Mystery of the Maya (6-8)
  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark MS.4 Describe the characteristics of someone who helps others.
    2. Standard PCS 02. Diverse Cultures
      1. Benchmark MS.2 Describe the importance of hearing all voices in a community and respecting their right to be heard.
      2. Benchmark MS.5 Discuss examples of groups denied their rights in history.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark MS.3 Identify and give examples of stewardship in cultural traditions around the world.

Using the movie or DVD Mystery of the Maya and two fables, this lesson is designed to introduce the students to the field of archeology, Mayan culture and the art of piecing together puzzles in order to better understand a culture.


PrintBefore Viewing the Movie: Two to three 45 to 60 minute class periods. After Viewing the Movie: One 45-60 minute lesson

The learner will:

  • draw conclusions about an imaginary culture using pottery shards found at a dig site.
  • demonstrate skills used in excavating a dig site.
  • make inferences about the ethical responsibility archeologists have when working a dig site.
  • discuss ethical concerns for the scientific investigation of ancient cultures.
  • identify the characteristics of a fable
  • be able to discuss the elements of a fable and incorporate them into the creation of an original fable.
  • Chart paper or chart board
  • Journals/writing
  • Copies of the Mayan Fable the Rabbit and the Crab and a copy of Aesop’s Fable The Tortoise and the Hare from the web sites listed in the biographical reference. Both of these stories are about perseverance - speed doesn’t always get the reward.
  • Four or five six-inch clay pots with designs drawn on them using permanent colored marking pens. The designs should be ones that the students can easily recognize and put back together, similar to a puzzle. (See Bibliographical Referencesfor suggested Web sites for “pot” design: Asia – writing character, bamboo, chopsticks. Maya – pyramid, hieroglyphs. Native American – teepee, drum, bow and arrow, bison, dream catcher. Egyptian – cartouche, pyramid. Africa – drum, mask, thumb piano, grass hut. Europe/Celtic - Celtic knot, four leaf clover.) Break pots into four or five large pieces – shards.Sifters – these can be made with screen wire stapled over dowels or other wooden frames or purchased at discount stores in the garden department.
  • Teacher Note:If the sifters are teacher made, be sure that any sharp edges are covered with duct tape or other material to avoid injuries.
    • Enough one-inch paint brushes so that half of the students will have one. (A team of two would have one brush, a team of four would have two brushes.)
    • Clean play sand if creating indoor dig-sites. This can be purchased at hardware or garden stores.
    • Plastic tubs if creating indoor dig sites. Each team will need a sandbox and a container or newspaper into which to sift sand.
    • Garden trowels, or scoops made from plastic gallon jugs to use in scooping the dirt or sand into the sifters.
    • A quick-drying glue designed for pottery. Check out the local craft stores or ask your art specialists.
  • Teacher Note:Be sure to read the precautions on the package before giving any glue to the students.
    • Drawing paper for each team
    • Colored pencils
  • A copy of the movie Mystery of Maya may be purchased from

Maya Culture -- Traditional Storyteller's Tales,
Maya Village Life Now; Sounds, phrases, numbers

Maya Mathematics

Mayan Rabbit Stories

Mayan Writing - Codices NOTE: This site is for the teacher’s reference. Be sure to preview before allowing student to visit. Some areas may not be appropriate for students.

Society for American Archaeology

Tang: A good source for African “pot” images

The British Museum: A good source for Egyptian “pot” images

The Tortoise and the Hare - One of Aesop's Fables
Illustrated by Arthur Rackham

A good source for Celtic “pot” images [no longer available] 


  1. Before Viewing

    Teacher Note: Set up this lesson by creating 5 or 6 six-inch clay flowerpots described above in theMaterialssection. After drawing the images, break the pots into several large pieces and bury them. The pots can be buried on the school grounds in a separate area for each pot, sectioned off with string. (Be sure to ask permission to dig on school property.) An alternative might be to create several small sandboxes in the classroom by using large plastic tubs filled with play sand, one station for each pot. The sand should be deep enough to bury the shards at least 2 inches deep. The number of pots and digging sections or stations will depend on class size. It would work best to have no more than four students per excavation group.

