Tag Archives: Rio Azul

Mesoamerican Artifacts!

In Mesoamerica chocolate was one of the most desired and sought after products, it was consumed by the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. The consumption of chocolate early one was primarily spread through trade. This led to chocolate making it all the way to the Americas. One of the earliest and most common uses of chocolate was for consumption, whether this was in the form or a drink or as a solid. The Olmec tribe was one of the first civilizations to use chocolate as a drink, dating all the way back to 1900 BCE, this chocolate beverage was drunk from a special round jar known as a tecomate. Similar to the Olmec tribe, the Mayans also drank their chocolate out of a certain instrument. They used tall beakers, with an intricate design and text along the rim which described the intended use of the beaker. It is said that they made the design of the vessels so unique so that those who were looking would be impressed, proving that they had the status and means to enjoy such a prized and rich drink. This was significant, because it proved that cacao was a way to show social status. Drinking out of one of those tall beakers back then is equivalent to driving a very high end car like a Maserati or a Bugatti today. You don’t have em if you aren’t of a wealthy status.

( Mayan Beaker)   ( Olmec Tecomate)

Rio Azul Vessels: The Discovery

It is very important to understand the importance of cacao not just socially, but its value in certain cultural groups. The Rio Azul vessel is an important artifact that helps bring insight to the impact of cacao throughout the Mayan culture. These vessels were discovered inside the tomb located in the Rio Azul region of Guatemala. These vessels are very rare, from the hieroglyphics depicted on the outside to the physical design. The lid of the pot can be screwed on that way you can hold the pot by the arch handle and maintain what you are keeping inside without the risk of spilling what’s inside. Within the vessel there was some sort of dark residue left behind. Eventually it was determined that what the vessel had contained was in fact cacao. They came to this conclusion by having the vessel analyzed. Mayanist David Stuart discovered the hieroglyphics on the outside of the vessel represented the work “kakaw” which is the Mayan word for cacao. They specifically think this leader was buried with some sort of chocolate beverage concealed within the vessels. The leader being buried with these vessels speaks to the Mayan burial rituals, the dead were usually surrounded by many items like the Rio Azul vessels that contained food and drink that they were meant to enjoy in the after life.

(Rio Azul Vessel

The Molinillo: An Overview

The Molinillo is a whisk that is made out of wood, its main purpose is to stir hot drinks like hot chocolate, or champurrado. This whisk was made by the Mexicans, and is still made today by hand for the same purpose that it served back then. The tool was invented by the Spanish Colonists in the 1700s to help assist with the frothing of chocolate, this came to be because they thought that pouring the chocolate back and forth wasn’t the best way to do it. The Chocolate produced by the Aztecs was made from roasted beans that were grounded on a metate along with seeds and flavoring. The earliest version of the Molinillo had a ball or square end with a very long handle, over time the designs got more and more intricate with things like rings and movable parts, all to help with the stirring process. These instruments were meant to fir into a pot with the handling extending out of the top. To use to molinillo you were to put both hands palms facing in on the staff, and then proceed to use your hands to rotate it, thus frothing the chocolate.

Works Cited

Cartwright, Mark. “Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 24 Mar. 2020, http://www.ancient.eu/Chocolate_in_Mesoamerica/.

Ewbank, Anne. “Archaeologists, Mayanists, and Hershey’s Collaborated to Reveal This Ancient Vessel’s Secrets.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 13 Sept. 2019, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/mayan-chocolate.

Museum, Metropolitan. “Bowl (Tecomate).” Metmuseum.org, 2014, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/318472.

Museum, smithsonian. “Large Molinillo.” National Museum of American History, 2018, americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_867633.

Sleuth, Gourmet. “Molinillo – Mexican Chocolate Whisk (Stirrer).” Gourmet Sleuth, Published by: Gourmet Sleuth, 16 Mar. 2018, http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/articles/detail/molinillo.

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. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/mayan-chocolate

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. http://www.authenticmaya.com/cacao.htm. 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, http://www.jstor.org/stable/281499. Accessed 12 Mar. 2020.

