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Maya Pottery

Updated on October 24, 2011

Maya artists produced world-class pottery. To make their pottery, the ancient Maya used clay from the riverbeds. They strengthened it by adding calcite, quartz, or volcanic ash.

The artists made clay pots for cooking, storing food, and for religious and medical purposes. Some of their pots were 5 feet high! Experts believe that the better quality pieces were made in the palace courts.

Late Classic polychrome Maya vase with lid and supports.
Late Classic polychrome Maya vase with lid and supports.

Maya potters used a device called K'abal.

Maya potters used clay coils to build their pots, which was a slow process. After building the coils up as high as they wanted, they smoothed the coils together with their fingers. They also used clay slabs to make ceramic boxes.

Potters may have used a device called a k’abal, which is a wooden platform that is rotated with the feet.

Much like a potter’s wheel is today, the k’abal would have been a big help to potters, allowing them to work on all sides of their piece without having to lift up the pot or change their sitting position.

Maya vase with eleven figures
Maya vase with eleven figures

To bake their unglazed pieces, Maya potters used low-temperature ovens heated by wood fires. These were often pits in the ground.

To decorate the pottery with scenes of court life, ceramists used slip paint, which is a mixture of finely ground pigment, clay, and water.

The heat of the ovens would have destroyed many of the dyes the potters could have used to decorate their pottery. So they used just a few colors that could stand up to the heat.

These included black made from manganese, yellows and browns made from limonite, and oranges and reds made from hematite.

These minerals are common throughout the Mesoamerican rainforest today.

Three hieroglyphic designs circle the central dancing figure on this plate. The dancing Maize God is depicted in a dynamic position. He wears a waist belt known form ball games.
Three hieroglyphic designs circle the central dancing figure on this plate. The dancing Maize God is depicted in a dynamic position. He wears a waist belt known form ball games.

Decorations on Maya Pottery

Potters usually outlined figures of animals and people in black, and used the yellows, browns, reds, and oranges to fill the figures in.

The artists who painted the pottery made their paint brushes by attaching animal hair bristles to a hollow tube.

They also used yucca fibers, which were easily pulled out of the yucca leaves like strands of thread.

To give their pieces a high gloss finish, experts believe Maya artists rubbed the pieces with a resin.

The dancing Maize God again. A panel depicting a small version of the dancing God is repeated three times.
The dancing Maize God again. A panel depicting a small version of the dancing God is repeated three times.


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    • profile image

      chloe koiup 

      5 years ago

      song is looove

    • profile image

      John Scherber 

      6 years ago

      Readers who enjoyed this article might also like a mystery framed around counterfeit Mayan Ceramics. It’s titled Twenty Centavos. It’s the first of series of eleven set in Mexico. Please visit my website for a sample:

    • profile image

      Carl de Borhegyi 

      6 years ago

      In 2007, when I began searching the Justin Kerr Data Base of Maya vase paintings for mushrooms, one of the first Maya vase paintings I found with encoded mushroom imagery was Maya vase K1490, depicted in your article. This Late Classic Maya vase painting (600-900 C.E.) from highland Guatemala was like a Maya vase "Rosetta Stone" in the amount of information it contained. I immediately saw the mushrooms in the robes of the twin smokers on the far right. I also noticed that the artist had encoded mushroom imagery into the headdresses, and that mushrooms were on the tips of the noses of the executioners with obsidian knives. A dark loop symbol was repeated three times along the upper rim of the vessel. Because of this repetition, I suspected that it might be important and related to mushroom-inspired religious beliefs.

      In the Popol Vuh, numerous passages reveal obscure connections between Maya creation myths, the ballgame, ritual decapitation, self decapitation (Borhegyi,1969: 501) and Maya astronomy, involving the movement of the sun, moon, and the planet Venus that are commonly depicted on Maya vase paintings.

      In Maya vase painting K1490, the Lord of the Underworld is depicted as the white skeletal god in the center of the scene. He holds a decapitated head in one hand and a serpent-bird staff in the other. Known as Skeletal God A, his fleshless body represents death and decay, but also the transformation at death from which life is regenerated.

