Given current interests in indigenous ontologies and multiple worldviews, archaeologists drawing on textual evidence must more fully contextualize ancient texts according to how they were perceived and experienced, and understood as capable, in the cultures that created them. This endeavour has methodological impacts for modern interpretations, shifting how we interpret textual evidence as a result of how written realities and histories might have been conceptualized in the past. I examine these topics through the case study of the Classic Maya (250–900 ad, Mexico and Central America), using imagery on painted ceramic vessels. I examine how the Classic Maya understood text and writing, asking: how were texts perceived? How did people relate to them? What capabilities were texts understood to have? Based on observations gleaned from the ways in which glyphs are shown, the ways people are shown interacting with them and the work that glyphs apparently accomplish, I argue that the Classic Maya understood texts to be real, relational and persistent. This article suggests a new direction for archaeological thinking about ancient written sources, complementary to other interpretive approaches to texts, by exploring productive possibilities that emerge when we take ancient experiential perspectives into account.