Wearing Something Special

Lesson Plan


Children will examine images of the Stela and learn how the area where the man depicted lived had an influence on what he’s wearing. The teacher will talk about the geography of Central America through images and have children participate in an activity that allows them to compare the location of Central America to where they live.

Intended Age Group

Early childhood (ages 3-5)

Length of Lesson

One 40 minute lesson

Standards Area

Social Studies


Students will be able to:

  • point out the images of the jaguar and the quetzal bird on the Stela;
  • explain that the climate and plants of an area affect what types of animals live in the region;
  • trace a route on a map from Central America to their home state; and
  • use their imaginations.


  1. Preparation: Read the “Details” information from About the Art.
  2. Warm-up: Have the children imagine they are a jaguar or a quetzal bird (if possible, bring in a picture of the quetzal bird with its long tail and brilliant green color) and to move about the room and make noises like these animals. Then ask them to dance like they imagine these animals would dance.
  3. Show children pictures of the Stela. Ask them to talk about what the man shown is wearing. What types of animals did the ornaments on his headdress come from? Do they see these types of animals around their homes? Why or why not?
  4. Show them images of Central America on Google Earth. Then show them where their hometown is located (you can use pictures of the regions from books if you don’t have Internet access). Point out how far away the two places are.
  5. Then show them pictures of the landscape and the types of animals that live in the rainforests of Central America. Ask them why the man could have feathers from these animals on his clothing and why the jaguar would also be depicted.
  6. Now have the children imagine that they were special, royal people from a long time ago. What would they wear based on their location? Are there special flowers or plants that grow where they live? (e.g., peaches on the Western Slope of Colorado, corn or wheat on the Eastern Plains, or other special items if living elsewhere in Colorado or beyond.) What about special animals? (e.g., hawks, coyotes, ravens, mountain lions, snakes.)
  7. Allow them to talk about or draw what they might wear to show that they are special, powerful people.


  • Access to Google Earth or maps of Central America and the United States
  • Pictures of the rainforests of Central America, jaguars, and birds from the Central American rainforests
  • CD player to play music
  • About the Art section on the Stela
  • Color copies of the object for children to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Social Studies
    • History
      • Recognize change and sequence over time
    • Geography
      • Develop spatial understanding, perspectives and connections to the world
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening

21st Century Skills

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

About the Art



A.D. 780


Who Made It?

Maya peoples have lived in what we now call Central America for at least three-thousand years. Their territory included parts of present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. Archeologists divide the ancient Maya civilization into three major time periods: Preclassic Maya (1500 B.C.–A.D. 250); Classic Maya (A.D. 250–900); and Post Classic Maya (A.D. 900–1500).

This wall panel was created during the Classic Period, which is considered the high point of Maya culture. The Classic Maya built cities with palaces, pyramids and temples to honor their gods, and made works of art in a variety of media. They are well known for their sophisticated hieroglyphic writing system, a number system that included the concept of zero, and a calendar for recording both historical and mythological dates. Expert astronomers, the Maya observed the movements of the planets and accurately predicted eclipses.

Maya artists were specialists who produced ceramics, stone sculptures, and jewelry of jade and shell. The Maya word for artist is its’at, which means “wise man” or “sage.” Maya scribes carved inscriptions in stone, and painted them on ceramics and in books made of fig bark paper. Hieroglyphic inscriptions recorded dynastic histories, including births, deaths, and marriages. Military victories and religious ceremonies were also recorded. Like artists today, some Maya artists even signed their works.

What Inspired It?

This carved limestone slab was a wall panel from a Maya palace or administrative structure. Maya rulers commissioned stone monuments to glorify their ancestry and to proclaim their wealth, taste, military victories, and spiritual power. The image shows a Maya ruler performing an incense scattering ritual that celebrates the end of a 10 year period called a lahuntun. Along the left side of the panel, and across the top are individual signs called glyphs. The glyphs represent words or syllables that can be combined to form words. The glyphs on this panel show the date December 2, A.D. 780.

We know of two other stone carvings of this ruler, one in a private collection in Mexico, and the other in an Australian museum. These carvings suggest that he was an important ruler in his day. In both carvings, the man’s distinctive facial features are clearly identifiable and he is shown grasping prisoners by the hair.



The hieroglyphic text forms a wall and ceiling around the figure, suggesting that he is standing inside a building. The Maya developed their own system of writing, which archeologists consider to be the most sophisticated ever developed in the Americas. The written language consists of hundreds of individual signs, called glyphs, which are paired in columns that read from left to right and top to bottom. The Maya writing system allowed room for artistic expression, so Maya glyphs are often quite elaborate. The first nine glyphs in this carving record the date; the tenth glyph is the verb; and the remaining thirteen glyphs describe the ruler. From the glyphs we know that the ruler was the master of a captive named Yax-ik’nal, and that he captured fourteen other prisoners, which suggests that he was very successful in battle. The glyphs also tell us that the ruler was at least 41 years old, and no older than 60, at the time the stela was made.

Jeweled Headband
Jeweled Headband

The man in the monument can be identified as a ruler because he wears a jeweled headband around his forehead called a sac hunal, which means “resplendent one.” It is similar to a crown and would have been tied around the ruler’s head when he came to power. In the center of the headband is the head of a deity, which was usually carved in jade. The deity wears a long, three-pointed cap and is nicknamed the “jester god.”


The ruler wears a jade ornament in the shape of a head on his chest. Long quetzal feathers decorated with jade beads fall down his back. Both of these ornaments are signs of his powerful status.

Distinctive Facial Markings
Distinctive Facial Markings

Notice the figure’s heavily lidded eye, the swirling line on his nose that could be a facial scar, and jade bead ornaments on his nose.


On top of the ruler’s headband sits a jaguar head. Above that is the glyph ak’bal, which means “darkness.” Smoke or fire rises out of the ak’bal glyph.


The man wears a knotted scarf around his neck and a long cape decorated with three human eyes. Both of these are part of the special clothing the Maya wore when performing sacrificial rituals.

Incense Bag
Incense Bag

In this ritual, the ruler is shown scattering incense. His left hand holds a long bag containing the incense, and his right hand is in the scattering gesture. At his feet is a large basket containing long strips of paper and a small tied bundle.

Empty Space
Empty Space

The empty space between the figure and the glyphs emphasizes the outline of the figure, particularly in the areas around his face and headdress.

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.