Tag Archives: artifacts

The Development of Cacao Iconography: From Mesoamerican Artifacts to Modern Marketing Strategies

Cacao played a large role in the ancient civilizations of the Mayans and Aztecs, becoming an increasingly integral part of each one’s respective cultures overtime. It has continued to play an equally important, although different role in modern society. One can assert that the importance of cacao across civilizations can be seen through its recurring presence in iconography. The types of icons associated with cacao in Ancient civilizations were ones of documentation and reverence (Garthwaite). The images reflected their belief in the diversity of the powers of cacao stemming from its religious significance (Coe 48). With the development of capitalism, modern civilizations increased the commodification of chocolate and used cacao iconography as a means of advertisement to sell the refined product for a profit. These differences in cultural use of cacao are reflected in the differences of iconography in each civilizations culture, but when the modern begins to draw from the ancient, the mixing of modern incentives for cacao use and their representation of Mesoamerican societies’ value of the substance appears ethically immiscible.


Cacao was important to both the Mayan and Aztec civilizations because of its presence in both of these societies’ artifacts and images, which took the form of iconographical symbols. For example, the Mayans had a hieroglyph of the word Kakau that was found in scripted on a jar used for chocolate making (Fig. 1) (Martin).

Martin Lecture

The Aztecs depicted scenes crediting cacao with religious significance that would help it gain prominence in other facets of life (Fig. 2) (Coe 50).

Martin Lecture

Both the Aztecs and the Mayans used iconography as a way of expressing and documenting what was important to them at the present time, and the inclusion of cacao evidences its important role in ancient culture.

The prevalence of Cacao in each of these societies led to cacao being used for numerous functions, such as medicine, currency, and a source of energy (Coe 31). But at the root of the popularity of cacao was its religious significance. For both the Aztecs and the Mayans, there was a direct link between cacao and deities. For the Mayans this came in the form of a specific “Cacao God” and for the Aztecs Cacao was associated with their Tree God, that was emblematic of life, “emerging from the jaws of the Underworld serpent” (Martin). Through iconography, historians were able to determine why Cacao became so pervasive culturally and better understand its roles and uses in ancient civilization.

Some of those roles came in the form of ceremonies or celebratory feasts. For the Aztecs, chocolate became synonymous with nobility (Fig. 3). It was a luxury good that enhanced the various experiences of the elite, like dinner celebrations or festivals (Coe 60).

Aztec Symbols Explained

The Mayans also extolled Cacao as a celebratory food, given its religious significance. Often, the prospective groom would present a gift of Cacao pods to the father of the bride as a kind of preemptive thank you or symbolic gesture of goodwill (Martin). The depiction below demonstrates such an occurrence and further cements the role of Cacao in society (Fig. 4).

Martin Lecture

The use of iconography in ancient civilizations is at once a recording of important events and cultural traditions, while at the same time a creation of culture itself. This dual nature of iconography reveals a significance about cacao in both of these cultures given its strong presence in various types of artifacts depicting various types of scenes.


However, the choice to use images and symbols in ancient civilizations was very different from why contemporary societies might choose to use cacao inspired iconography today. The blog has discussed how and why visual depictions were important in ancient civilization, and what they did to signify the value of Cacao during this time. The same cannot be said about cacao iconography in modern society. With the shift of uses in chocolate that began with the Spanish inquisition and carried through to the modern times, chocolate plays a different, although not less popular, role in society (Leissle 18). With the advent of sugar, chocolate has positioned itself more in the realm of a desert or sweet snack, than a food with medicinal powers or religious significance, at least in the mainstream Western society (Leissle 24). As a result, we have seen a coinciding shift in the images of chocolate. The power five chocolate corporations of Cadbury, Nestle, Ferrero, Hersheys, and Mars all engage in marketing strategies in order to sell chocolate, accounting for thirty-four percent of market share (Leissle 74). These companies are not promoting it as a result of its cultural significance or medicinal powers like the Aztecs or the Mayans did, they are promoting it to make money.

2005 Hershey’s Chocolate Ad

So holding constant adaptations in technology, and thinking only about what chocolate meant to each society, it is clear from just the cacao iconography that the ancient civilizations placed a much different kind of value on chocolate. Ancient civilization saw cacao transcend commodification and become a religiously backed medium for a number of various practices, many of which are evidenced in illustration. Cacao in ancient civilization did not need to be promoted, it needed to be documented and appreciated. Given the change in the function of cacao from ancient civilization to modern society a coinciding change in the application and design of cacao’s iconography also makes sense.


