Creative ways to integrate "The Sport of Life and Death" exhibition and web site into the classroom.

Lesson Plan 2:
Create a Clay Effigy

Lesson focus:

Students will make a clay animal effigy vessel based on animals that are symbolic in ancient Mesoamerican cultures.

Learning objectives:

  • Discuss function of effigy vessels in Mesoamerican Ballgame ritual art.
  • Use the website to gain information about effigy vessels associated with the Mesoamerican ballgame.
  • Select animal symbol from chart and create an effigy vessel using raku clay.

Mesoamerican Pottery

Painted or incised imagery often begins as contour line drawing on the body of the pot and is completed three dimensionally on the lid where a head or wings becomes a handle.

Color is generally red oxide, yellow oxide, or black applied with a soft (Chinese bristle style) brush in lines of equal width.

Building techniques use coil and slab techniques in combination with additive and subtractive methods. (School and Miller. 1986)

Curriculum connections (Grades 3-5):

Background information:


  • Printout of images of three Effigy Vessels used in the Ballgame web site (print from web site.)
  • Printout of chart of Animal Symbolism (print from web site.)
  • Raku clay or coarse low fire clay
  • Oxides or mason stain colorants
  • Wooden flat spoons for paddles
  • Carving tools, plastic forks and knives for scoring
  • Slip for joining


  • CONTENT TERMS: effigy, ceramic censor, tripod, offertory vessel, symbol
  • ART TERMS: oxides, raku, slip joining, score, paddling, convex, concave, burnish, scriffito, leather hand

Pacing: Two 45-min periods to build and sculpt. One 45 min period to apply slip.


  1. Discuss the use of three effigy forms in Mesoamerican art. (See Effigy Vessels page.)
  2. Provide computer time for students to view effigy vessels on the web site.
  3. Demonstrate the construction of a sculptural form using double pinch pot as belly of animal and carving techniques for head component.
  4. Have students select animal form and draw a design. (See Animal Symbolism chart.) (See Team Mascots section of "Uniform" page in site.)
  5. Begin with two small wedged balls of clay of equal size (approximately tennis ball).
  6. Shape clay by compressing with palm of the hand into a ball.
  7. Open the center of each ball by pressing with thumb. 1/4" from bottom of ball form, press slowly with even pressure between thumb and forefinger.
  8. Continue moving slowly clockwise around at center point until the circumference is equally 1/4" thick.
  9. Move up the side 1/4" and repeat the process.
  10. Continue up the wall sequentially until the vessel is equally thick.
  11. Place first pinch vessel to the side.
  12. Open second vessel in the same manner. Check to be sure that each vessel is the same height and diameter.
  13. To join the vessels, score the lip of each vessel and place clay slip on each lip.
  14. Invert one of the vessels and attach it to the other.
  15. Pull clay across the seam joint so that the seam in covered.
  16. Slowly work the clay from each side across the seam.
  17. Smooth the clay surface with the thumb using gentle pressure.
  18. Paddle with flat wooden spoon and lightly tap the vessel into the desired shape.
  19. Alternate paddling and pressure with the thumb to make convex and concave changes in the form.
  20. Work slowly and gently. Check regularly to be certain that there are no cracks for air to leak. The volume of trapped air will keep the form from collapsing as you shape the form.
  21. Set this form aside while you make your animal likeness. Shape the head, snout, legs, tail or other parts that you plan to use on your vessel.
  22. Use pinch, coil, and slab methods as you build.
  23. Determine the stance your animal will take.
  24. Score and slip join the head, legs, tail, or wings.
  25. Create secure joint by grafting clay across seam.
  26. When you have completed your animal effigy make an opening for air to escape during firing. Design this opening to function as part of the animal for example mouth opening, nostrils. etc.
  27. Be sure to make holes 25% larger than you think necessary to take care of shrinkage during the drying and firing.
  28. Let vessel dry to almost leather hard.
  29. Use carving tools to refine the form.
  30. Paddle and/or burnish.
  31. Use scriffito techniques for creating texture.
  32. Apply slip colorants or mason stains. Set aside to dry.
  33. When bone dry, bisque fire ware.
  34. Pit fire for ancient look.

Language arts extension:

Students will look for animal tales in the Maya oral tradition, especially rabbit, jaguar and coyote. They can find parallel stories in African and Native American oral traditions.


Students will explore rainforest, coastal plain and mountain environments and the animal habitats in these three regions by Mesoamerica.

Review and Closure for Unit:

  • Define effigy.
  • Discuss use of effigy vessels in ballgame rituals.
  • Define organic shape.
  • Define ceramic techniques: coil, slab, pinch, color application, scriffito, slip



The Sport of Life & Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame
A traveling exhibition sponsored by the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC