Candied Ceramics: The Relationship Between Ancient Mayan Pottery and Cacao Storage

When archaeologists find remnants of cups, bowls, and plates, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that these items were used for eating and drinking. However, this is not always the case. In today’s culture, one might reserve certain silverware for only the most important dinner guests or have some plates that are meant to be displayed instead of eaten off. Archaeologists are learning that similar cultural practices may have been implemented by the ancient Mayans in regard to their pottery. The difference between today’s fancy china and decorative vases from ancient Mesoamerica, though, is that ancient Mayans are no longer alive to verbally explain the specific purpose and use of each piece in their ceramics collection. This job falls onto the shoulders of archaeologists are anthropologists, and they can assure us it’s a trickier job than first meets the eye. Some vessels were once thought to hold liquid cacao because they were labeled as such. However, analysis that goes beyond the words on the vessel leads experts to believe that the uncovering the uses of such containers is not as simple as reading a label (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). It turns out that the Mayans were similar to us in that they had different uses for different shapes, grades, and qualities of ceramic containers. Below is a detailed differentiation of these types of vessels and their uses.

Drinking Vessels

Archaeologists have discovered that the Mayans used different vessels to drink from than the ones they used as decoration (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). This is analogous to a modern-day drinking cup vs. a modern-day vase. You could drink out of a vase if you wanted to, but it would be largely inefficient. Mayan drinking vessels were often much smaller than vases and vessels used for decorative celebrative purposes. Additionally, the drinking vessels would have fewer engravings and carving adorned on the exterior. The drinking vessels were most commonly small cylinders or bowls. Below is an image from the Rufino Tamayo museum in Oaxaca. Figure 1 depicts a bowl that was most likely used for the consumption of liquids. While there are some carvings on this bowl, these decorations are minimal compared to those on vases that were put on display or set out at special events. This bowl would be the equivalent of a coffee mug with a simple pattern on it while the decorative vessels would be the equivalent of artistic and elaborate vases or jars. 

Figure 1: A small, minimally-decorated bowl that was likely used for the consumption of beverages. Source: Museo de Rufino Tamayo Oaxaca

Decorative Vessels

Many Classic Mayan vessels are adorned with similar strings of characters that seem to identify to whom the vessel belongs and what is inside of it (Macri, 2005). This syntactical pattern is known as the Primary Standard Sequence, or PSS. Figure 2 details the pattern of the PSS and gives a few examples of what this may have looked like on Mayan ceramics. 

Figure 2: The Primary Standard Sequence broken down with examples. Source: Artstor

While many Mayan vessels adorned with a PSS include the glyph for cacao, it can be argued that these decorative vessels were not used to store liquid cacao. The PSS on these specific vessels may have been referring to raw cacao ingredients, such as seeds, that could have been stored in the containers (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). Another theory is that the PSS is referring to a scene drawn or etched onto the vessel. For example, if the scene depicts a king sipping from a jar, then the PSS might refer to the king and his cacao beverage in the scene, regardless of what was inside the vessel itself. Figure 3 shows a decorative vessel with a PSS around the top rim and a battle scene on the exterior. The battle could have been a reason for celebration and cacao libation.

Figure 3: A decorative vessel with a PSS across the top rim. The battle scene depicted might have been a reason for celebration. Source: Cleveland Museum of Art

In comparison to the drinking vessels, the decorative vessels were larger, bulkier, and ostensibly harder to drink from. In addition to the inconvenient size and shape, chemical and visual analysis supports the idea that these larger decorative vessels were not used to hold liquid, including liquid cacao (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). Residue analysis run on decorative vessels with a PSS, for the most part, return a negative result for theobromine as well as other alkaline chemicals found in liquid cacao. Additionally, a visual scan of these vessels will find no traces of liquid being held inside the vessels. What it will find, however, is small chips and divots on the interior of the decorative vessels. This suggests that dry goods, such as raw cacao beans or seeds, may have been stored in these vessels. Dried goods would not leave behind a chemical residue like liquid would because the porous ceramic would not absorb particles from the dried goods. An exception to this rule of thumb is the Río Azul cacao pot. This elaborately designed piece of pottery both features a PSS and tested positive for cacao residue (Stuart, 1988). Figure 4 shows the Río Azul pot. It might look recognizable, as it is one of the more famous pieces in the field.

Figure 4: The Río Azul cacao pot that contained chemical residue of cacao and features a PSS across the top. Source: Carla Martin, Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”

References

Glyphs: various kakaw (cacao) drinks recorded in the Primary Standard Sequence: Ref.: drawing. Retrieved from https://library-artstor-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822003733423

Loughmiller-Cardinal, J. (2018). Distinguishing the uses, functions, and purposes of Classic Maya “chocolate” containers: Not all cups are for drinking. Ancient Mesoamerica, 30(2019), 13-30.

Macri, M. J. (2005). Nahua loan words from the Early Classic period: Words for cacao preparation on a Río Azul ceramic vessel. Ancient Mesoamerica, 16(2005), 321-326.

Martin, C. (2020). Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods.” [Google Docs Slides]. Retrieved from URL: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1c6fZMj2cW7A-bByTKzaP-YS7pLdm0dmVPidneg4T4XU/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_25

Stuart, D. (1988). The Río Azul cacao pot: Epigraphic observations on the function of a Maya ceramic vessel. Antiquity, 62(234), 153-157.

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