Warrior Figure with Trophy Head

A.D. 500-1000



Artist not known, Costa Rica


  • Costa Rica

Object Info

This object may or may not be on view currently.

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.


  • clay


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
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
Curvilinear Patterns

The resist painting was usually done in curvilinear patterns. Notice the spirals on the arms.

Teaching Resources

Quick Classroom Ideas

  • Give your class a glimpse into this ancient artist’s process. Have students create a vessel using the same coil method used in this warrior figure, then have then try the incising technique.
  • The resist/negative painting surface decoration used on this central American ceramic figure is very similar in concept to batik textile tradition. Both use a waxy substance to resist a dye on just a portion of a surface. Try batik dying in class to get the students thinking about painting in negative.
  • The ceramic figures from Costa Rica are usually nude but their bodies are decorated. The motifs on their bodies, like this warrior, could be protective or identify their clan. Have students think about what motifs would be indicative of where they come from and identify them as individuals. For younger classes have them fold a piece of computer paper lengthwise 4 times and decorate the surface with their chosen motifs. They can then fix the two ends together with tape to form a wide bangle with their personal designs.
  • We know that this figure portrays a powerful man, probably a warrior or chief, but we do not know for certain the significance of head he is holding. It could be the head of a defeated enemy or the cherished relic of a revered ancestor. Have students select either meaning (or their own!) and write a creative piece from the point-of-view of the warrior that reflects their hypothesis.

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.