Guiding Student Investigation of a Miniature Flask for Insight into Maya Civilization

In the January/February 2018 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features an image of a Maya miniature flask. The flask, like much of the Maya civilization, remains somewhat mysterious but can offer insights into daily life in Central America.

Miniature Flask with Ball Player Panel

The mysteries surrounding the flasks can be valuable tools to encourage student engagement and create an interest in Mesoamerican culture. In the article, we suggest inviting students to investigate the image of the flask in the online exhibition of the Library of Congress and craft a list of observations to share with a peer. Generally, the flasks would have been covered in a red pigment and contained various substances like medicine, ointments, or a mixture of tobacco and lime snuff.

The miniature flask featured in the article is a small, rectangular bottle with a stamped image of a Maya ballplayer on the front and back with glyphs on the sides. The image of the ballplayer is a rich depiction of various aspects of Maya life and religious beliefs. A close inspection of the flask shows not only the equipment that players would have worn but also the potential correlations between the game and Maya religious beliefs.

After a brief discussion about student findings, we suggest giving an overview of the Maya civilization and information about the flask. Important foundational information for students moving forward with this activity might include basic information about Maya geography, religion, political and social structures, and economy.

The article then suggests possible extension activities to tie the activity into a broader unit, encouraging students to use their findings to conduct more in-depth research with related items, and investigating various aspects of the flask and Maya culture such as:

  • The geography of the Maya civilization,
  • Various religious rituals and ceremonies,
  • Mayan glyphs,
  • Other examples of the ball game in society, and
  • The Popol Vuh and other Maya mythology.

Finally, the article proposes an activity that directly ties the flask to students’ daily life by creating a thorough description of an everyday item used by modern society that might mystify archaeologists 500 years from now.

The flask is part of an ongoing exhibition called Exploring the Early Americas, drawn from the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress. As the introduction to the exhibition notes, “It provides insight into indigenous cultures, the drama of the encounters between Native Americans and European explorers and settlers, and the pivotal changes caused by the meeting of the American and European worlds.”

The Kislak collection has more than 174 Mesoamerican miniature flasks, sometimes referred to as “poison bottles,” which would have served a variety of roles in daily Maya life. The article emphasizes the importance of teaching students how to investigate artifacts to build inquiry and strengthen critical thinking skills.

If you engage your students with the items in this collection, let us know what they discover!

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