But what has been less justifiable, and potentially even damaging to ancient civilizations is their renewed presence in the branding of chocolate by the west. The west has long been entranced by what it regards as the primitive or ancient. In academia, this has been a positive for ancient cultures, as it has led to the continued study of those cultures. But in the market, it has often led to the appropriation of those cultures through branding. Private corporations are not necessarily concerned with the historical accuracy of how they depict ancient civilizations. They are concerned with advertising a product so it will sell. As a result, images are created in the likeness of indigenous people but modified so it may be more appealing to their target audience. A good example of this is the “Make your Own Chocolate Kit” set that presents the viewer with an “Aztec” holding a cup of what one assumes is hot chocolate (Fig. 5).

Martin Lecture

This turns out to be problematic for a number of reasons. The first is the skin tone of the Aztec. He is given white skin as it if was a European dressed in Native American clothes. The presence of the Reese’s cup shaped chocolate in the right corner of the box is also problematic given that chocolate did not look like this in the time of the Aztecs. And the idea of presenting the consumer with the ability to make their own chocolate indicates they would undergo a similar process of chocolate making as the Aztecs. This is wholly untrue, as the most difficult parts of the chocolate making process would have been industrially carried out by the chocolate company, leaving the consumer with the easiest parts of the process and likely a dangerously false sense of satisfaction.

While the rebranding of cacao iconography is acceptable because of the changing role chocolate has fulfilled since its use in Mesoamerica, it does raise certain questions about how far this branding should be allowed to go. There is an ethical issue at hand when the appropriation of a culture leads to the misrepresentation of ancient civilizations for the purposes of marketability. Hopefully this blog has helped to explain the history of Cacao iconography and its modern uses, both positive and negative, as well as presented readers with questions regarding the ethics of advertisement.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate Expansion.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge. 6 Feb. 2019. Lecture.

Image Citations

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate Expansion.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge. 6 Feb. 2019. Lecture.

Hershey’s Chocolate Ad. 2005. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9SCE9YO1_k.

“10 Aztec Symbols Explained.” Ancient Pages, 20 Mar. 2018, http://www.ancientpages.com/2018/03/20/10-aztec-symbols-explained/.

The Chocolate Lens of Religion

Depicted in various Mayan artifacts, cacao along with its various forms were interwoven into Mayan society. From rituals to everyday life, cacao seemed to have an immortal presence in Mayan society, so much so that it found its way into Mayan religious paintings that depicted cacao beans or cacao trees intertwined with the Gods. In the picture below, the Maize God, a central deity in the Mayan religion, is seen shaping himself as a cacao tree, and pointing at what seems to be a vessel holding liquid cacao: “His limbs are studded with ripe cacao pods, and his skin is marked with wavy ‘wood’ motifs. Clearly, an anthropomorphic cacao tree is at hand” (Simon Martin 155).

The Maize God, a central deity in the Mayan religion, depicted as a cacao tree on an ancient Mayan bowl.

Along with the Maize God, cacao seems to also play a central role in other Godly tales, but why? Why did cacao play such an important part in Mayan theology? The answers lie in the very same picture above. This artifact highlights how the Mayans used the story of the Gods to explain the world around them, and ultimately, how, and why, the Mayans decided to incorporate cacao into their theology.

First, let’s establish the magnitude of how holy the cacao tree is according to the Popol Vuh, “a colonial document from records of Franciscan friar, believed to be the oldest Maya myth documented in its entirety” (Carla Martin 35). According to the Popol Vuh, a central Mayan God, the Maize God, was sacrificed during harvest time in Xibalba, the Underworld, by the Death Gods. He was later buried and somehow was reincarnated as a cacao tree, albeit quite an anthropomorphic one. The picture below depicts how the Maize God supposedly looked after he was slain and reborn as a cacao tree.

A cacao tree with the Maize God’s head as a fruit. There are several instances in Mayan Bowls and Vases that depicts various gods and people as anthropomorphic cacao trees.

The Maize God, as a tree, impregnated an Underworld goddess, who subsequently gave birth to the Hero twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu. Eventually, the Hero Twins “go on to defeat Xibalba and its ghastly denizens” (Coe and Coe 39). They then “resurrect their slain father, the Maize God…[and] rise to the sky in glory as the sun and the moon” (Coe and Coe 39).

Within this story alone, it’s undeniable that the cacao tree represents the Gods. It has a God-like quality, and is intrinsically connected to the Mayan idea of holiness. The cacao is not only deeply connected to the integrity of the Maize God, but to many others as described in the Dresden Codex, “Pre-Columbian Maya books written in hieroglyphics” (Carla Martin 34). In the Dresden, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe and Coe 42). Cacao is also frequently seen “being consumed by Gods in ritual activities” (Carla Martin 34). Depicted in a section of the Dresden regarding new year celebrations, the Opossum God is seen carrying the Rain God on his back, with caption being “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]” (Carla Martin 34).

The Opossum god carrying the Rain God on his back, with cacao apparently sustaining the entire journey. There are several instances, including this one, that describe cacao as foods of the Gods.

