailed scenes, while utilitarian vessels were undecorated or much simpler. Elite pottery, usually in the form of straight-sided beakers called "vases", used for drinking chocolate, was placed in burials, giving a number of survivals in good condition. Individual examples include the Princeton Vase and the Fenton Vase.

Used for a plethora of daily activities, such as the storage of food and beverages, ceramics were also a canvas of commemoration. There were three main types of ceramics used in daily life: bowls, plates, and cylinders. They were often monochrome, meaning that only one type of mineral slip was used.[1] Polychrome pottery was more complex in nature and therefore more commonly used by the elite. Not only was polychrome pottery used as decoration, it was also used as a form of social currency—a physical display of status and others' approval.[2]

As time progressed, various features were added to ceramics to go beyond the fundamental needs of vessels; For example pellets were put in larger bowls to not only serve as something to hold food, but would also become instruments used in the same feasts.[3]

Archaeological evidence has been found that suggests ceramics were used for industrial purposes. The discovery of highly uniform ceramic cylinders along with tools used in the production of salt indicate that the ceramics were used to mass-produce salt from brine.[4]


The utilitarians ware of the common people usually had simple decoration that reflected its use. For example, cylindrical bowls used for cacao drinks often had the plant species Q. guatemalteca depicted on them because that flower was used to enhance the flavor of the cacao drink.[1] Designs often included rituals, supernatural figures or common day practices. Rulers were often depicted next to deities and shown to be equal, or nearly equal, in power and status as them. Other pots functioned more as storytelling devices, with glyphs from the Maya script that likely were guides for songs or other ritualistic texts.[2]

For many potters, decoration and imagery was more important than the structure of each vessel.[3] Cylindrical vases and plates were popular because they maximized the surface area for storytelling through imagery on each piece. There was more evolution in pictorial representations than shapes. As the complexity of painting increased, vessel shapes remained fairly simple.[2]

Ceramics in society[edit]

Maya ceramics are made from two main types of materials that relate to their social structure, limestone and volcanic ash. Most of the land around the Mayans was limestone, which is where calcite comes from. These were mainly made as gifts and given to make local alliances, and these vessels are found in a more localized area. Whereas the ones made from volcanic ash are more widespread because they were thought to be given as gifts from the upper class to make very large alliances, through the Maya trade systems.[5]

Ceramics play a big role in society during the Maya Classic Period, when the Maya elite used ceramics not only to give gifts to foreign dignitaries, but they were also used in feasts during the Classic Period. Specialized pottery was made for the graves of nobles. Not anyone could make this pottery as it was very important they knew about the Maya history, mythology, and more. On these ceramics, intricate scenes were depicted which showed the palace life of the elite. On each ceramic piece near the rim, its contents would be listed out, a type of beverage for a vase or food for a plate, then who it belonged to was written next. Since these ceramics were traded and gifted, many end up in differing environments. Specialists mainly pay attention to the writing, drawings, and hieroglyphs, since they were different for the different people and cultures they were made by.[6] As for the everyday use more simple ware was made, generally of only one color, and would be produced in large quantities for the general public use.[7]

Production techniques[edit]

Maya vase depicting a costumed noble; burial offering. Late classical period (600-900 CE). Copán, Honduras.

The Maya had specific techniques to create, inscribe, paint, and design pottery. To begin creating a ceramic vessel the Maya had to locate the proper resources for clay and temper. The present-day indigenous Maya, who currently live in Guatemala, Belize and southern Mexico still create wonderful ceramics. Prudence M. Rice provides a look at what the current Guatemalan Maya use today for clay. Highland Guatemala has a rich geological history comprised mainly from a volcanic past. The metamorphic and igneous rock, as well as the sand and ash from the pumice areas provide many types of tempering. In the area, there are a range of clays that create varied colors and strengths when fired. Today's Maya locate their clays in the exposed river systems of the highland valleys. It is hypothesized that the ancient people obtained their clay by the same method as today's Maya. The clays are located in exposed river systems of the highland valleys. Most likely, due to the climatic similarities over the last millennia it is likely that these same deposits or similar ones could have been used in early times.

Once the clay and temper were collected, pottery creation began. The maker would take the clay and mix it with the temper (the rock pieces, ash, or sand). Temper served as a strengthening device for the pottery. Once worked into a proper consistency, the shape of the piece was created.

A potter's wheel was not used in creating this pottery. Instead, they used coil and slab techniques. The coil method most likely involved the formation of clay into long coiled pieces that were wound into a vessel. The coils were then smoothed together to create walls. The slab method used square slabs of clay to create boxes or types of additions like feet or lids for vessels. Once the pot was formed into the shape, then it would have been set to dry until it was leather hard. Then, the pot was painted, inscribed, or slipped. The last step was the firing of the vessel. Kilns were used to fire the vessels, and they were normally found outside in the open air. Unlike many modern kilns, they were fired by wood, charcoal, or even grass.

Like the Ancient Greeks, the Maya created clay slips from a mixture of clays and minerals. The clay slips were then used to decorate the pottery. By the fourth century, a broad range of colors including yellow, purple, red, and orange were being made. However, some Mayan painters refrained from using many colors and used only black, red, and occasionally cream. This series of ceramics is termed the "Codex-style", it being similar to the style of the Pre-Columbian books.

From the 5th century onwards, post-firing stucco was adopted from Teotihuacan. By preparing a thin quicklime, the Maya added mineral pigments that would dissolve and create rich blues and greens that added to their artistic culture. Many times this post-fire stucco technique was mixed with painting and incising. Incising is carving deeply or lightly into partially dried clay to create fine detailed designs. This technique was mostly popular during the Early Classic Period.

Development chronology[edit]

Incense Burner with face and side flanges, Classic Mayan, highland Guatemala, San Diego Museum of Man.