“The Princeton Vase (y1975-17).” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, http://www.artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/32221. Accessed 10 Mar. 2020.

From Cultural to Commercial: Cocoa’s Geopolitical Transformation

Molded by years of exposure to masterfully crafted marketing campaigns, average consumer knowledge of cacao [or cocoa] is limited to its function as an ingredient and source from which their beloved chocolate is derived. There is much more to the birth, rise, and spread of Theobroma cacao.

The following seeks to explain how a culturally significant crop among early civilizations dating back to 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013) transformed from a highly treasured ingredient and social currency cultivated within a fairly limited zone to a globally produced and traded commodity: a highly reformulated, mass-produced, and readily available confectionery product.

This journey traces cacao back to its genetic and cultural beginnings where it was religious and cultural fixture among early civilizations; how exploration and migration played into the geographical expansion of its cultivation and rise in popularity as a food; role in accelerating industrialization; and transformation from a social currency and treasured ingredient to a heavily traded commodity and mass manufactured consumer product.

Genetic and Cultural Beginnings

From births and burials, recipes and rituals, cacao’s cultural origins are linked to Mesoamerica (present day Mexico through Central America), where its social and religious significance among the Olmec dates back to 1500 to 400 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013). The rise of Maya and Aztec civilizations gave way for cacao’s evolution utility and proliferation as a consumable.

Cacao’s Role in Society and Religion

Evidenced by archeologic discoveries, translated texts, and scientific testing, several vessels and writings have been unearthed, clarifying and validating cacao’s significance, religious ties, and early application as a currency.

Mayan and Aztec civilization associated cacao with the gods. As such, they were believed to enrich and afford protections during and after life, playing a central role in offerings and rituals (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Ceramic vessels similar to those pictured here which date back to 455 to 465 CE were found in burial tombs at Río Azul (Martin, 2019). Further testing confirmed positive traces of caffeine and theobromine—two of cacao’s alkaloid signatures (Martin, 2019).

Dating back to 455 to 465 CE, “funerary vessels” similar to those pictured here were discovered in tombs at Río Azul. As testing revealed traces of caffeine and theobromine, two of cacao’s signature alkaloids, this further supported evidence of cacao’s religious significance (Martin, 2019).

As a food or drink, cacao took many forms. Popular among the Maya and Aztec, “cacahuatl” was a frothy preparation often transferred from one vessel to another and served cold (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Described by Coe and Coe in The True History of Chocolate and drawn by Diane Griffiths Peck, this illustration provides a glimpse into one of many Maya and Aztec cacao preparation and serving methods.
Of the 15 discovered, translated, and still intact, the Dresden Codex contains the aforementioned Mayan hieroglyphic depiction of cacao being consumed by gods and used in rituals (Martin, 2019). Other major works include the Popol Vuh or “Book of Counsel” is a colonial document later translated by Friar Francisco Ximénez that reveals the importance of cacao among early civilizations.

Exploration and Migration: Changes in Cultivation and Consumption

By definition, explorers were bound to make new discoveries and learn from their experience. Capturing the innocent confusion and eye-opening experience (only to be realized years later), the following briefly details just how one explorer mistakenly thought that cacao beans were almonds.”

Mistaken for Almonds: When recounting observations from his 1502 landing at Guanaja, one of many landmasses that make up the Bay Islands archipelago, Ferdinand Columbus, one of Christopher Columbus’ sons wrote about cherished “almonds” that traded hands similarly to how currency would pass between customers and merchants (Coe and Coe, 2013). It was not until years later after multiple interpretations and sources concluded that what he presumed to be almonds were in fact cacao beans.

As it came to be more widely known, not far from where Ferdidnad landed, throughout the Rio Ceniza Valley (present day coast of El Salvador), cacao was an increasingly popular form of currency being produced and traded in record volume—something . In time, this led to further learnings about the “Nahua counting system” and subsequent adoption of cacao as payment for “protection” by Spanish conquistadors.