Whether through the cacao tree or beans, cacao has an incredibly important role in the Mayan religion, as shown by its extensive portrayal in the Popol Vuh and the Dresden. In addition to Gods being portrayed with cacao in some way, the cacao tree is explicitly referred to as the World Tree, which “connects the vertical realms of Sky, Earth, and the Underworld” (Carla Martin 44). This is consistent with how the Maize God was murdered in Xibalba (the Underworld), how he impregnated a woman who escaped into the world’s surface (the Earth), and how the Hero Twins avenged the Maize God’s death and became the sun and the moon (the Sky). The cacao tree is present in nearly all forms of activities of the Gods and of the cycle of nature, of life and death. From the epic of the Maize God to the tales of other Gods, it is obvious that cacao is deeply connected to the Gods.

With all this reverence given to the cacao tree, it’s only natural to ask why did the Mayans choose to akin cacao to the Gods?

Firstly, the Mayans used their religion as a tool to explain the world around them. Having “had an abiding and intimate relationship with the natural world,” (Simon Martin 154) the Mayans wanted to explain why and how the world around them grows the way it does, so it’s only natural for them to create these mythical stories to do just that.

Secondly, because cacao was so integral to the lives of the Mayan and so deeply connected to their way of life, it only makes sense that they so closely kinned the very nature of the cacao to the Gods. Looking closely at the Maize God’s epic death and rebirth, it is clear that the entire story was created to simply explain how their sacred cacao was created, and how it ultimately grows.

The act of the Maize God’s dead body giving rise to trees and edible fruits and seeds (enough to impregnate an Underworld goddess) symbolizes germination in nature: “Cacao, the most coveted product of the mortal orchard, was emblematic of all prized and sustaining vegetal growth—with the exception of maize—and the myth served to explain how it and other foodstuffs came into being” (Simon Martin 178). In other words, “the story, then, basically deals in symbolic form with the burial (that is, the planting of the seed), growth, and fruition of maize [and cacao], the Maya-and Mesoamerican-staff of life” (Coe and Coe 39). Essentially, the Mayans used the Gods to explain how and why the nature around the grows (especially their precious cacao), which was used to ultimately explain the phenomenon of life and death.

While the Mayans certainly had other reasons in creating their religious tales, there is no doubt that a number of myths, including the Popol Vuh, incorporated cacao to help the Mayans understand the world around them. After all, chocolate was, and is considered divine, so why wouldn’t the Mayans place their cacao in the hands of the Gods in their tales?


Works Cited:

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

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard College: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2018. Class Lecture. (Images also used from this Lecture as well)

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009.

Let Us Raise a Vessel to Cacao… Mayan Style!

Do you remember the last time you had a cup of hot chocolate? Was it served in a mug, topped with whipped cream? Or maybe you sipped it from a to-go cup from your favorite drive-thru restaurant. Most of the time we don’t fuss with what we’re drinking our hot chocolate from because we’re too busy enjoying the aroma and experience this time honored beverage provides us. Yet, ancient cultures, alike the Mayans, respected their cacao drinking methods and admired the cup they drank from just as much as they prized the drink itself. In many cases, cacao wouldn’t have been drunk if it wasn’t out of an artistically treasured and symbolized vessel… a far cry from how we view and present our version of hot chocolate today. Nevertheless, this customary beverage and the material in which it was once presented in was systematically ritualized throughout the ancient Classic Maya culture, proving a frothy cup of cacao was more than just something to cheers with.

The Classic Maya period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.) was considered to be the most influential and profound stage of the ancient Mayan civilization. Fabulous accomplishments, such as towering pyramids and vast palaces throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, beautifully decorated ceramics, and a distinguishable writing system flourished during this time. This was also a time when the Maya elite prospered, and their admiration for the finer things in life influenced their daily lives and dietary intake, ritualizing items such as cacao and the vessels they were ingested from. David Stuart, an archaeologist and epigrapher who specializes in Mesoamerican cultures, describes in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, the ways in which the Maya civilization upheld the role of cacao within their society. Stuart suggests, “The importance of cacao in Classic Maya society was not widely appreciated until the decipherment of glyphic texts on ceramics in the 1980s, when it became clear that seemingly countless ceramic vessels were inscribed with a dedicatory formula identifying them as drinking vessels for chocolate” (Stuart 184).

Around the same time those descriptive discoveries were uncovered, much excitement arose when two vessels were found in Guatemala containing chemical remains of cacao (Theobromine), a study that was performed by W. Jeffery Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey Foods Technical Center (Carla D. Martin, Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods,” January 31, 2018). By identifying the Maya word and glyph for cacao (ka-ka-wa), including the remains of Theobromine, archaeologists soon realized the extensive amount of Maya vessels which were artistically depicted with the kakaw glyph, symbolizing the importance of cacao within their culture, alongside the vessels in which they were consumed from (Stuart 184). In most early cases, a vessel that depicted the kakaw glyph was considered to be apart of a Maya elites collection, illustrating the consumption of cacao was reserved for those of importance within the community.

