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Date: A.D. 600-900
Geographic Location: Guatemala, Ik' Emblem Glyph site
Dimensions: Height: 8 1/16 in. (20.479 cm) Diameter: 6 1/4 in. (15.88 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher
Object Number: 1983.148
Four male figures playing the Maya ballgame are painted on this cylindrical vessel. Horizontal and vertical bands of hieroglyphs frame the ballplayers and include the names of two rulers associated with Guatemala’s Petén region, suggesting the vessel’s original location. The Maya ballgame depicted on this vessel was a source of entertainment as well as a political event that had various levels of meaning in Maya society.
This Maya work of art served a dual purpose: a vessel for serving beverages in royal courts and a surface for artisans and scribes to convey narratives. The painted glyphs also suggest that the vessel was used to serve a beverage made from sweet cacao pulp. Maya elite often received vessels such as this one to be used during their lifetime and buried with them.
The ancient Maya ballgame was a popular game as well as a political, ritual event in Maya society. As ritual, it reenacted a mythological game recorded in the sacred Popul Vuh text in which the Hero Twins compete against the Lords of Death in the Underworld. The contest was one of good against evil, of life against death.
The game was played with a solid rubber ball in a masonry court. The ball was usually about the size of a modern soccer ball but weighed about eight pounds. The black ball on this vessel is considerably larger and probably had a gourd or other hollow object at its center. Like modern soccer players, Maya players were not allowed to use their hands to keep the ball in motion. They were only allowed to use their hips, thighs, or upper arms.
In this scene, the players wear elaborate headdresses: a deer head, a bird head, and two headdresses that combine a water lily with feathers. The players also wear protective gear, such as a U-shaped waist protector (probably wood covered with deer hide), an apron-like hip garment (probably made from deer hide), and padding on a forearm, knee, and foot.
Maya writing is composed of shapes and images called glyphs, and is both pictorial and phonetic. For example, glyphs express meaning through pictures that are symbols and through abstract shapes that suggest sounds.
Glyphs on this vessel are in the form of profile heads, which face left and look like animals. The band of glyphs at the rim identifies the shape of the vessel, the contents, and the name of the owner. Here the royal owner is named as Spark Mouth K’awil (Guenter 2007). K’awil is the Maya god of royal lineages. Spark Mouth K’awil was from the kingdom of Hix Witz, which means Cat or Jaguar Hill. The vertical band of glyphs includes the name of another ruler, Sac Muan. Sac means white, and Muan is a bird, probably a screech owl (Miller and Taube 1993: 121). Sac Muan was from the Ik’ kingdom (Reents-Budet 1994: 269). Both kingdoms were located in the southern portion of what is today the Petén department of Guatemala. It is suggested then, that this vessel is from the Petén region of Guatemala. By the 9th century, many Maya cities, particularly in the southern lowlands, were abandoned for mysterious reasons. Some scholars believe that the Maya had exhausted their natural resources or that constant warfare disintegrated the civilization; however, Maya cities in the Yucatan peninsula, such as Chichen Itza however, continued to flourish until the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century.
Cocoa (cacao) beans, image from David Monniaux
The Maya is a civilization that was established as early as 2000 B.C. and continued until the arrival of the Spanish in 1521. The peak period of Maya civilization was around the 6th century, but began around 250 A.D. The Maya people lived in what is now eastern Mexico and the tropical lowlands of Guatemala, as well as in areas of Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The Maya were excellent artists, making art with nearly everything to which they had access: clay, bone, stone, wood, shell, animal skin, cotton, and feathers. They were also recognized for excelling in agriculture, hieroglyphic writing, a calendar system, mathematics, and architecture. Like the ancient Egyptians and people of Mesopotamia, the Maya constructed pyramids. Temples to the gods sat on the flat tops of these nine-step pyramids, which referenced the layers of the underworld.
By the ninth century, many Maya cities, particularly in the southern lowlands, were abandoned for mysterious reasons. Some scholars believe that the Maya had exhausted their natural resources or that constant warfare disintegrated the civilization. Maya cities in the Yucatan peninsula, such as Chichen Itza however, continued to flourish until the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century.
The Popul Vuh is the sacred text of the Quiché Maya, who lived in the Guatemalan Highlands. Originally written in the mid-16th century, a Spanish priest translated the book into Spanish in the 1700s. The Popul Vuh narrates the origins, history, and traditions of the Quiché Maya. It is organized into five sections. The first section tells the Maya version of the world’s creation. The second and third sections recount the adventures of the Hero Twins, semi-gods named Hunahú and Xbalanqúe. The fourth and fifth sections explain the creation of the first humans and genealogies within the Quiché peoples.
