Introduction I Table of Contents I Previous Example I Next Example

Ceramics - Vessels


Maya Polychrome Vessels

Origin I Characteristics I Urgency of the Situation I Legislation I Bibliography

Click on the photo to see caption and an enlarged version

Click on the photo to see caption and an enlarged version

Click on the photo to see caption and an enlarged version

Click on the photo to see caption and an enlarged version

Maya polychrome vessel, ceramic, 15.5 x 16.5 cm
Maya polychrome vessel, ceramic, high: 12.5 cm Maya polychrome vessel, ceramic, high: 30.5 cm Maya polychrome vessel, ceramic, diameter: 29.2 cm
  © Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología Guatemala © Stuart Rome © Stuart Rome © Stuart Rome


Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.


Maya culture extended throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, the state of Chiapas in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and western Honduras.
Fine Maya polychrome ceramics come from tombs of high-ranking personages dating from the Classic Period (250 to 850 AD).
Maya vessels have a wide range of shapes and styles. The most common are cylindrical vases and large plates with supports and lids. Cylindrical vases are between 12 and 30 cm high and dishes are between 20 and 30 cm in diameter.
These objects' painted decoration is set against a white or cream stucco layer or an orange background. Black lines or incisions are used for sketching. Different shades of red and orange are customary, as well as white, cream, black, pink and blue.
The most ancient vessels, which at times feature modeled decorations, are red and black on an orange background.
The best-known and most popular vessels are those featuring human figures with scenes and hieroglyphs. Religious and political ceremonies are the most common themes.There is usually a high-ranking figure wearing lavish dress, standing or sitting with crossed legs over a throne or a ceremonial bench.This character is surrounded by secondary figures such as warriors, servants and prisoners, which are usually portrayed in a standing position.
Hieroglyphic inscriptions explaining the scene are commonly found between the characters.There is a group of vessels known as 'Codex style' vases that feature detailed inscriptions in black on a cream background, very similar to those appearing in Maya stelae and codex.


--Urgency of the Situation  

Vessels are invaluable sources of information about Maya history and culture. They are essential to the understanding of the Maya belief system, mythology, and ideology. They are sources of historical knowledge as they also recount the lives of the characters represented in them.
One single vessel can provide considerable information about the life and activities of the person in whose tomb it was found. Most of this information can be lost if the object is taken away from its funeral context, making its exact place of origin unknown.
A market for this type of object started developing around 1970 with items obtained through looting and illicit trafficking. Archaeological sites have been deeply affected as looters, in their search for tombs, excavate tunnels in the buildings, destroying monuments and tombs, and forever hindering the reconstruction of history.


--Legislation Protecting these Objects  

See Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico


  • Gallenkamp, Charles, & Johnson, R.E. Maya,Treasures of an Ancient Civilization. New York, Abrams, 1985.
  • Schmidt, Peter, Garza, Mercedes de la, & Nalda, Enrique (coord.). Maya. New York, Rizzoli ed., 1998.




Introduction I Legislation I Acknowledgments I General Bibliography I Previous Example I Next Example
Red List Home Page I ICOM Web Site

October 2003