The Kakaw Glyph
Figure 1. The kakaw glyph (ka-ka-wa) in the Dresden Codex. a. The individual syllables of ka-ka-wa. b. The representation of the God of Death holding an offering of a bowl of cacao. Drawings by Carlos Villacorta from the Dresden Codex (1976).

Maricel E. Presilla, a cultural historian, chef, and author of the book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, reviews the ways in which the kakaw glyph was depicted on Maya pots and drinking vessels, and goes on to say, “Dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars, included along with other furnishings in burial chambers, depict chocolate as a crucial, central element of opulent feasts” (Presilla 12). Archaeologists have also come to believe that the vessel in which the cacao drink was drunk from had different levels of significance and cultural value, through the means of the artwork depicted on the cup and the individuals utilizing this piece of material culture (Presilla 12). Realizations as such have contributed to many other professionals from a plethora of academic fields, such as anthropologists and art curators, into the mix, creating a vast amount of research conducted around this specific topic. Dr. Dorie Reents-Budet, an Art Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, describes the functionality of these impressive vessels in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, and considers these vessels, “Function as containers for edibles and also as portable props whose myths-political imagery lent power and prestige to their owners and the event during which they were used” (Reents-Budet 210).

As a result, these elaborate cacao drinking vessels served up a frothy-drink of dualism between the vessel itself and the individual enjoying this influential beverage. Illustrations of exclusive banquets held by the Maya elite were plentiful, and according to Reents-Budet, these elite banquets which included fantastic kakaw serving vessels, “Transcended their primary function as food service wares and were transformed into indispensable status markers and essential gifts; that is, they became social currency” (Reents-Budet 213). The aftereffect of these frequent banquets lead to those creative kakaw drinking vessels to be perceived as social currency and a higher status, and soon after, production of cacao drinking vessels by “highly trained artisans and renewed painters” (Reents-Budet 214) was off and running.

A Late Classic Maya Vase
Figure 2. A Late Classic Maya period polychrome vase for serving chocolate beverages and giving as gifts during elite feasts. Collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K2800).

As a result of this newfound kakaw drinking vessel popularity, the Maya civilization never looked back, and the ideals around this foamy, ritualized beverage flourished for the rest of their reign. Through mysterious circumstances, the decline of the Maya culture happened sometime between the late eighth and ninth century, creating a sense of wonder around this distinguished ancient civilization. While we may never know what truly happened to the Mayans and their artistic culture, the remnants of their treasured vessels and love for cacao has overcome their deterioration, and continues to thrive in our modern day society through academic means and pure curiosity for what was once a fascinating and complex society.

Depiction of a Cacao Beverage Being Frothed
Figure 3. Classic Maya period depicting the aerating of a kakaw beverage by pouring the liquid from one jar to another placed on the floor. Collections from the Princeton Art Museum (acc. no. 75-17, the Hans and Dorthy Widenmann Foundation). Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K511).

References Cited:

Martin, Carla D. Mesoamerica and the “food gods.” Harvard University, Jan. 2018, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XF-lM9Z9iks0cVhUFRJ1QWBokKTRrdvZISwAJVSe_Ag/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_18

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

Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 202-223.

Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 184-201.

Dumbledore Loves Chocolate
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Warner Bros., 2001. DVD.


Speaking Stoneware: The Río Azul Vessel

In the academic discourse, there is a noticeable preference for the utilization of textual sources, rather than non-textual sources, such as material artifacts, photographs, oral histories, etcetera. As a student of archaeology, I recognize the myriad insights that can be gleaned from studying and analyzing material objects and artifacts, especially for the purposes of developing a fuller comprehension of a people, culture, or time period. I would contend that, in many cases, material objects can provide a more detailed, nuanced understanding of a people, culture, or time period than textual sources and, as such, should be valued and utilized more readily in academia as invaluable primary sources.

A particularly illustrative case-study, the Río Azul vessel demonstrates the extent to which the close analysis of an artifact can provide keen insights into a people, culture, or time period. Specifically, this vessel illuminates the importance of cacao for the Classic Maya and, as such, serves as an essential tool for reconstructing an understanding of the uses and multivalent meanings of cacao for this cultural group.

Rio Azul--front; from HollisThe Río Azul vessel features an exterior surface, which has been covered in stucco and adorned with Classic Mayan hieroglyphs. Close analysis of the vessel’s exterior can provide invaluable insights into the Classic Mayan artistic tradition, writing system, artisan class, manufacturing process, etcetera.