The term Mesoamerica refers primarily to the ancient cultures of modern-day Mexico and Guatemala. Geographically, the term encompasses an area that extends from northern Mexico, south and east through Guatemala and Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador, and on to western Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica. Many ancient cultures that developed in this area shared certain characteristics: the construction of pyramids and temples; a complex calendar; hieroglyphic writing; a belief system that included multiple gods, human sacrifice and ritual bloodletting by individuals; and a ballgame played with a solid rubber ball and an I-shaped court. (Coe, Snow, and Benson 1986:85)
Archaeology is the study of past cultures and peoples through the examination of material remains, such as fossil relics, works of art, artifacts, monuments, and graves. It emerged as a discipline in the late 19th century. Much of what we know today about the prehistoric past is from archaeological studies. Archaeologists dig into the ground, or excavate, to recover historical material to be studied. After dating the object and taking into account the material’s location, archaeologists can begin to interpret the material to place it within a historical context.
1. Look at the rollout image of this vessel. What are the figures doing? What are they wearing?
2. Consider the similarities and differences between the Maya ballgame and sports we play today. Make a list of everything the players are wearing. Describe their gear. Choose another sport (soccer, basketball, baseball, etc.). Create a list of everything you wear when you are playing this sport. Compare the two lists.
3. Try to mimic the pose of one of the figures. How does it feel? Have you ever been in this position before? When?
4. “Toss” an imaginary ball around without using your hands. What parts of your body do you use? How is “tossing” a ball without using your hands easy or difficult?
1. This vessel shows four men playing a popular Maya ballgame that is similar to soccer. Write a story about this particular game. Who played on each team? Who won? Did the victors win a prize? Who watched the game?
2. Read about the relief of the procession from the tomb of Ny-Ank-Nesut. Compare and contrast the relief with this Maya vessel. What is stylistically similar or different? How are the narratives similar or different? How are the functions of each work of art similar or different?
3. Present-day athletes sometimes have a collectible card designed with their picture on one side and information about them on the backside. (Perhaps you or your friends collect them!) Design a Maya ballgame card for one of the figures on this vessel. Then, design your own card. What information would you want to present? What moments in your life would you like highlighted on your card?
4. Look closely at the rollout image of this vessel. On a long, horizontal piece of paper, design and draw a scene from your favorite moment in a game or sporting event.
5. This vessel has two functions: drinking or serving cup and a surface for telling a story. Using art supplies of your choice, create something that has a dual purpose. Write a paragraph describing your artwork’s duality.
6. The Maya developed a complex written language using images called glyphs. Try to communicate with your classmates without using letters. Sketch a scene from a movie or book without writing anything. Can your classmates guess the correct movie or book?
7. Research suggests that this vessel was used to serve a beverage made from sweet cacao pulp. How has cacao been used throughout history? How is cacao used today?
Coe, Michael, Dean Snow, and Elizabeth Benson. Atlas of Ancient America. New York and Oxford: Facts On File Publications, 1986.
Evans, Susan Toby, and David L. Webster. Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia. London: Taylor & Francis US, 2001.
Fields, Virginia M., John M. D. Pohl, and Victoria I. Lyall. Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico. New York: Scala Publishers, 2012.
Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1993.
Phillips, Charles, and David M. Jones. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Aztec and Maya: The Definitive Chronicle of the Ancient Peoples of Mexico and Central America - Including the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Mixtec, Toltec and Zapotec. Dayton, OH: Lorenz, 2007.
Pitman, Bonnie, ed. Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2012.
Books for Students:
Enciso, Jorge. Design Motifs of Ancient Mexico. New York: Dover Publications, 1953.
Enciso, Jorge. Design Motifs from Pre-Columbian Mexico. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Harper, Jo. Birth of the Fifth Sun: And Other Mesoamerican Tales. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2008.
Peppas, Lynn. Life in Ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 2004.
Explore significant events in Mexico from 8000 B.C. to the present day.
Learn about the Maya and their history and empire.
This website, stewarded by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, provides scholarly research on Mesoamerica.
This teaching guide offers contextual information about Mexican works of art in the Smithsonian collection.
Explore present-day archaeological discoveries.
Play a game about the Maya culture of Mexico and Central America.
Play a game and learn about Mesoamerican culture.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.