Generally relegated to tropical climates falling 10-15 degrees north and south of equator, is was inevitable that cacao would make its way around the world. So as people moved, and culture spread, so too did the cacao, as a crop, currency, and curiosity, ultimately leading to its introduction to new geographies, and paving the way for new industries and traditions around the world (Martin, 2019).

New Formulations and Complementary Ingredients

As ingredients such as vanilla, chili, and many others traveled around the world, pairings and formulations rapidly evolved. Marking a major development and informing direction for the confectionery side as we know it today, sugar was introduced to Europe around 1100 CE and chocolate followed shortly thereafter in 1500 CE (Martin, 2019).

Cacao’s Role in Accelerating Industrialization and Expanding its Place in Society

While cacao consumption continued to be reserved for certain classes during its journey around the world, increasingly sophisticated processing methods streamlined productions, regulation eventually brought its price down, and despite medical and religious challenges to its place in society, cacao products were increasingly available to a grander population.

By the 1600 and 1700s, advances in processing continued to align with rising and more diverse consumption habits. Of course, by this time, the separation between “producing” and “processing” countries (read: colonies vs. industrialized nations) was increasingly clear.

So while cultivation and production spread across Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa to meet demand, industry began to take shape on the consumer side as well with the emergence of social gathering halls or “Chocolate Houses” in Britain, France, Spain, the United States, and other “industrialized” nations who had transitioned to managing the cacao’s trade as a commodity and processing for various food and beverage applications. It was not until Rudolphe Lindt’s invention of the conche in 1879, an advancement that bolstered flavor and feel (among other things), and set the stage for quality, processing, and mass production to take off (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Illustrated above, the matete, grinder, and conche are examples of what cacao processing tools were used by early civilizations (and are still used in the same or similar forms today) and evolved or industrialized processing equipment employed today (Martin, 2019).

From early civilizations to present day, cacao’s role in society, cultural significance, availability and consumption have evolved tremendously. However, its mystique and association as something special are still true to this day—just as they were in different and more elaborate forms among early civilizations. Perhaps this condensed history will give pause and reason for the average consumer to think beyond commercialization of cacao, cocoa, or chocolate, and value and validate its history and claims made by brands to improve global understanding, perception, and consumer habits.

Works Cited

  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  • Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.
  • Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018

Media Cited

  • Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past”. Nawatl Scholar. January 1, 1970. Accessed March 15, 2019. http://nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
  • Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. Lynne Olver 2000. March 1, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.
  • Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “Map of Mesoamerica.” Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.famsi.org/maps/.
  • Río Azul [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Wikimedia Commons. File:Popol vuh.jpg. (January 16, 2015). Retrieved February 17, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Popol_vuh.jpg&oldid=146695431.
  • Matete [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Grinder [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Conche [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Lectures Cited

  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 13, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 20, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

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.







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.



Mayans and the Food of the Gods

For most of us consumers, it is easy to have a sense of detachment from the origins of the product which we consume, this statement is most applicable in the case of chocolate. It is arguable that the vast majority of chocolate consumers do not know the etymology of chocolate nor do they know it as a Cacao fruit first before its many transformation into chocolate. The word chocolate is said to have come from the Mayan word xocolatl. We have come to be introduced into the world of chocolate thanks to the many works of the meticulous archaeologists who have gone back in time to examine artifacts from regions in Mesoamerica that has helped to pinpoint the introduction of Chocolate into history, the culture, uses and beliefs of this wonderful beverage that came to be known as “food of the gods” (Presilla 5). The more delicate discoveries of chocolate including pre-Columbian recipes, uses and beliefs stems out of the Mayan civilization. In Mayan culture chocolate was a highly revered beverage both to the living and the dead and in particular to the Mayan elite. It was of utmost importance in Mayan ritual sacrifices and the use of cacao was also prevalent in Mayan dishes. Today, is a treat that can be afforded by both the rich and the poor, this being the case it is so easy to forget that at one point and especially in Mayan culture chocolate was a treat reserved only for the wealthy and the gods. The Mayan use of chocolate in various ceremonies including in sacred ritual sacrifices, marriage ceremonies, funerals and such makes an astounding case that the association of chocolate as “ the food of the gods” had its influences from the Mayan civilization.
It may be argued that cacao made its first appearance in the Olmec civilization but the Mayans came to domesticate this fruit and provide the vast artifacts that gave room to the study and understanding of chocolate. The area known today as Mesoamerica which spans “between central Mexico and Western Honduras, including all of Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador” (Presilla 8); Is said to be the birth place of the cacao and for the most part, this region has been placed as the sites of Mayan settlement.

