Cylinder vase depicting scribes in the Underworld

Photo: Susan Cole

Cylinder vase depicting scribes in the Underworld

ca. 600 - 900

Depicted around this cylinder vase is a scene of the Maya Underworld, or "black hole," known as xibalba. Ten toothless scribes wearing beaded necklaces appear seated in procession, on their way toward a seated god who wears an elaborate headdress and holds out a feather brush, perhaps in a gesture of blessing. Just behind them, however, with its jaws wide open, is a serpentlike dragon with antlers and a swirling beard, ready to swallow. Along the top of the vessel, just below the band of orange-red paint around the rim, are a series of black outlined Maya glyphs, part of a complex calligraphic writing system that is based on phonetic signs. These glyphs might refer to the owner or patron of the vessel, the contents it was intended to hold, the scene painted on the surface or even the artist. The cylindrical shape of this vessel indicates its function as a drinking cup, specifically for the consumption of a frothy, bitter beverage made from cacao.
For the Maya, death called the soul to Xibalba, literally meaning the “place of fright,” where one faced trials and competitions with the Lords of Death. In the sacred Maya book Popol Vuh, the Hero Twins deceive and defeat them and escape Xibalba, offering hope for others. The scene depicted here might be a competition between a seated lord and several scribes. The dragon with its jaws wide open signals the potential for an unfortunate outcome.
Ceramic with colored slip
7 13/16 in. (19.9 cm)
Gift of John H. Hauberg
Provenance: [André Emmerich Gallery, New York], by 1970; purchased from gallery by John H. Hauberg (1916-2002), Seattle, Washington, 1970; to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, 1981
Photo: Susan Cole
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

They were taken over the road to Xibalba and then they arrived at the council room of the Lords of Xibalba, they had already lost the match.

From the Popol Vuh

1970 UNESCO Convention

The pillage of archaeological sites and the illicit trade in antiquities are at the heart of the debate over legal and ethical issues related to collecting works of art, including ancient Maya art. Illegal looters who smuggle works of art onto the market pose a threat to the archaeological sites and our ability to gather contextual information for each work of art. The adoption of the 1970 UNESCO convention addressed the problem of illicit trade in antiquities at an international level, but protecting and preserving cultural resources continues to be a worldwide problem. Among other regulations, the UNESCO convention obliges states to prohibit the importation of cultural property stolen from a museum or monument in another participating country, and it allows states whose archaeological or ethnological patrimony is jeopardized by pillage to ask other states for help in protecting the categories of materials that are affected. The United States signed on to the convention in 1983-the first country with a major art market to do so. In addition to adherence to the 1970 UNESCO agreement, collectors must agree to the acquisition guidelines of the countries from which the ancient art originated, which in many cases are matters of strict policy.
Mayan Temple, Tikal, Guatemala
Photo: Arun Venkatesan, licensed under Creative Commons


Cacao trees flourished under the high rainforest canopy in ancient Mesoamerica. Tiny flowers sprout directly from the trunk or branches of the tree, but few ripen into large fruits. To create the cacao beverage, the beans were dried and roasted, ground with chili and blended with water and honey. The mixture was frothed by pouring it from one vessel to another. This process is documented on an elaborately painted vessel now in the Princeton University collection. A woman appears holding a vessel at waist height, pouring the contents into a vessel located on the ground. Cacao also functioned as a currency throughout ancient Mesoamerica, where a single bean could buy a tomato or a tamale; 100 could buy a rabbit. The highly caloric beverage contributed to the plump figures admired of the members of the Maya court. Many painted drinking vessels bear the Maya glyphs for drinking vessel, or y-uch'ab, and cacao, or kakaw.