The Maya were a diverse people whose culture has developed through the centuries. As they developed, so did their pottery. Archaeologists have found stages of commonality between types of ceramics, and these phases coincide with the Mayan timeline.

Middle Preclassic (900/800-250 BC) Late Preclassic (250 BC- AD 250) Early Mayan ceramics stemmed from a past that began even years before the Maya became a group. Originally, the early Maya used gourds cut into useful shapes to create vessels to carry liquids and foodstuffs. These portable and durable gourds made excellent containers. The first ceramics closely resembled gourds and many were decorated with rocker stamps and simple slips. During the Late Preclassic period, many of the ceramics took on appendages of tetrapod mammiform supports. These supports were four legs underneath the pot holding it up. Tetrapods are relatively rare in the Maya Lowlands- even in the Peten where they were first described. Characteristic cream-on-red stripes colored these unique vessels.

The pottery of the Maya Early Classic dated from AD 250 to 550. The Maya soon began using polychrome slip paint, meaning they used many different colors to decorate the pots. This method of decoration became almost homogeneous for Mayan potters, thus signaling the beginning of the Classic Period. Polychrome pottery was a luxury item not commonly available to the general population. Most Early Classic Ceramics were monochrome types. Figural Polychromes were an elite prerogative, probably produced by and for other elites. The Classic Period of the Maya provided beautiful ceramics in many forms. The lidded basal flange bowl was a new style of potter to add to the already growing repertoire. This type vessel usually had a knob on top in the form of an animal or human head, while the painted body of the animal or human spreads across the pot. Many of these pots also had mammiform supports, or legs. These unique vessels are usually found in great condition signaling a ritual function. The reason many are in good condition is their frequent use as burial goods. As such, they are often the target of looters who cut deep trenches through many Maya buildings in search of a marketable vessel.

Sample timelines[edit]

Chama Style Vessel.

There is no 'standard' timetable for Maya ceramics. There is significant variability in timing and content between sites. The first table below lists the ceramic complexes for Uaxactun (1955, modified, 2000), and may not apply to any other site.

Period[8] Ceramic Sphere Approximate Date
Terminal Classic Tepeu III AD 850-?
Late Classic Tepeu II AD 700-850
Late Classic Tepeu I AD 550-700
Early Classic Tzakol AD 250-550
Late Preclassic Chicanel 350 BC - AD 250
Middle Preclassic Mamon 600-350 BC

Version of a Maya ceramic timetable, adapted from a tourist booklet for Chichen Itza, 1984, based on Valliant's work from 1927, and modified from Smith's 1955 work at Uaxactun. It is a mix of phases, types, and technology, and therefore of no indicative value.

Period[9] Ceramic Type Approximate Date
Red Pottery Period of Mexican


AD 1200-1540
Maya-Toltec or

Mexican Period

Fine Orange AD 975-1200
Interregnum or


Plumbate AD 925-975
Classic Tzakol and



AD 800-925


AD 625-800


AD 325-625


AD 325-925

Formative or


Mamom and


500 BC - AD 326


  1. ^ a b Zidar, C. & Elisens, W. Econ Bot (June 2009). "Sacred Giants: Depiction of Bombacoideae on Maya Ceramics in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize". Economic Botany. 63 (2): 119–129. doi:10.1007/s12231-009-9079-2.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ a b c Dorie., Reents-Budet (1994). Painting the Maya universe : royal ceramics of the classic period. Ball, Joseph W., Duke University. Museum of Art., Jay I. Kislak Reference Collection (Library of Congress). Durham: Duke University Press in association with Duke University Museum of Art. ISBN 9780822314387. OCLC 28632069.
  3. ^ a b Doyle, Author: James. "Ancient Maya Painted Ceramics | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved 2017-11-10.
  4. ^ Robinson, Mark; McKillop, Heather (Spring 2014). "Fuelling the Ancient Maya Salt Industry". Economic Botany. 68 (1): 96–108. doi:10.1007/s12231-014-9263-x.
  5. ^ Ting, Carmen (2015). The production and exchange of moulded-carved ceramics and the 'Maya Collapse. Mo S&T Library: Journal of Archaeological Science.
  6. ^ Reents-Budet, Dorie (2003). What Can We Learn From a Maya Vase?. Mo S&T Library: Archaeological Institute of America.
  7. ^ Brumfiel, Elizabeth (1987). Specialization, Exchange and Complex Societies. Google Books: Cambridge University Press. pp. 78–80.
  8. ^ Kosakowsky, Laura J.. "Preliminary Report on the Ceramics from Holmul, Guatemala: Year 2000 Season" Archived 2007-12-02 at the Wayback Machine published for FAMSI: Francisco Estrada-Belli (Boston U./now Vanderbilt University), 2000, 'standard ceramic complex time periods and ceramic sphere names' from Smith, 1955. Retrieved March 29, 2007.
  9. ^ pp. 13-14, Elizabeth Varela G.. Chichen Itza, "Ceramics", photography by Xavier Alducin, published by Ediciones Alducin, printed by Ediciones Alducin, Mar Tirreno 96 Col. Popótla, Mexico, D.F. 11400, 1984. Purchased new as a tourist souvenir, Chichen Itza, Yucatán, México, December 29, 1989.


  • Coe, Michael, (1999) The Maya (6th ed.), New York: Thames and Hudson.
  • Miller, Mary Ellen (1999) Maya Art and Architecture, New York: Thames and Hudson.
  • Reents-Budet, Dorie, et al. (1994) Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Zidar, C. & Elisens, "Sacred Giants: Depiction of Bombacoideae on Maya Ceramics in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize", W. Econ Bot (2009) 63: 119. doi:10.1007/s12231-009-9079-2

External links[edit]