Before delving into the insights derived from the Río Azul vessel, it is instructive to first discuss the vessel’s archaeological context. In 1984, archaeologists discovered Tomb 19, a Classic Mayan tomb dating from the last half of the fifth century CE, in Río Azul, a Mayan city in the northeastern corner of the Petén region of Guatemala (Stuart 1988: 153). Within Tomb 19, the corpse of the tomb’s owner, a middle-aged ruler, had been laid on a funeral litter and was surrounded by various objects, including fourteen pottery vessels (Coe and Coe 2013: 46).

One of these vessels, which I will henceforth refer to as the Río Azul vessel, particularly intrigued archaeologists. An extremely rare pottery form, this vessel consists of a wide, bowl-shaped pot and a lid, which includes an arching handle. The pot’s lid possesses a noteworthy “lock-top” feature: the lid can be screwed onto the main body of the pot and, when properly closed, can be held by its handle without any risk of spilling the vessel’s contents. The exterior of the stirrup-handled vessel features stucco covering and large hieroglyphs, which have been brilliantly painted in turquoise blue and earthen tones.

Rio Azul--open; from HollisThis view allows one to see the “lock-top” feature of the Río Azul vessel’s lid. One can discern the grooves into which the vessel’s lid slid and closed, which prevented the vessel from spilling its liquid contents.

Both the Río Azul vessel’s interior and exterior fascinated archaeologists, who were desirous to utilize the vessel to learn about the Classic Maya. What did the vessel originally contain? Why was it included in a ruler’s burial tomb? What function did it serve in Classic Mayan burial practices? Based on a dark ring around the vessel’s interior, archaeologists hypothesized that the stirrup-handled vessel originally held a dark liquid (Coe and Coe 2013: 46). To determine the exact nature of this dark liquid, archaeologists turned to epigraphy and chemical analysis for answers. The epigrapher, David Stuart, analyzed the vessel’s hieroglyphs and recognized that two of these hieroglyphs represented kakaw, the Classic Mayan hieroglyph for cacao that consists of “a drawing of a fish, preceded by a comb-like sign established by the syllabic glyph ka and followed by the sign for final ‘w’” (Coe and Coe 2013: 45). Stuart’s transliteration of the hieroglyphs—y-uk’-ib’ ta witik kakaw ta koxom mul(?) kakaw—can be translated as “(It is) his cup for witik cacao, (and) for koxom mul(?) cacao” (Stuart 2009: 193). Based on his translation, Stuart posited that the vessel’s dark liquid vestiges belonged to a cacao beverage.

From Stuart Article--Check if OK to use

This drawing, which was created by the epigrapher David Stuart, allows one to more clearly see the Classic Mayan hieroglyphs that were inscribed on the Río Azul vessel. Note hieroglyphs A and D, which represent kakaw.

To validate Stuart’s hypothesis, archaeologists sent the Río Azul vessel to W. Jeffrey Hurst of the Hershey’s Company Research Labs in 1987. Using high-performance liquid chromatography to identify the chemical composition of the vessel’s food residues, Hurst isolated the chemicals theobromine and caffeine (Presilla 2009: 10). Since cacao is the only Mesoamerican plant to contain both chemicals, Hurst’s discovery provided “conclusive proof” that the Río Azul vessel was, in fact, a container for a cacao beverage (Coe and Coe 2013: 46).

With its contents confirmed, the Río Azul vessel afforded a wealth of information to academics studying the Classic Mayan relationship with cacao and, therefore, underscores the important contributions that can be derived from studying non-textual sources. For example, the Río Azul vessel served as “the Rosetta Stone” for epigraphists attempting “to crack the whole code of Maya writing” (Presilla 2009: 10). Stuart’s breakthrough—identifying the hieroglyph for cacao—allowed academics to recognize and analyze other hieroglyphic appearances of cacao. As a result of the Río Azul vessel, a single material object, scholarship on cacao received access to additional sources on, and references to, the Classic Mayan relationship with cacao; the Río Azul vessel’s groundbreaking contribution to epigraphy underscores how a non-textual source can provide new opportunities for academic research.

The Río Azul vessel also attests to the myriad uses for cacao during the Classic Mayan period and, therefore, functions as an invaluable tool for comprehending the vast variety of cacao-related terminology and cacao recipes from this period. Specifically, the vessel’s inscription mentions witik and koxom mul, two different types of cacao preparations that do not appear in any other textual or non-textual sources (Stuart 2009: 201). Thus, knowledge of these two types of cacao can only be acquired through the analysis of non-textual sources, a further endorsement for the need to emphasize the importance of studying non-textual sources for their numerous contributions to academia.

