Got Your Hieroglyph On It

Cylinder Vessel with Image of Seated Lord and Attendants at Court
Artist not known, Maya, Guatemala
600–800 CE

Students will use visual critique skills to analyze and discuss the image of the Vase with Palace Scene. They will pay particular attention to the use of Maya cultural symbols and design in the decoration. Students will develop sketches and a plan to create their own cup or mug with designs inspired by the Maya.

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

Students will be able to:

  • describe and analyze what they see in the Vase with Palace Scene;
  • interpret meaning from symbolic uses of design elements;
  • read and organize information in the form of hieroglyphs gathered from an art object; and
  • create an individual work of art that uses visual literacy clues to convey meaning.


  1. This lesson can be completed in one day if drawing a cup or mug in the style of the Vessel with a Palace Scene, or alternatively could take two or more days if making cups or mugs out of clay.
  2. Show students the image of the Vessel with Palace Scene and have them describe what they see. Ask them if they are able to identify any clues as to the culture or the age of the object.
  3. Share information from the About the Art section and ask students to share any background knowledge they might have about the Maya.
  4. Go through the “Details” information tab and locate those things on the image.
  5. Point out the function of this vase as a vessel for drinking chocolate. Note the painted detail of a similar vessel holding a chocolate drink in the design. Challenge them to find the glyph that identifies the vessel as a vessel for drinking cacao. It is near the rim.
  6. It time allows, share information from the “About the Art” section of the Creativity Resource object page that describes what a Maya chocolate drink was. It is not what we think of as traditional hot chocolate. For one thing, the drink was not hot. It also contained a touch of spices. The Maya used hot chili pepper, honey, and flowers to flavor the chocolate. It might be fun to provide a piece of chocolate with chilies for the students to taste.
  7. Note that the Maya labeled their pottery with their names and also wrote what the object was used for. Point out the hieroglyphs around the rim and in the body of the vessel.
  8. This vessel was also decorated with bags of cocoa beans which were used as currency in this civilization. That and the palace scene tell us about the life of the owner of this vase.
  9. If possible, have images of Maya hieroglyphs (perhaps some found on the vessel, or others that are not too complex) and a key explaining their meanings available. Use a resource such as The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. for additional information on Maya hieroglyphs.
  10. Invite students to create their own cup or mug design and decorate it, label it with their names, and label what the cup or mug is supposed to be used for. They may choose to use Maya glyphs and write their name in hieroglyphs. Discuss the form of the Vessel with Palace Scene in relation to its function. Have students consider this in their design. Students should sketch and plan their ideas, including detail and color for all sides of their mugs.

Optional Additional Days

  1. Review what the students learned in the previous lesson and have them share their mug or cup designs with a partner, explaining their artistic choices.
  2. Today students will turn their drawn mug or cup designs into actual clay objects. Use whatever clay is appropriate for the facilities of the classroom.
  3. The mugs and cups could be hand built or thrown on the wheel. If desired, they could have a handle or a lid.
  4. Students can choose to score and slip on details, carve relief designs, or incise the clay.
  5. Let the vessel dry overnight, or fire the pieces if possible.
  6. After the clay has dried or been fired, students can glaze or paint even more designs.


  • Sketch paper for each student
  • Variety of pencils and other art supplies such as, but not limited to, colored pencils, markers, pastels, watercolor pencils, etc.
  • Computer and Internet access for image research using information for the Vessel with Palace Scene on Creativity Resource, and to find additional information about Maya hieroglyphs from sources such as The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.
  • Optional, if making clay mugs:
    • Clay to build a cup or mug for each student
    • Clay tools
    • Plastic to cover clay and tables
    • Glazes, slips, or paint for self-hardening clay
  • Color copies of the vessel for students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • Copies of About the Art sheet on the Vase with Palace Scene (found at the end of the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

Cylinder Vessel with Image of Seated Lord and Attendants at Court

600–800 CE
About the Artist

We don’t know the name of the artist who made this vessel, but it’s apparent that they were very skilled. The artist was able to give the human figures depicted on the vessel depth and substance, conveying individual personalities and even humor. A hieroglyphic text encircles the top of the vessel and occurs within the painted scene. It took great skill to paint both the figures and hieroglyphs with such control.

The glyphic text indicates that this vessel was probably made in what is now Guatemala. Vessels like this were made from local clays and other materials that were added for strength. Before firing the vessel, the artist covered it with a white or orange slip, a mixture of clay and water, to serve as background color. The artist then painted images and designs onto the polished surface with mineral-pigmented slips. The last step was to fire the vessel in an open pit.

What Inspired It

The inscription on this vessel tells us it was crafted for the father of the central, seated lord and was used for drinking cacao or chocolate. Painted on the thin-walled cylindrical vessel is a scene of palace life that involves a tribute payment to the lord. Goods on display include two circular fans woven of reed or palm leaf, several stacks of textiles, and three large bags of cacao or chocolate beans. Cacao beans were a gourmet food item and could also be used as a form of money. While the assembled men participate openly in the event, two women (seated on the right) are shielded from public view. Probably members of the noble household, they appear to listen to the discussion with interest.

Life in noble Maya courts was both luxurious and sophisticated. Maya cities incorporated elaborate stone and stucco architecture, carved ruler portraits on free-standing stone slabs, and painted large-scale mural scenes. Elegant, multi-colored painted ceramics were owned and used by the elite.


Bags of Cacao Beans

The Maya used cacao as the basis for chocolate drinks and as a form of currency. Three bags of cacao beans are depicted on the step below the principle lord and the youths, probably sons, who sit next to him.

Cacao Vessel

Directly in front of the principle lord is a tall cylindrical vessel, most likely filled with a chocolate beverage.

Sloping Forehead

A sloping forehead and elongated head shape were signs of beauty among the Maya elite. Sometimes, an infant’s still soft head was bound between boards to achieve the desired head shape, emphasizing a smooth unbroken line between the nose and the forehead.

Pink Wash

A delicate pink wash shades the inscriptions and the scene. The colored wash provides the vessel with a distinct look.


The artist has arranged the ten figures in an interior space that features a two-level platform, curtains, and woven mats.


The painted inscription records the name of the large central figure, who is the ruler of the court (Nabnal K’inich Lakam). It also names his father (Yuknoom K’awiil), from the site of Rio Azul in present-day Guatemala. The inscription also identifies the vessel as a drinking vessel for cacao or chocolate.

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.