Portraits of Power

Warrior Figure with Trophy Head
Artist not known, Costa Rica
A.D. 500-1000

Students will critically examine and discuss the image of the Warrior Figure with Trophy Head. They will then discuss and view how modern leaders and persons of power are depicted and note the similarities and difference of how power is represented across time and culture.

Intended Age Group
Secondary (grades 6-12)
Standards Area
Social Studies
Lesson Length
One 50 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • describe and analyze what they see in the Warrior Figure with Trophy Head;
  • summarize new information; and
  • investigate and identify differences and similarities in cultural understanding and representation of power and leadership.


  1. Show students the image of the Warrior Figure with Trophy Head.
  2. Ask students in small groups or as a whole class to describe what they see and interpret what they think the object might represent or be used for. Ask if there are any clues as to the country or culture of origin.
  3. Share the information from the About the Art section with students. Go over the "Details” information. Ask students if they were surprised by any of this information.
  4. You might ask students to locate Costa Rica on a map and consider how the geographic location might influence the culture and the people. What do they know about this region?
  5. Notice that several clues show us that this figure represents a person who was powerful. What are the clues that tell us that this is a powerful person?
  6. Discuss similarities and differences between how powerful leaders of this ancient Costa Rican society and other ancient societies are portrayed. Consider comparing this Warrior Figure with the figure on the Stela.
  7. Discuss and debate similarities and differences between how these powerful ancient leaders are represented versus how leaders of today are represented.
  8. If time allows, have students research images of modern political leaders or leaders from areas that have been a focus of study in the class.
  9. Have students write a brief paragraph comparing and contrasting a representation of a modern leader with the representation of the Warrior Figure with Trophy Head.


  • World map
  • Note taking paper for each student
  • Paper to write a paragraph about comparisons
  • Variety of pencils, markers, or other writing implements
  • Computer, Internet, and/or library access for research on various leaders and persons of power
  • Color copies of the image for students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a screen or wall
  • Copies of About the Art section on the Warrior Figure with Trophy Head


CO Standards
  • Social Studies
    • History
    • Geography
  • Evaluate and analyze sources using historical method of inquiry and defend their conclusions
  • Understand the concept that the power of ideas is significant throughout history
  • Become familiar with Western Hemisphere historical eras, groups, individuals and themes
  • Analyze the concepts of continuity and change and effect
  • Analyze the concept of complexity, unity and diversity
  • Become familiar with World geography
  • Understand geographic variables and how they affect people
  • Use geographic tools and sources to answer spatial questions
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

Warrior Figure with Trophy Head

A.D. 500-1000

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.

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.