As a primary source, the Río Azul vessel also illuminates the Classic Maya’s broader social and artistic culture. The vessel’s beautifully painted and intricately detailed exterior exemplifies the artistic flourishing of the Classic Maya during their Golden Age when they erected magnificent temples and palaces, created stone relief carvings and wall paintings, and delicately painted and carved ceramic vessels, such as the Río Azul vessel. The Río Azul vessel, therefore, typifies the rich artistic culture of the Classic Maya and provides a more nuanced understanding of the period’s Golden Age than a textual source.

Given its archaeological findspot in a burial tomb, the Río Azul vessel also provides compelling insights into the cultural, religious, and sociopolitical importance of cacao during this period. In Classic Mayan burial practice, the deceased were physically surrounded by pottery dishes, bowls, and cylindrical vases that held the food and drink that the deceased was meant to enjoy and utilize in the afterlife (Coe and Coe 2013: 43). The Río Azul vessel’s function as a container for a cacao beverage suggests that the vessel’s cacao contents were intended to sustain the tomb’s owner in the afterlife (Coe and Coe 2013: 43). The Río Azul vessel designates cacao as an essential food for the afterlife and as a valued commodity in both life and death, thereby augmenting the argument that important insights can be derived from studying material objects.

As a final point of consideration, in light of the dearth of written evidence from the Classic Mayan period, the Río Azul vessel merits increased importance as a source for understanding the importance of cacao during this time. Since no textual sources from the Classic Mayan period proper remain, the Río Azul vessel, among other such inscribed ceramics, provides the only primary and contemporary evidence for the Classic Mayan use of cacao; its significant contribution to reconstructing cacao’s significance for the period cannot be overstated.

For its various, important glimpses into Classic Mayan culture and, more importantly, the period’s relationship to, understanding of, and use of cacao, the Río Azul vessel merits the designation as a potent, invaluable source of information. This artifact of stoneware can—and does—speak to the power of archaeological artifacts and other non-textual sources to communicate knowledge and serves as an emphatic call for the greater incorporation and utilization of non-textual sources in the academic discourse.


Textual Sources:

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

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

Stuart, David. 1988. “The Rio Azul cacao pot: epigraphic observations on the function of a Maya ceramic vessel.” Antiquity 62: 153-7.

Stuart, David. 2009. “The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.” In Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, 184-201. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.


Image Sources:

Image after Stuart 1988, Figure 2 (see above for the full article citation).

“Kakaw (Mayan word).” Wikimedia Commons, accessed on March 7, 2017. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kakaw_(Mayan_word).png

“Stirrup lidded vase, from Rio Azul.” Harvard Fine Arts Library, Digital Images & Slides Collection 2004.H06.00848, accessed through Hollis.

“Stirrup lidded vase, from Rio Azul.” Harvard Fine Arts Library, Digital Images & Slides Collection 2004.H06.00847, accessed through Hollis.



Chocolate: Curse or Cure?

Although evidence for the medicinal use of chocolate appears in Mesoamerican artifacts as early as 600 B.C. (Dillinger et al. 2000), the health benefits of chocolate have only recently been evaluated in modern American society. Mesoamerican civilizations and European countries long ago recognized the ways chocolate could improve the conditions of those who were sick. One could even say the Mayans deemed chocolate a super food thousands of years ago, when they integrated cacao into their diet and rituals as they believed in its magical properties. Food was considered to be medicine long before contemporary sources of treatment prescribed by physicians. Mesoamerican sources of evidence include pieces of writing, the transmission of words across languages, and residue found in vessels made of pottery and materials stored in tombstones (Coe and Coe 1996).

The consumption of chocolate began in the New World among the Olmecs, and later made its way to the Old World in the 16th century. I explore its incorporation in three primary sources: the Badianus Manuscript, the Florentine Codex, and the Princeton Codex (De la Cruz 1940 and Sahagun 1981). Chocolate was used for preventative and healing purposes, according to these documents.

desta gente indiana y de los miembros de todo el cuerpo interiores y esteriores y de las enfermedades y medicinas contrarias y de las nationes que a esta tierra an venido a poblar, Mexico, 1577

The image above is printed on the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedia about central Mexico culture that Bernardino de Sahagun composed in 1590. “Book X [the tenth of twelve books in the series] is about Aztec society and covers such subjects as the virtues and vices of the people, food and drink, the parts of the human body, and illnesses and remedies. In this book, Sahagún describes the process of making chocolate from cacao beans, which is also depicted on folio 71v.” The Florentine Codex includes an exploration of medical treatments that used cacao. Among these health benefits were reducing agitation, asthma, cancer, thirst, and hoarseness (Stubbe 1662). Sahagun also described how different parts and methods of preparing cacao (cacao-tree bark, leaves of the cacao, and cacao as a beverage) could be used in order to cure or treat various illnesses.

The Badianus Manuscript was found in the Vatican Library in 1929, and provides pharmacological treatments for various diseases.