On Symbolism in Maya Art

This drinking vessel was created during the Late Classic period (600-900 AD), part of the golden age of Maya civilization, during which the elite Maya culture was strengthened. The complex narrative scenes on this vessel, combined with the calligraphic style of the Maya glyphs, point to the refinement of artistic achievement by Maya artists. The symbolism of Maya art identified the role of individuals as well their relationship to the larger Maya world and cosmos, as in the case of this vessel depicting a scene from the Maya Underworld, or xibalba. While this vessel would have been used in the ritual drinking of cacao, it would have also served to remind its owner of his or her fate in life.
Cylinder vase depicting scribes in the Underworld, Late Classic period, ca. 600-900, Maya, 81.109
Photo: Susan Cole

Other Maya Works in SAM's Collection

Kneeling figure of a captive performing , Late Classic period, ca. 600-900, Mexico, Maya, Jaina, 99.75
Rattle figure of an elite woman with headdress and backrack, Late Classic period, ca. 600-900, Mexico, Maya, Jaina, 99.80
Incensario (incense burner) depicting the sun god Kinich Ahan, Early Classic period, ca. 300-600, Guatemala, Maya, 77.13

On the Construction of Ancient Maya Pottery

Ancient Maya painted pottery was made from mixtures of local clays. The vessels were built by hand through a process of adding coils of clay to a flat bottom and pulling up the sides, creating even, thin walls. The vessel was left to dry, and its exterior surface was smoothed, or burnished, using smooth stones or wooden implements. The surface that resulted was ready for the application of base slip, usually white or cream in color. Red or black backgrounds were added after the imagery was painted with colored slips. Various pigments were created from iron oxides, both red and black, which created a color range from yellow-ochre to red to brown to black. Manganese, natural red earthenware clays and other ground mineral pigments-sometimes mixed with slips-were also used to create various hues. Pottery was fired at low temperatures in open, or pit, fires, which maintained the glossiness of the slip paints. Women may have made the vessels, but only signatures of male painters have been identified. No paint brushes survive from the ancient Maya, although in painted sources, artists and scribes are depicted holding a brush made from hair attached to a shaft, as well as a tool resembling a stylus. The most commonly depicted paint container is made from a halved conch shell, which does not absorb water and resists wear.

On the Role of Ancient Maya Artists

Maya artists working during the Late Classic Period (600-900 AD) were connected to and members of the Maya elite. The skills required to create the painted imagery and the glyphs demanded knowledge of the iconography and language. Master painters were probably in demand among the elite, and most likely applied their skills to other mediums, including murals and painted codices, or books. Works can be attributed to individual artists on the basis of signatures in the form of glyphs. Not all pottery was produced for the elite, and there may be a correlation between the quality of the painting and the status of the person for whom it was intended. Some regional styles have been identified, but extensive looting of archaeological sites has made it difficult to determine in many cases the region where a work was made.


For the Maya, death called the soul to xibalba, the K'iche Maya word for the Underworld, literally "place of fright." There, one faced a series of trials and competitions with the Lords of Death. This journey was part of the mythology of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who are characters in the complex Maya epic tale of the creation, part of the sacred Maya book the Popol Vuh. The Hero Twins ultimately deceive and defeat the Lords of Death, escape xibalba for the night sky, and in so doing offer hope for salvation for all who follow. The scene depicted on this vessel might be one of a trial or competition with the seated lord. The dragon, with its jaws wide open, signals the potential bloody outcome for these ten dead souls. Along with xibalba, the two other major planes in the Maya cosmos were the sky and the earth, where mortals reside. The earliest surviving version of the Popol Vuh was translated into Spanish by an eighteenth-century, K'iche-speaking Spanish friar, Francisco Jimenez, who based his translation on the sixteenth-century K'iche version, which was transcribed from Maya glyphs into alphabetic writing.
Cylinder vase depicting scribes in the Underworld, Late Classic period, ca. 600-900, Maya, 81.109
Photo: Susan Cole


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Art of the Ancient Americas, July 10, 1999 - May 11, 2003.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Feasting with the Gods: Art and Ceremony in Ancient Mesoamerican and the Central Andes, Dec. 11, 2003 - July 18, 2004.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Cosmic Beings in Mesoamerican and Andean Art, Nov. 10, 2018 - ongoing.
Published ReferencesTremain, Cara Grace. "Taking Ancient Maya Vases Off Their Pedestals: A Case Study in Optical Microscopy and Ultraviolet Light Examination." In Contextualizing Museum Collections at the Smithsonian Institution: The Relevance of Collections-Based Research in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Maria M. Martinez, Erin L. Sears, and Lauren E. Sieg, pp. 173, 175, reproduced fig. 6a. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2022.

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