Dealing with Mayan Death Vases (ca. 400 AD)

By: The Scribe on Tuesday, November 27, 2007

This rare “death vase” was discovered in the grave of an elite Mayan, and is carved with scrolls and tiles that look like snake scales.

In the grave of an elite member of the Mayan Empire, archaeologists discovered a vase situated next to the skeletal remains – and oddly enough, the vase still contains some remains of food that was placed inside the vase at the time of burial. The vase itself is the first among its kind to be discovered archaeologically in modern times, and it may actually be able to shed some light on the ancient rituals practiced by the Mayans.

The food remains inside this intricately carved “death vase” reveal more about the ancient Mayans’ practice of ancestor worship than was previously known – the vase included remnants of corn pollen, cacao, and something called ‘false ipecac’ which is known to induce bouts of severe nausea when ingested.

These trace remains may suggest that “death vases” such as this one were used in the ancient rites that produced trance-like states through an intense form of physical purging – the Mayans communicated with their ancestors through visions, which they would induce by such practices as bloodletting, taking a powerful chocolate enema, or by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and then repeatedly throwing up.

All evidence points to whatever drink was inside of the vase as having contained ipecac, which would have made the person ingesting the drink throw up – and throw up a lot. Then through this, they would have had ‘visions’ wherein they could talk to their ancestors.

What kind of drink would have contained this nausea-drug? The white-marble death vase probably held a gruel primarily made with corn, with cacao added for flavor, and the drug added for the… ‘religious’ experience.

Prior to the discovery of this vase in its context, other Mayan death vases existed in museums only due to looters having taken the intricately carved pieces out of tombs and selling them on the black market or to museums for their own profit – this is the first of the death vases to be scientifically excavated.

The place where the grave was located is slightly perplexing, however – it was found underneath a palace in a small settlement inside of Honduras’ Palmarejo Valley. The palace and the vase point to a higher level of prestige than should have been prevalent at an otherwise typical and unimportant farming village – so why was a high status burial located inside of a residential building in a tiny settlement?

The likeliest explanation is that the person who was buried here was an important historical figure for the people of this town – perhaps someone whose death marked the end of an era, such as a community founder or original member of the town’s ruling lineage. Interestingly enough, the vase itself isn’t as old as the burial – the vase was added to the grave about a hundred years later, likely in commemoration for the individual.

The decoration on the death vase is made up of sculpted scroll images and tiles that look like snake scales, with handles that were carved to resemble a leaf-nose bat’s head.

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: Nehemiah’s Wall?


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