Warrior Figure with Trophy Head

Warrior Figure with Trophy Head

A.D. 500-1000
Artist not known, Costa Rica
Costa Rica

A.D. 500-1000

Height: 14.875 in. Width: 7.375 in. Depth: 7.25 in.

Denver Art Museum Collection: Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 246.1992

Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.

About the Artist

This sculpture was created by an artist from the Central Highlands or Atlantic Watershed region of Costa Rica. To make this ceramic sculpture, the artist used slabs and coils of clay to gradually build up the sculpture. This gave the clay time to partially dry so that it could support the weight above as more clay was added. The artist then coated the smooth surface with a reddish slip (a mixture of clay and water) and burnished the slip to bond it firmly to the clay. This vessel was probably fired (heated to harden the clay) out in the open, with clay objects placed in a slight depression in the ground and fuel carefully placed around them. This technique produced porous ceramics called earthenware.

After firing, the artist used a sharp tool to engrave or scratch patterns onto the figure’s legs and body. The artist applied the final decorative touches using a smoking technique. Areas where the artist wanted the original surface color to show through were painted with a resist material, possibly a slip, to protect the surface from smoke. When placed over a smoky fire, the areas of the vessel that weren’t covered with the resist material took on a darker tint. The resist material was then washed off, revealing the design.

What Inspired It

This figure portrays a powerful man, probably a warrior or chief. He holds a head carefully with both hands. The head, which resembles his own, suggests that the warrior has defeated a peer—either killing him in battle or sacrificing him afterward. Alternatively, the head could be the cherished relic of a revered ancestor. Such a relic might have brought protection and spiritual power to descendants. The high status of the victor is evident in both his elaborate body decoration and his confident stance, with huge firmly planted feet, stocky legs, and projecting chin.


Vessel Opening

The opening of this sculptural vessel is at the top of the figure’s head. The vessel chamber in the body is sealed off from the hollow arms and legs. Thus, liquid could not leak through the multiple vent holes pierced in the figure’s limbs.


The rough nature of the white lines in the ears, the mouth, and on the legs, back, and hips indicate that they were engraved after the vessel was fired. If the lines had been carved into the soft clay before it was fired, a cleaner line would have been produced—a process called incising.


Created using the smoke and resist technique, designs on the arms, chest, and face of the figure may have imparted magical protection or powers, or they may have signaled clan membership or some other affiliation.


Notice the holes on the inner arms and inner legs. These holes served as vents and helped air circulate more freely during the firing process. This prevented the vessel from exploding.

Curvilinear Patterns

The resist painting was usually done in curvilinear patterns. Notice the spirals on the arms.

More Resources


Benson, Elizabeth P. Between Continents/Between Seas: Precolumbian Art of Costa Rica. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981.

A text discussing the archaeological, artistic and cultural history of Cosa Rica. Pages 54-62 are most helpful.

Katz, Lois. Art of Costa Rica: Pre-Columbian Painted and Sculpted Ceramics from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections. Washington D.C.: The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation and The AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities, 1985.

A large, well-illustrated text on Costa Rican ceramics. The essay “Polychrome Ceramics and Iconography” is helpful, and pages 225-233 show other ceramic examples of the same style as the Denver Art Museum example.

Lange, Frederick W. Ancient Treasures of Costa Rica: Art and Archeology of the Rich Coast. Boulder, CO: Johnson Publishing Company, 1990.

A brief overview of the artistic traditions of Costa Rica, focusing on the Greater Nicoya area.

Lange, Frederick W. Before Guanacaste: An Archaeologist Looks at the First 10,000 Years. San José, Costa Rica: F.W. Lange, 2006.

A look at the evolution of culture in Costa Rica. Pages 59-70 discuss the imagery found on ceramics. The Denver Art Museum example is found on page 68.

Lange, Frederick W.. Costa Rican Art and Archeology. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado, 1988.

A collection of essays on the art and archeology of Costa Rica. Chapter 7, “The Costa Rican Effigy Head Tradition,” discusses ceramic objects such as this one; the Denver Art Museum example is illustrated on page 156.

Children's Books

Deady, Kathleen W. Costa Rica. New York: Children's Press, 2004.

An exploration of Costa Rican life for ages 9-12.

Strauss, Susan. When Woman Became the Sea: A Costa Rican Creation Myth. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Worlds Publishing, Inc., 1998.

A Costa Rican creation myth for preschoolers.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.