The Compass—Clay to Chocolate

photo by MJ Carson

Thick, brown and gooey, letting it slip through your hands, feeling the bits of grit. Forming it and shaping it, the ancient Mayans did not realize that it would be the key that unlocks the mysteries of an entire civilization, its people, culture, and even giving a sense of its social conduct. Ah…but I am not talking about chocolate—I am talking about clay! As a clay artist, I am fascinated by the process, and imagine the potters of the time.  I find myself looking at the historical lineage of what I do today! Archeologists have discovered that the vessels of the Mayans tell us so much about their society, social structure and codes of conduct. Remarkable information about their burial rights and how marriage was negotiated and the role of cacao in those constructions illustrated, literally, on the pottery of these ancient people.

 There is traceability using pottery and sculptures that chocolate may have been significantly, socially present even before the Mayans. “Even the word ‘cacao’ is not a native Maya word—it’s Olmec.” The Olmec lived in the southern Gulf of Mexico between 1500 and 500 B.C., and their influence extended to Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. “The new find is hard chemical evidence that the Mayans were drinking chocolate in 500 B.C.,” said Coe, suggesting that people were cultivating the cacao tree long before the Maya civilization, which flourished in southern Mexico, the Yucatán, and the highlands of Belize between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1500. (Trivedi, July 2002)

imgres Each piece had a purpose, whether they were a bowl, a deeper vase like vessel that was lidded, they all had elaborate hieroglyphs that gave us a window into their ancient language. Today the deliberate painting that I do on a piece, uses the same materials of liquified clay, called slip, colored with dark pigments, to paint images, how outstanding to think this is what the Mayans did!  Ka ka waPhoto on 2-19-16 at 11.31 AM—being the first interpretation of Mayan hieroglyphs, meaning cacao (Presilla, pg. 11-12). Many vessels were created to hold chocolate. W. Jeffrey Hurst, a chemist of the Hershey laboratory came to understand that these artifacts, that were 2000 year old, held theobromine, the signature compound in cacao (Coe and Coe, pg. 55). These vessels are like sprinkled breadcrumbs on a path, that lead us to understanding the Mayan civilization in a way that we might not have otherwise known.

Looking at specific examples, we understand many customs and rituals of the Mayan people. The froth of the poured liquid elixir, made thick with maize and spices, was the most desirable. As drawings on the piece themselves show, nobility seated by a bowl of cacao, meticulously illustrating the froth. The froth was believed to feed the soul, the porridge itself, to feed the body. Mayan pots were found in burial chambers. Beautifully painted, thin walled vessels testified to the importance of the occasion and prestige of chocolate (Presilla, pg. 13).

It was known that cacao was an intrinsic part of the Mayan culture and the utility of the pieces was thought to be straightforward. If it wasn’t tall, then it wasn’t tested for cacao residue. However, the Copan team of archeologists changed all that and began to realize that a variety of vessels even platters should be tested and indeed, chemical analysiimagess revealed that cacao residue was present—showing that cacao had broader role in their society (Presilla, pg.15). Mayan pieces had glyphs on them that depicted warriors, and the plants themselves. Manifestations and integrations of man and the precious cacao trees that drove their economy, gave them sustenance, was the invention of currency.   These aspects of their society would also be exported. As cacao moved and migrated from one territory to another, so did the art. A specific illustration, communicates the migration of cacao to the Spaniards. A rather famous piece, from one of the codex, shows a woman standing and pouring the dark liquid, in a long stream, from one vessel into another, again, to create the desirable froth (Presilla, pg.21).

The pottery served a purpose, and was then embellished with the language and delicate colorings to create an aesthetic piece that would be relevant in both form and function. I find such an interesting symbiosis between clay and chocolate–not only in the likeness of the thick dark liquid and soft materials, the grit, the harvesting and development of it as an organic material, but how essential both materials were to their cultural structure.  As a potter, using a mechanized wheel, I am fascinated with the pots that of the Mayans that were constructed from coils. The durability of them, and the remarkable detail that has been unveiled centuries later, that gives us a window to an ancient world and how our present day indulgence of chocolate can be traced back. It is where science meets art, how outstanding!

photo by MJ Carson

Coe, Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

National Geographic Today, “Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya “Teapot”, Bijal Trivedi, July 2002

Prescilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Special Thanks to MJ Carson for photographs of my work!!



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