Maya-Style Drinking Vessels

Lesson Plan


Students will explore the meaning and artistic characteristics of the illustrations on the Maya Vase with Palace Scene, then create their own Maya-style drinking vessels complete with realistic scenes.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe the artistic characteristics of the Maya Vase with Palace Scene;
  • identify significant elements in the illustrations on the drinking vessel; and
  • create their own Maya-style drinking vessels complete with realistic scenes.


  1. Warm-up: Play a quick version of Jeopardy with the students. Tell the class, “The answer to a particular question is ‘hot chocolate.’ What is the question?” Possible answers: What is made from cacao? What is delicious? What is the perfect winter drink? Invite volunteers to share their answers and celebrate the students’ creativity!
  2. Display the Maya Vase with Palace Scene and invite the students to examine it closely. What do they notice? What colors do they see? How would the students describe the shape of the vessel? What is happening in the illustrations? What do the students think the hieroglyphs on the vessel might say? What might have been the purpose and function of the vessel?
  3. Explain to the students that the illustrations on this vessel show a marriage negotiation. Invite students to pay particular attention to the figure of the bride’s father. What do they think the father is doing? What is the cylindrical object immediately in front of the father? Share with the students how the tall cylinder vessel in the illustration was probably filled with chocolate, an important trade item in the Maya civilization. Also discuss how Maya vases like this one often show scenes of people with their drinking vessels. Refer to the About the Art sheet for more information.
  4. Tell the students that they will be creating their own Maya-style drinking vessels! Ask the students to imagine a realistic scene in which they would play an active role, just as the bride’s father plays a significant part in the palace scene. For example, students might want to draw a scene of a birthday party or a family dinner, making sure that they include an illustration of themselves with their drinking vessel in the scene!
  5. Provide the students with colored markers/pencils and a piece of drawing paper precut to fit around a Styrofoam cup or other object that could function as a drinking vessel. Then have the students draw the realistic scene they have just imagined on the paper.
  6. When the students have finished drawing the scene, have them wrap the drawing paper around the cup and fasten it securely with glue or another type of adhesive.
  7. After the adhesive on the cups has finished drying, you might want to fill the cups with water or juice and have a classroom celebration of creativity. Also, be sure to display the students’ artwork around the classroom for all to see and enjoy!


  • Colored markers or colored pencils
  • Large Styrofoam cups or other objects that could serve as drinking vessels
  • Pieces of drawing paper precut to fit around the Styrofoam cups
  • Glue or other type of adhesive
  • About the Art sheet on Maya Vase with Palace Scene (found at the end of the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
  • One color copy of the vase for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts

21st Century Skills

  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Vessel with Palace Scene

Vessel with Palace Scene

A.D. 600-800


Who Made It?

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
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
Cacao Vessel

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

Sloping Forehead
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
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 lesson plans 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.