Image 1:


The first discovery of Cacao in Mayan culture came from the Dresden codex. This historical artifact is “a type of folding screen book that was discovered as part of Mayan writing collections that preceded the Spanish conquest” (Coe 41). From the scenes in which cacao is depicted in this sacred text, it can be deduced that the Mayans saw cacao as a sacred. Cacao also made another appearance in a “far less artistic Madrid codex and in this text, a young god squats while grasping limbs from a cacao tree. We also see a depiction of gods scattering blood over cacao bloods” (Coe 42). This last scene was the first time the association between human blood and chocolate was made one that would come to mean so much later as we discover about the use of chocolate and blood in sacred sacrifices.

Image 2:

A god holding a vessel with cacao beans.

As it has become apparent, the Mayans highly prized cacao, so much so that it was depicted quite often in the presence of gods. For people who held such reverence for this fruit, how so did they consume it?

We know from “inscriptions deciphered from classic period drinking vessels and funerary offerings” (Presilla 12), that cacao was first consumed as a fruit beverage made from the fruit pulp. Mayan glyphs for “tree fresh cacao, was discovered from the Primary Standard Sequence of the Buena vista vase, from Buena vista del Cayo in Belize” (Presilla 12).
Image 3:

mayan drinking vessel
Classic Mayan drinking Vessel


The most instrumental discovery for archaeologists in understanding the Mayan use of cacao and chocolate came from the discovery of the tombs at Rio Azul. It proved to be a site of countless evidence of the chocolate drinking culture of the Mayans. On one particular person, that of a “middle aged ruler, archaeologists discovered in his tomb an astounding 14 pottery vessels including six cylindrical vases and on some of the vases evidence that they had contained dark liquid was very apparent” (Coe 46). In this particular tomb, evidence of different recipes of chocolate was also found; a drinking vessel containing for “witik cacao and kox cacao” (Coe 46). In these wonderful discoveries, it is well seen that the Mayans even sent of their dead equipped with chocolate beverages to ensure a feast in the afterlife. The Mayans were also credited for popularizing the frothed chocolate beverage which we still enjoy today. In a vase that was discovered and attributed to be made in the “Nakbe area in the 8th century, of the images illustrated, a lady is seen pouring a chocolate drink from one vessel to another. A discovery that proved to be the first time a picture of a chocolate drink was being made and the introduction of the foaming method” (Coe 48).

Image 4:

mayan glyph for cacao
A replica of the vessel found in a tomb at Rio Azul; highlighted next to it is a Mayan glyph for cacao.

To the Mayans, chocolate was a highly prized beverage, one that found its way into various aspects of Mayan culture including, marriage ceremonies, parties, rite to passage ceremonies, burial ceremonies and sacred ritual sacrifices. Although cacao may have first made its appearance in the Olmec civilization, it was not raised to its level of importance until the Mayans came into the picture. That is, the Mayans are responsible for introducing a level of finesse into the making of the beverage we come to know as chocolate today; The Mayans raised chocolate to its status as the “food of the gods”.

