Ancient Mayan Pottery and their Secrets: The Río Azul Vessel

When scholars consider the earliest threads in the story of cacao’s consumption by humans during the Classic Maya time period, it is easy to refer to textual sources to study cacao’s presence. For example, the Popol Vuh and Dresden Codex provide a clear look into cacao’s origins and spread (Coe and Coe 2013). However, analyzing artifacts and material objects such as vessels can speak great lengths to the functionality and significance of cacao in Maya society. Through close analysis and research of the Río Azul cacao funerary vessel, the findings extend cacao’s story further into history by allowing scholars to redefine and enhance their understanding of cacao’s significance in Classic Maya society.


Río Azul vessel, front and back (Hall 1990)

To examine why the Río Azul vessel, and more broadly pottery and vessels, assume historical significance in Classic Maya society, one must look both within and outside such objects. Although details surrounding Mayan life were relatively opaque as a result of Spanish conquest, recent examination of hieroglyphs on the exterior of the Río Azul vessel has provided a giant stride forward in understanding cacao’s role in Maya society (Coe and Coe 2013). On the exterior of the vessel, there are several hieroglyphs that ornate the body as seen in the image above. Upon first inspection, these hieroglyphs reveal broad information about elements of Classic Maya society such as their writing system, artistic tendencies, and artisan traditions (Martin 2020).

Through further investigation by Mayanist David Stuart in 1984, Stuart recognized a pattern of reoccurring glyphs on the vessel that spell out kakaw (Ewbank 2019). The glyphs for this term on the exterior of the ceramic resemble a fish with fins, as depicted by the image below.


The “fish” hieroglyph that depicts chocolate, as drawn by David Stuart (Authentic Maya)

According to Mayanist Floyd Lounsbury, these hieroglyphs were meant to be interpreted as phonetic signs, signifying that each image within the glyph was associated with an auditory representation. The fins were associated with ka, while the fish icon was associated with ka and the ending, -w(a) (Coe and Coe 2013). When combined, Stuart realized this meant kakaw, or cacao. This revelation led him to believe that the Río Azul vessel was a container for the cacao beverage.

Some Mayanists believed that ceramic vessels found in the Classic Maya period symbolically represented religious orations and prayers, while others argued that these vessels held little to no significance (Ewbank 2019). Despite these differing perspectives, Stuart’s groundbreaking discovery afforded a great deal of information to researchers because it revealed the true use of certain Classic Maya pottery: vessels for cacao consumption.

In order to confirm Stuart’s findings, analysis of the interior of the Rio Azul vessel was necessary. According to Jeffrey Hurst, a chemist at Hershey Food Corporation Technical Center, “the only organic material or plant in all of ancient America that can produce caffeine and theobromine together is cacao” (Ewbank 2019). After identification of the vessel’s residue and testing of the residue’s chemical composition, two substances were isolated: caffeine and theobromine (Presilla 2009).

This innovative discovery allowed researchers to redefine their understanding of the relationship between cacao and Classic Mayans. Rather than being ornated with meaningless hieroglyphs or religious orations, as some academics originally thought, the Río Azul vessel reflected the multilateral use of cacao in Classic Maya society. For example, other hieroglyphs on the Río Azul vessel refer to the owner of the vessel itself, which in this case was K’inich Lakamtuun (Coe and Coe 2013). Due to the information brought by the Río Azul vessel and its hieroglyphs, Lakamtuun was discovered to be an early ruler of the Río Azul region who likely traded the vessel for other goods (Presilla 2009). It can be assumed that elite members of Classic Maya society such as kings and other royalty not only valued the cacao they consumed, but the medium through which cacao was used in society also assumed importance.


Mesoamerican woman pours chocolate beverage from one cacao vessel to another (Princeton University)

Moreover, analysis of the Río Azul vessel was crucial to the early scholarship on cacao’s history because it influenced many researchers to begin studying Classic Maya ceramics and other forms of pottery for their cacao content. As more academics grew interest in Classic Maya vessels, it became clear that cacao, as represented as the hieroglyphic kakaw, was one of the most common visual representations on ceramic objects from this time period (Ewbank 2019). As a result, the Río Azul vessel and its hieroglyphs were now being used as a reference point for deciphering many other Classic Maya pottery, which had never been done before. Mayanist David Stuart writes, “much of the progress seen in the 1980s and early ‘90s was attributed to the study of repetitious and highly formulaic pottery texts seen on the Río Azul vessel” (Ewbank 2019).

It is inevitable that pottery and other forms of stoneware for the consumption of cacao were commonplace during the Classic Maya period. Needless to say, the Río Azul vessel offered various, critical glimpses into the cultural importance and societal use of cacao in the Classic Maya period. This singular vessel was able to act as a primary archival source of hieroglyphic data and translation for the examination of hundreds of other ceramics sourced from Classic Maya society. Discovery of the ubiquity of the kakaw figure pioneered the ways in which scholars deciphered hieroglyphs (Presilla 2019), and this discovery went as far as disproving previous hypotheses that predicted the meaning of these glyphs (Ewbank 2019).

The anthropological, historical, and cultural insights drawn from close analysis of this artifact helped clarify some of the complexity and ambiguity surrounding cacao’s history. The Río Azul vessel remains a pillar for the advancement of scholarship regarding the Classic Maya relationship with cacao, and the historical significance of this vessel in reconstructing and redefining the significance of cacao cannot be overlooked.

Works Cited:

Coe, Michael D. and Sophie D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Ewbank, Anne. Archaeologists, Mayanists, and Hershey’s Collaborated to Reveal This Ancient Vessel’s Secrets. Atlas Obscura, 2019.

Martin, Carla. Lecture 1: Introduction. Lecture, January 29, 2020.

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Multimedia Sources:

“Authentic Maya.” The Maya and the Ka’kau’. Image. Accessed 14 Mar. 2020.

Hall, Grant D., et al. “Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala.” American Antiquity, vol. 55, no. 1, 1990. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Mar. 2020.

“The Princeton Vase (y1975-17).” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, Accessed 10 Mar. 2020.

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