Tag Archives: Glyphs

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.


Containing Chocolate and Culture

The instruments used to hold chocolate reveal more about the history and culture of the time period than one might first assume. Chocolate consumption began with the Olmecs, a civilization who lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico between 1500 BC and 400 BC (Presilla, 46). Around 500 AD, the Mayan people also embraced chocolate as a drink and as part of traditional rituals like marriage, funerals, and religious ceremonies. Over 1000 years later, chocolate had made its way to Europe as a luxury enjoyed by the elite members of society (Coe and Coe, 158). The transformation of chocolate from a religious food to an indulgence for the wealthy is reflected through the vessels used to contain cacao. The culture and beliefs surrounding chocolate are reflected by a vessel found in a Mayan tomb discovery and the French silver chocolatière.



In 1984, archeologists uncovered a Mayan tomb from the late 5th century containing 14 decorated vessels. This tomb was found at Rio Azul, a Maya city located in Guatemala (Presilla, 46). Specifically, one artifact found in this tomb helped researchers to discover Cacao’s importance in Mayan funeral traditions. In their book, Michael D. Coe and Sophie D. Coe describe the artifact:


“There was a single example of an extremely rare form, a stirrup-handled pot with a screw-on lid. This strange object had been surfaced with stucco and brilliantly painted with six large hieroglyphs, including two which read ‘cacao.’” (Coe and Coe, 46)

Kakaw_(Mayan_word).pngFigure 1:  A close up of the glyph that helped identify this vessel. This symbol meant “cacao” in the Classic Maya period. 

Figure 2 (on left): The pot found at Rio Azul that Coe describes.


For the Mayans, chocolate was more than just a substance to consume. Chocolate held spiritual power. This connection between religion and chocolate is clear when we take into consideration the location of this pot. This artifact was found in a tomb, surrounding the body of the deceased ruler. When tested in a lab, this screw-top jar had traces of caffeine and theobromine—the two trace compounds found together only in chocolate (Martin.) This discovery confirmed that the ruler was buried with chocolate. For further proof that the vessel contained chocolate, researcher David Stuart decoded the glyphs along the outside to read “a drinking vessel for witik cacao, for kox caco” (Coe and Coe, 46).

Funerals and chocolate were also linked in Mayan scripture.  The Mayans believed that chocolate eased the journey to the underworld. Chocolate is mentioned in conjunction with different religious rituals in the Dresden Codex, a Maya text that still exists today (Martin).

Not only does the Rio Azul discovery reveal the connection between religion and chocolate, it also clues us into the consumption process. Some of the other vases are tall and narrow. They were picked up and poured into other pots to increase the foam.
Figure 3: This image is found on the Princeton Vase, and it depicts the process in which people made the chocolate drink. The chocolate was poured from one jug to the other to add froth, as the foam was considered the most important part. 



Luxury in the 18th century France

In France in the 17th and 18th centuries, the vessels used to contain chocolate also reflect the attitudes towards chocolate and the way it was imbibed. Chocolate was heralded as a beneficial delicacy with many health benefits. The French “are usually credited with the invention of the chocolatière, the chocolate pot ”(Coe and Coe, 156). Many of the elite took chocolate daily to cure a number of ailments (Coe and Coe, 156). The vessels from which hot chocolate was poured reflect the extravagance of the segment of society who embraced chocolate.


Figure 4 and 5: This chocolatière, currently on display in the Metropolitan museum of art, was made in the 1760s and  is typical for the time period.





“The French innovation seems to have been fix a straight wooden handle to the metal pot at right angles to the spout; this handle was usually unscrewed clockwise so that it would remain tight while pouring from the pot in a counter-clockwise motion. At the top was a hinged lid, with a central hole under the swiveling (or hinged) finial to take the handle of the moussoir (“froth maker”), as they called the molinillo.… Of course, this would have been in silver, as would the chocolatiers of all the nobility.” – Coe 


The extravagance of this pot highlights how only the wealthy had access to chocolate at the time. The average citizen would have never been able to afford such an intricate piece of silverware (Righthand). Chocolatières were also used as gifts between royalty. Coe cites the first appearance of a silver chocolatières in France as a gift from a Siamese mission. “It was not that the Thai had suddenly turned into chocolate drinkers (they never did so), but [the minister to the King of Siam] had obviously instructed the royal metalsmiths to turn out something that would appeal to the French court.” And the metalsmith’s idea of what would appeal to the French court was an extravagant set of chocolatières. The chocolatières given to the French court incuded “two chocolatières in silver, one with golden flowers and the other Japenned” as well as another “entirely in gold” (Coe and Coe, 158). Chocolatières were brought as a gift and to signify diplomacy. This incident establishes the way chocolate was viewed in society—something for only the elite to enjoy for pleasure.



Figure 6:  “La Famille du duc de Penthièvre en 1768” a painting by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier illustrates how chocolate was for the wealthy.


Same food, different cultures

For the Europeans of the 17th century, chocolate was a status symbol. As the price was still expensive, only the wealthy could afford to take chocolate. The intricacies of the chocolatières highlight their function in society. For the most part, chocolate no longer held any spiritual affiliation. While the Mayan pots were decorated with glyphs and drawings depicting what was inside and religious rituals, the chocolatières were ornately decorated illustrating the wealth and class of those who used them. Although both pots hold chocolate, their uses and sociological function were very different, illustrating the adaptation of chocolate as it spread to Europe as a secular delicacy, rather than a religious artifact.