The Badianus Manuscript, written in 1552 in Nahuatl, presents the use of food in healing particularly through the use of medicinal herbs. The manuscript explores “the use of cocoa derivatives as nutrients or remedies for angina, constipation, tartar-related dental problems, dysentery, dyspepsia, indigestion, fatigue, gout and hemorrhoids” (De la Cruz, 1940). This primary source focus on the use of cacao flowers to cure fatigue. Finally, the Princeton Codex was discovered in 1914 in Yucatan and describes chants that were recited for patients who were ill. “At the conclusion of chants to cure skin eruptions, fever and seizures, a bowl of chacah (i.e., medicinal chocolate) that contained two peppers, honey and tobacco juice was drunk by the patients” (Princeton Codex 1965).

As chocolate was transferred to Western Europe, its consumption was deemed suspicious given its stimulating effects. In order to appeal to Galenism, the prominent medical philosophy at the time, doctors and scientists found evidence of the ways it improved the body (Lippi, 2012). There were various conclusions drawn pertaining to the health impacts chocolate provided from the 17th to the 19th centuries, though the results center on three medicine-related uses for cacao and chocolate: weight gain in emaciated patients, stimulating the nervous system, and improving digestion (Dillinger et al. 2000).

Chocolate is the New ‘Super Food,’ The Telegraph, United Kingdom, 2011

In a study by the Hershey Centre for Health and Nutrition, researchers found that dark chocolate contained more antioxidants and polyphenols than fruit “all of which are thought to protect the body from diseases such as cancer, and heart conditions” (Alleyne, 2011). Nutritionists and vendors alike have declared chocolate, especially dark chocolate, a super food. Cocoa products have been proven to slightly lower blood pressure and have even been linked with lower rates of cancer (Steinberg et al. 2003). However, most studies on the health benefits of chocolate have focused on cocoa extracts, not chocolate, and the distinction must be made in order to consider the impact of the addition of sugar and fats in modern American society.


Alleyne, Richard. “Chocolate is the New ‘Super Food’” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, United Kingdom [Online Image.] 7 Feb. 2011. Retrieved 02-14-16 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/8306796/Chocolate-is-the-new-super-food.html.

“The Badianus Manuscript.” America’s Earliest Medical Book. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Coe, S.D., Coe, M.D., 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London

Dillinger T.L., Barriga P., Escarcega S., Jimenez M., Salazar Lowe D., Grivetti L.E. Food of the gods: Cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. J. Nutr.2000;130:2057–2072.

De la Cruz M. The Badianus Manuscript, Codex Barberini, Latin 241, Vatican Library: An Aztec herbal of 1552. Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore, MD, USA: 1940.

Libro decimo de los vicios y virtudes desta gente indiana y de los miembros de todo el cuerpo interiores y esteriores y de las enfermedades y medicinas contrarias y de las nationes que a esta tierra an venido a poblar, Mexico [Online Image]. 1577 CE. The World Digital Library. Retrieved 02-14-16 from https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10621/.

Lippi D. History of the Medical Use of Chocolate. In: Watson R.R., Preedy V.R., Zibadi S., editors. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Humana Press; New York, NY, USA: 2012. pp. 11–21.

Roys, R. L. Ritual of the Bacabs. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK: 1965.

Sahagun B. General History of the Things of New Spain [Florentine Codex, 1590] School of American Research, University of Utah Monographs of the School of American Research, and Museum of New Mexico; Santa Fe, NM, USA: 1981.

Steinberg, Francene M., Monica M. Bearden, and Carl L. Keen. “Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: implications for cardiovascular health.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 103.2 (2003): 215-223.

Stubbe, H.. The Indian Nectar or a Discourse Concerning Chocolata and Nature of the Cacao-Nut and other Ingredients of that Composition is Examined and Stated According to the Judgment and Experience of Indian and Spanish Writers. J.C. for Andrew Crook, London, UK: 1662.



“Let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.”: The mancerina

Since first reading about the mancerina used in the early 17th century by Europeans for chocolate consumption, I have been enamored of the design and the various origin stories around this historical piece. My interest in this piece is echoed by Christine Jones, author of Shapely Bodies: The Image of Porcelain in Eighteenth-Century France. Jones shares that “small things, sometimes quite ordinary things were deemed remarkable for the unlikely composition of their bodies and how they had been molded, against all odds into such intriguing shapes” (Jones, ix – Acknowledgements).

The structure of the mancerina – usually a ceramic or porcelain (materials varied) saucer with a raised holder in the center to “sit” a cup – is simple, yet innovative. The illustrations only add to the beauty of the design. To me, the mancerina itself, is like an elegant lady, ready to come to life with skirts flared and dance the night away.