Scholarly Sources:
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013(1996). The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames&Hudson.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural &Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Multimedia Sources:
Herrera, Ashleigh. beloit college. 2012. image. 28 february 2016. <https://www.beloit.edu/wright/honors_term_pilot/mayan_vase/&gt;.
http://www.famsi.org/maps/. n.d. 26 February 2016.
Vail, Dr. Gabrielle. Chocolate in Prehispanic Maya Culture. 8 August 2015. 28 february 2016. <http://www.southfloridamuseum.org/TheMuseum/EastGallery/MayaStories/tabid/218/post/chocolate-in-prehispanic-maya-culture/Default.aspx&gt;.
—. The Food of the Gods: Cacao use among the Prehispanic Maya. 1 August 2014. Image. 27 February 2016. <http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-use-among-the-prehispanic-maya&gt;.

The Pot That Changed History

Rio Azul, an archeological dig site in Guatemala, is home to an incredible discovery. In 1984 a dig here unearthed artifacts that changed the history of chocolate forever.[1] Hershey’s Labs tested pots found in a tomb at Rio Azul, and several came back positive for traces of cacao. The pots were found in a burial tomb. People had prepared and left chocolate drinks for the dead to take into the afterlife. Prior to the discovery of the tomb where the pots were discovered there was little written evidence to tell us how cacao was used and consumed. Rio Azul gave us a written record of cacaos important history. This discovery improved our understanding of funeral rituals in this culture as well as the origins of chocolate as we know it today.

Chocolate has a very rich history.  Our first records of it date back to 4,000 years ago in Mesoamerica with the Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people, who drank their chocolate cold and with many spices.  The link has been made between the Olmecs and chocolate because the Olmecs spoke Mixe-Zoquea and the word cocao, the plant that people use to make chocolate, is Mize-Zoquean. You can listen to a leading expert, Michael D. Coe, speak here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPjQ8[2]  This is one of the major reasons Coe believes that the tradition of drinking chocolate dates back to at least the Olmecs, if not further.  The Mayans have a lot of written records about chocolate, so we know it was heavily relied upon for rituals, from sacrifices to births.  Chocolate was also given a medicinal value in the Mayan culture.  It was only in later years that chocolate became the sweet and for-fun drink and food it is today, as the conquering Europeans turned what they saw as a “drink for pigs” into a sweet nectar they could consume when they ran out of wine and did not want to drink water[3].

One really interesting fact that makes chocolate so historically significant is its use in funerals. For instance, the archeological site that made chocolate famous in Mesoamerican history was, in fact, the house of a tomb. It was in this tomb that archeologists first found a chocolate pot, and in fact the inscriptions on the pot gave us huge clues about the language itself as well as the significance of chocolate in the culture. For instance, from the written glyphs it is known that the use of chocolate in ceremonies and in general dates back to pre-Olmec groups[4]. This has really aided our understanding not just of the history of chocolate, but the history of these Mesoamerican cultures.

Overall, this is a really integral part of history; food always has and always will be at the center of cultures. By studying not just how food is made but what ceremonies, festivals, and rituals included food, but also what types of food were used, we can better understand how cultures form and cross-pollinate. The discovery of the pot revolutionized chocolate history. “‘This reopens the whole debate about who first invented chocolate’ said Jonathon Haas, curator of the mouth-watering ‘Chocolate’ exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago”.[5] It also is important to study food within a culture because we can better trace the history of the food. For instance, chocolate started as a bitter drink, then the Spanish turned it into a sweet drink, and, after several iterations, it is what we know best today: the chocolate bar.








[1] Michael D. Coe and Sophie D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (n.p.: Everbest Printing Co. Ptd., 2013), [Page 46].

[2] Michael Coe, More Than a Drink: Chocolate in the Pre-Columbian World, youtube, 2012.

[3]Mihai Andrei, “Chocolate History: The early days, Mesoamericans, culture, and ritual,” ZME Science, last modified August 12, 2015, accessed February 16, 2016, http://www.zmescience.com/other/feature-post/chocolate-history-the-early-days-mesoamericans-culture-and-rituals/.

[4] Martha Macri, “Nahua Loan Words from the Early Classic Period,” Ancient Mesoamerica.

[5] Bijal P. Trivedi, “Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya ‘Teapot,'” National Geographic News, last modified July 17, 2002, accessed February 19, 2016, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/07/0717_020717_TVchocolate.html.