    Anticipatory Set:

    Tell the students that they are going to view an IMAX movie about the Maya civilization in Mexico and explain how archeologists use buried items (artifacts) to learn about civilizations. Tell students that they are archeologists trying to uncover clues to the lives of an ancient civilization. The school grounds or sandboxes are the sites to be excavated. The students must learn as much as they can from what they discover in the sites. Have the students locate Mexico and the site of the Mayan excavations on a classroom map.

  2. Discuss the following vocabulary:

    1. Archeologists – people who study the life and culture of ancient peoples by excavation of ancient cities, relics, and artifacts
    2. Shards – broken pieces of pottery
    3. Excavate - to unearth or dig up
    4. Hieroglyph (glyph) – a picture or symbol representing a word or sound.
  3. Divide the class into teams. This works best with no more that 4 students to a team.

  4. Tell students that they are going to excavate a dig site of an ancient unknown civilization/culture. They should carefully search for pieces (shards) of the clay pots by scooping sand into the sifters and gently sifting the sand into a separate container – this could be another plastic tub or large sheets of newspapers. As they sift, remind them to keep anything that remains after all the sand has passed through the sifter. Say, “It might be of great value in telling the story of the people that once lived here.”(Be sure that the students understand this is a simulation and that these cultures really may not have existed in their area and the artifacts are teacher created.)

  5. If they find a shard, have them gently use their brush to remove any debris that might be left and then have them draw an illustration of the shard on their paper.

  6. This continues until they have found all the pieces that they think are in the site.

  7. After all of the pieces have been cleaned and recorded, ask them to try and fit the pieces together like a puzzle.

  8. Use the glue to glue the pieces together. See Teacher Note under the Materials section.

  9. After students have put the shards together to create a pot, have them draw conclusions about the culture based on the images and/or hieroglyphs found on their pots. Ask the groups to share their conclusions about the origin of their pot with the rest of the class. Have the class add any additional information they may have about each pot. The teacher should then sum up the discussion by identifying the cultures and images that the students were unable to recognize.

  10. Ask the students to note if any of the images on different pots are similar. (pyramids, drums, hieroglyphs)

  11. Ask the students why it might be important to learn about ancient cultures. The mission of the Society of American Archaeology says, in part, “to expand understanding and appreciation of humanity's past.” Tell the students that the work of archaeologists helps us learn about the past. We can learn lessons from ancient cultures about how diverse people have learned to live together in a community. We can compare our way of life to ancient ways and appreciate the similarities and perhaps some of the roots of our own culture. Archaeologists collect knowledge that enhances the cultural common good. Knowledge of other cultures helps foster tolerance, respect and appreciation for diverse peoples.

  12. Ask students as they watch the movie to pay special attention to the work of the archaeologists.

  13. After Viewing the movie:

    Anticipatory Set:

  14. Define the words codex/codices. Illicit general definitions from the movie, specifically recalling the incident of the Spanish Priest who burned the Mayan codices.

  15. Lead a discussion with students regarding tolerance of others. Begin by asking the students to identify something that they do that seems to annoy their parent/guardian. (hairstyle, music, clothing, etc.)

  16. Ask them to identify something their parent/guardians do that annoys the students. Spend several minutes in discussion

  17. Ask students to partner with someone and brain storm how they could compromise a solution to each of the problems that they have identified.

  18. Have students record all possible solutions to the problems either in a journal or on a sheet of paper.

  19. Bring the class back together and have groups share their problems and solutions. Record them on a piece of chart paper or on the board. Tell the students that frequently incidents of intolerance are the result of lack of knowledge. Often when we learn more about people we can begin to understand and appreciate what may be very diverse lifestyles or customs. Did any of their solutions involve educating the other party in an effort to foster better understanding?

  20. After this discussion, draw attention to the part of the movie where it was noted that the Spanish priest had the codices burned because the books contained beliefs contrary to the Christian belief.

  21. Have the students draw conclusion as to whether it was right or wrong to burn the Mayan books based on another’ s beliefs. Ask: “ Do all people have a right to believe as they wish? Should all people, world wide, have a right to think, believe and worship as they wish?”

  22. Ask the students to name other incidents in world history where intolerance to diversity (religious, ethnic, racial, intellectual) led to lose of human rights. (the Holocaust during World War II, slavery in the United States, apartheid in South Africa). Ask the students to write a journal response to the following questions: Are there similar examples of intolerance in our school today? What are they? What might the solutions be?


Subjective – teacher assesses students’ participation in the group and whole class discussion.