      Like many other Late Classic period carved and painted vessels, Maya Vase painting K1490 depicts the sacred (and improbable) ritual of self-decapitation. Note that the third individual from the right has no head. He holds in his left hand the obsidian knife with which he has decapitated himself. In his right hand he holds the cloth in which he will wrap the head. The fourth individual from the right is shown holding the decapitated head by the hair with his right hand, and a knife in his left hand. After a close examination of this scene, it occurred to me that it might depict an early version of an episode related in the colonial period document known as the Popol Vuh.

      Archaeologist Michael D. Coe was the first to recognize that many of the scenes depicted in Maya vase paintings are images of the Maya underworld, Xibalba, and versions of the creation story of the Quiché Maya of highland Guatemala. This myth, written in Quiche Maya using Spanish orthography, is known today as the Popol Vuh, It involves two sets of divine twins.

      The first set of twins, known as Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, play a ballgame in Xibalba with the Lords of Death and are defeated. The Popol Vuh tells us that these twin Maya gods, were sacrificed by decapitation in the underworld after losing a ballgame against the Lords of the Death. Their bodies were buried under the ballcourt at the place of ballgame sacrifice. The sons of Hun Hunahpu, another set of twin gods known as the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, follow their father and uncle into the Underworld to avenge their deaths. They also play a ballgame against the Lords of Xibalba. Hunahpu and Xbalanque, however, were accomplished tricksters as well as ballplayers. They were ready for any trap that might be set for them by the Lords of Death. (Coe,1973, 1975a).

      I believe that this complex scene illustrates the passage in the Popol Vuh in which the Hero Twins smoke cigars in the underworld. That they are smoking hallucinogenic cigars is suggested by the mushrooms that are clearly painted on their robes and in their mushroom-inspired headdresses. The two smokers are the first two individuals on the right. The two figures in front of them, since they wear the same clothing as the first pair, may be the same set of twins. One of the twins, however, has undergone sacrificial decapitation. Another interpretation could be that the two smokers, through their hallucinations, are seeing the fate of their father and uncle in their underworld struggle against the Xibalbans.

      In the scene, all four of the figures on the right wear sacrificial scarves around their necks. The figure in black wears what appears to be a helmet shaped like a mushroom. As noted earlier, he holds an obsidian blade in one hand, and the decapitated head of the figure behind him in the other.

      Dennis Tedlock has identified five episodes involving underworld decapitation and self decapitation in his translation of the Popol Vuh. He notes that, based on evidence discovered by Borhegyi and Wasson, he does not rule out the presence of an Amanita muscaria cult in the Popol Vuh (Tedlock,1985: 250). In one episode the Hero Twins decapitate themselves in the underworld in order to come back to life. The two decapitated heads shown in this scene belong to the twins. (Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress)

      Maya Archaeologist Stephan de Borhegyi...

      "According to the Popol Vuh, (Thompson, 1967, pp.27-28), the twin heroes Hunahpu, and Xbalenque (the decapitated Maya culture heroes who played ballgames with the Lords of Xibalba), became the moon (or morning star?) and the sun after their death. That the moon, sun, and morning star, as well as their cult symbols, the jaguars "sun" -vulture, moon-rabbit, and deer, were intimately connected with the Late Classic period ballgame is amply witnessed by their frequent representations on stone hachas and ballgame stone reliefs." (1980:25)

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      8 years ago

      I think Maya artifacts are very rare to find....

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Hungary

      I agree on the coloring. At first I even wondered if these were actual Maya artifacts or reproductions. But they are original. I like most things red and black, and earth colors in general. I will have to interlink them. Thanks!

    • Ardie profile image


      8 years ago from Neverland

      You need a link to your other Maya hubs - put them in a collention. They all compliment one another perfectly. My favorite aspect of ancient art is the coloring - earth tones. Although there wasn't much choice back when - those are the colors I'd choose still today. They look regal and majestic.

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Hungary

      Thanks, Arlene! I'm a fan of everything Maya because their amazing artwork reflects how finely in-tune they were with nature. When you learn about the meaning of the scenes and glyphs, you realize that their works showed an enormous amount of gratitude for what they had.

    • profile image

      Arlene V. Poma 

      8 years ago

      Well-written and illustrated. Voted up, useful, interesting, and AWESOME--it's the WOW FACTOR when it comes to the details. I'm a fan of Mayan fiber arts, too.


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