It is interesting then, that one of the “origin stories” behind this piece is around ladies indulging in chocolate. The story: the Marqués of Mancera, viceroy of Peru, while strengthening Spain’s military infrastructure within Peru, was also known for hosting tertulias, discussion parties with literary, artistic, or political overtones. It is hypothesized that at one of these events, he observed women of the aristocracy attempting to drink chocolate from regular cups and it spilling down their dresses (Coe and Coe, 135). He noted this challenge and later commissioned the first mancerina. Chocolate first made its appearance in the Spanish courts of Prince Philip in 1544. By the early 17th century, chocolate continued to be a decadent discovery, with access limited to a select few with the means and connections to indulge. In Mesoamerica, it was consumed from clay gourds or jicaras (cups); this did not meet Spanish sensibilities. The materials were common and there were concerns around spilling the beverage and burning one’s skin as well as being unable to drink properly when one was reclined. (Baird and Ionescu, 41-42). The Spanish also added sweeteners to their chocolate, such as sugar, further changing how it was consumed. The mancerina was considered a “New World design” for royalty and the aristocracy to elegantly consume this beverage, with minimal spillage. Moreover, the mancerina was another example of how chocolate was ‘adapted’ to be acceptable to European society.

Mancerina collage
Mancerina collage

The other “origin story” around the creation of the mancerina is based within the namesake himself; Pedro Álvarez de Toledo y Leiva, Marqués of Mancera and viceroy of Peru from 1639-1648. This story tells us that the Marqués suffered from palsy and that a rim was specifically built into his saucer in order to prevent him from spilling the beverage when he picked it up. (Gavin, Pierce and Pleguezuelo, 68).

This is interesting because of the correlation between innovation and health. For the people of Mesoamerica, cacao and chocolate had many healing properties and held a distinguished place for medicinal usage (Lippi, Chocolate in History). Without further information about the Marques, a definitive statement cannot be made that this was one of the reasons that he consumed chocolate. However, with the acknowledgement that some of these medicinal beliefs crossed the Atlantic back to the Spanish, one could infer that along with the prestige he gained from having access to this delicacy, the possibility of chocolate ameliorating some of the effects he suffered from the disease, also influenced his desire for a container to ease his consumption and limit waste.

Title page from Colmenero’s Curioso Tratado de la Naturaleza y Calidad del Chocolate
Title page from Colmenero’s Curioso Tratado de la Naturaleza y Calidad del Chocolate

Finally, shifting perspectives, I share an aside on the mancerina design and its implications on the erasure of Mesoamerican culture; an interesting view provided by Christine Jones in Shapely Bodies: The Image of Porcelain in Eighteenth-Century France. The book is a study of the cultural impacts of porcelain within French society and on French nationalism, though it acknowledges that some designs were adapted from other cultures (e.g. Spain, China) and explores these objects history and usage. Jones notes that:

“Hypotheses about the social purpose of the saucer – to sophisticate and stabilize gourd-style cups for fine ladies – historicize it quaintly, but the story of the mancerina calls out for a more culturally suspicious read. The lexicon of modesty around the new saucer situates it among the technologies brought to the New World to discipline native impropriety, from the corset to Christian baptism. Saved from the instability of Mesoamerican gourds and spared the need for better balance, ladies sipped the drink without fear of indelicacy. But the object of fear here is as much the liquid itself as concern about spilling it. Symbolically, the mancerina mitigated the impertinence of chocolate – a curiously invigorating pleasure deemed a heretical cure. Making native exoticism tame and safe might well sum up Spain’s colonial project, but the fear that inspired such imperial campaigns went beyond the borders of Spain and its Inquisition” (Jones, 125).

Her assertion is provocative, in the possibility that a third “origin story” could exist behind the creation of the mancerina and that this was another way in which Mesoamerican culture was deemed to be inferior, barbarian, and an opportunity for the Mesoamerican people to be saved and shown the path to “civilized humanity”. At least, that is my interpretation of this quote. What is yours?

Regardless of “how” or “why” the mancerina was created; it is noted as a historical artifact that not only highlights European gentrification of chocolate consumption, but also the status of chocolate – a delicacy so exotic that it deserved the creation of its own container to ease and accentuate one’s drinking experience.


Baird, Ileana and Ionescu, Christina. Eighteenth-Century Thing Theory in a Global Context: From Consumerism to Celebrity Culture. Ashgate Publishing Company, Surrey. 2013. Print.

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

Disney Songs. “Beauty and the Beast – Be our Guest.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 09 December 2008. Web. 20 February 2015.

Gavin, Robin Farwell, Pierce, Donna, and Pleguezuelo, Alfonso.  Cerámica Y Cultura: The Story of Spanish and Mexican Mayólica. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 2003. Print.

Jones, Christine. Shapely Bodies: The Image of Porcelain in Eighteenth-Century France. University of Delaware Press, Newark. 2013. Print.

Lippi, Donnatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food” National Institute of Health, Journal – Nutrients (2013): n. pag. Web. 20 February 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3708337/