Elite members of Mayan society decorated all facets of their lives. They adorned themselves with clothing made from rare feathers, dyed and woven cotton, and wore jewelry made of emerald, jade, pyrite and gold.

Mayan architects designed elaborate palaces and stepped pyramids oriented to take advantage of astronomical phenomena. The building surfaces were decorated with carved reliefs and paintings.

Painted ceramics like this cylindrical vessel offer insight into the lives and traditions of indigenous Mesoamericans. The smooth surfaces of terra cotta vessels provided space for painted narrative scenes.

Here, a large figure, likely a lord or ruler, sits upon a raised platform wearing an elaborate headdress. At left, a visitor presents him with a ceramic vessel, much like the one it is painted upon.

On the opposite side of the vessel, a second enthroned ruler adorned with body paint or tattoos also receives a visitor. The dark background accentuates the large figures and the details of their regalia.

Painted glyphs, or picture writing, are portrayed along the rim of the pot and in columns between the figures. Mayan scribes specialized in an elaborate hieroglyphic writing system that was not decipherable by most members of the society.

The writing on this pot has been identified by scholars as “pseudo-glyphs” that mimic the specialized writing but do not signify. Ceremonial cacao was served warm and frothed in clay vessels like this one and enjoyed during religious ceremonies.

This vessel and other stone and ceramic works by ancient Mayan artists can be viewed on the New Orleans Museum of Art's third floor.

Tracy Kennan is curator of education at the New Orleans Museum of Art.