Works cited:

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

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

Righthand, Jess. “A Brief History of the Chocolate Pot.” Smithsonian.com. February 13, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/brief-history-chocolate-pot-180954241/.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009 Print.







The Kakaw Glyph-Window to the Past

The decryption of Mayan glyphs proved a difficult and laborious process, and while not without detractors, the resulting understanding of the Mayan lexicon illustrates the significance of recorded history to present day knowledge. Whereas the Maya had been largely thought a peaceful and unified people ruled by lords and religious astronomers, the deciphering of glyphs in Maya ruins revealed a history of warring and violent city-states throughout the Yucatan. Using the glyph for chocolate or cacao, “kakaw,” as a focus, we can glimpse the importance of recovering lost human knowledge. Rather than presenting a trivial pursuit, the methodological research of Maya hieroglyphic script not only brought together lexicographers, linguists, historians, and archaeologists, but also provided insight into Maya culture undistorted by the Europian colonial gaze.

The Kakaw Glyph; Source: http://www.authenticmaya.com/cacao.htm

The discovery of the kakaw glyph tied in with the major breakthroughs in decoding Maya script: namely, that individual glyphs were phonetic, rather than representing an idea or object. Scholars had long believed glyphs were representative, but in the 1950’s a Russian scholar, Yuri Knorozov, proposed a syllabic system. This system was eventually realized to be correct, though it had been opposed for years, especially by renowned epigrapher J. Eric Thompson, of whom Mayan scholar Michael Coe wrote, “almost the entire Mayanist field was in willing thrall to one very dominant scholar, Eric Thompson.” While an interesting twist in the politics of Mayan studies, this example also illustrates the personal interests and biases that can hinder discovery.

The syllabic interpretation of Maya glyphs resulted in part from a repeated string of like glyphs called the “Primary Standard Sequence.” The Sequence was found mostly on clay vessels, as an inscription around the rim of a cup or bowl. In realizing that the Sequence denoted the type and intent of vessel, and its owner, scholars were able to piece together basic glyph meanings. Not surprisingly, many of these recovered vessels were used to hold cacao products, and thus the phonetic/syllabic glyph kakaw was uncovered. Specifically, the glyph comprises the image of a fish and fish fin, connoting the syllable ka twice, and the symbol for w or wa below.

Pot with Primary Standard Sequence; Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup

Beyond appreciating the beauty and enigma of Maya glyphs, we can also uncover knowledge previously hidden or obscured. The revelations astonish just in the context of the kakaw glyph. From examining artwork, artifacts, and the few written codices that survived the Spanish book-burnings of the 1500’s, we see chocolate’s prominent role in Mayan culture.

Mayan religion remains a complex topic, due to its regional and polytheist tradition. In the context of the kakaw glyph, however, we see chocolate play an important role. The Popol Vuh, a key text in Mayan theology, features the iconic fish glyph, mainly in its detailing of Maya creation myth. Though the kakaw glyph may appear in tandem the Maya primordial gods, scholars agree with more certainty on the position of cacao as one of the first foods given to humans by the gods, along with, for example, corn.


Through study of scripts and codices, such as the Codex Mendoza, cacao beans were understood to be integral to Maya trade and currency. Many commodities had values measured in quantity of cacao beans, which, due to their intrinsic utility and size proved to be good monetary units.

Objects with Values; Source: http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/images/content_img/Money.jpg

Additionally, given the commercial value of cacao, Maya rulers created sumptuary laws such that commoners could not literally drink their money away, further reinforcing cacao as a luxury for the rich.

A Lord Having his Chocolate Poured; Source: http://www.worldstandards.eu/chocolate%20-%20history.html

Knowing the importance of cacao in Maya culture, we see the quality and regulation of chocolate stressed in Maya artwork. Though less substantive than considering cacao in the context of religion or society, it is quite interesting to see the Maya interest in flavor and variation of chocolate.

Though much can be learned about a deceased civilization through archaeology and historical analysis, actually deciphering information as recorded by the Maya provides a direct link to millennia past. Bias and distortion are always present when considering history, and while perhaps intrinsic to human thought, more deliberate European bias against less developed civilizations propagated pervasively in historical study in previous centuries. In recent decades, scholars have taken care to recognize this bias, and the direct interpretation of the written record has proven integral in constructing an image of Mayan civilization.


Coe, Michael. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: Grolier Club, 1973. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. Print.

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

Multimedia Sources

Authentic Maya. The Maya and the Ka’kau’. Digital Image. http://www.authenticmaya.com/cacao.htm

Doyle, James. The Drinking Cup of a Classic Maya Noble. Digital Image.Maya. Guatemala or Mexico, Mesoamerica. Ceramic; H. 7 7/8 x Diam. 6 1/4 in. (18.1 x 15.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Anonymous Gift, 2005 (2005.435). Right: Vessel with seated lord, 7th–8th century. Maya. Mexico, Mesoamerica. Ceramic, stucco; H. 9 1/2 x Diam. 7 3/8 in. (24.1 x 18.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1992 (1992.4). http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup

Berdan, Frances. The Essential Codex Mendoza. Digital Image (From Print, Berkeley,1997). http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/images/content_img/Money.jpg

Chocomuseo. Pouring chocolate from one vessel to another (Maya vase, 750 AD). Digital Image. http://www.worldstandards.eu/chocolate%20-%20history.html