The Ancient Maya Apparition Who Showed the Way to Xunantunich

The ancient Maya civilization was one of the most remarkable of all the many Mesoamerican cultures, not only because they wrote books and were lovers of chocolate, but also because many of their ruins and temples are still being discovered. Central America is fortunate to have many of their incredible remains and one of the most striking of these is Xunantunich, situated in Belize. It is one of the best-known historic sites in the country and it is of great international interest.

The History of Xunantunich in Belize

Xunantunich, located in an area that was dense with Maya settlement, was established in the Pre-Classical period (c 400 AD). It was originally a small village until it expanded during the late Classical Period (800-900 AD). Xunantunich’s growth was unusual since other Maya cities were in decline at this time due to decades of war and climate change. Its population may have increased because of an influx of migrants and refugees from other area.

Its late flourishing may also be related to the decline of the powerful city-state of Naranjo in modern-day Guatemala. It was possibly a colony of Naranjo and dominated politically by the larger city until its decline when the elite of Xunantunich then gained independence.

Based on the archaeological evidence, the city thrived for several decades and a number of monumental buildings were erected. For reasons still unclear, the pace of building slowed down in the 9 th century. The recording of dates, which was very important to the Maya - a nation obsessed with astronomy and time - ended in the same century.

The beautiful friezes that adorn the walls of the temple (Zhu / CC BY-NC 2.0 )

Xunantunich was at least partially abandoned at some time after 830 AD. This may have been a result of an earthquake or possibly due to conflict. There is, however, evidence that it continued to be inhabited by some Maya well into the 10 th century. Xunantunich was eventually deserted until it was ‘rediscovered’ by a British archaeologist and with international support, the Belize government restored the site from 1996 to 1997.

The Legend of the ‘Stone Woman’

Xunantunich, which is a Yucatec Maya word, means ‘Stone Woman’. According to 19 th century local folklore, a man saw a beautiful Maya woman standing on a mound. Frightened by the figure, he ran to a local village and returned with a crowd only to find the woman gone. Where she had initially appeared, they found the mouth of the cave which extended under the complex of Xunantunich. The ghostly apparition became known as the Stone Woman and others have claimed to see the supernatural figure.

The Beautiful Friezes of El Castillo and Courts of Death

Surrounded by several miles of Maya settlements, the center of the site was situated on a man-made limestone ridge as it was important to the religious and ceremonial life of the region.

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A walkway along the temple at Xunantunich (Zhu / CC BY-NC 2.0 )

The most impressive remain at Xunantunich is the main temple, known as El Castillo, which stands over 110 feet (40m) high. A flight of steps leads up to a complex of buildings which were homes of the elite, shrines, and rooms used for administrative purposes. A number of remarkably preserved friezes that represent Mayan deities, the ‘tree of life’, and astronomical symbols adorn the walls.

Other relics which remain at the site are the plaza, an area used for rituals and ceremonies and once surrounded by the more homes of the elite, a ballcourt where those who lost a game were often ritually sacrificed, and the recent discovery of an important tomb , in which many beautiful items have been discovered.

Xunantunich from above. By wollertz / Adobe Stock

Getting to Xunantunich from Belize City

The archaeological site is about 70 miles (110 kilometers) from Belize City and is located near the San Jose Succotz village. Accommodation near Xunantunich is plentiful it is possible to hire a guide at the visitors’ center.

For those who love archeology and exploring ancient sites, there are a number of other Mayan sites in the vicinity of the Xunantunich, both in Belize and in Guatemala. And for lovers of more strenuous adventures, a nature park close by offers a variety of attractions such as kayaking.

Historical bites

The ancient city of Nakum, northeastern Guatemala, seemed to be the place to be for beekeeping. Beneath a ritual platform, dated to be from 100 BC to 300 AD, a “foot-long, barrel-shaped ceramic tube with covers at each end” was discovered. It is nearly identical to wooden beehives from northern Yucatan.

While honey was probably a popular product and a commodity, this is the first time a stone beehive has been discovered.


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Organizing Your Own Tour of Belize Ruins

First you will need a map of Belize that includes the major Mayan ruins in the country, you can order one from us (free). Then you need to decide which ruins you wish to visit. Finally, you locate these ruins on the map. Tours of ruins are arranged through lodges in the areas of the country from which they are accessed. Below is a table to the major Mayan ruins in the country, and where they would be accessed from. The shortest trip to Belize where you visit several Mayan ruins on your own would be four days. For a list of Belize airlines, visit our Flying to Belize page. You can also find an online Mayan ruins map elsewhere on our site.

Altun Ha

“Water on the Rock”

Located 34 miles north of Belize City and 10 miles from the Caribbean Sea, Altun Ha is the easist Mayan ruin to get to. Many day tours visit this site due to its proximity and easy access. Occupied for over 1200 years until the Classic Maya collapse around 900 AD, Altun Ha’s population peaked at about 10,000 about triple current populations within a 20 mile radius of the site today. Trade was likely an important aspect of the daily life here, as this site is one of the most accessible to the sea. This theory has been reinforced by the discovery of artifacts from as far away as Panama.

The core of the site consists of two plazas and 13 structures, although over 500 buildings have been found associated wtih Altun Ha. The core structures have been extensively restored, and a magnificent tomb was discovered beneath one of these structures. Dating from approximately 550 AD, the Temple of the Green Tomb is a burial chamber containing jade pendants, beads, and earrings, stingray spines, obsidian rings, and jaguar hides. The most exciting find so far has been the remains of a Mayan codex.

The Temple of the Masonry Altars is the largest structure at Altun Ha . This temple is especially famous because it is featured on the Belikin Beer label (Belize’s own beer). This structure had been covered over with an even larger building, and expanded a least 8 times since it’s initial creation in 500 A.D. Seven layers were found, with the most impressive being the earliest tomb within the center of the ruin. Within the crypt a jade head which represents the Mayan sun god was found along with the remains of the body entombed there. This priceless jade object weighs about 10 pounds and is 6 inches in height. A replica can be seen in the Museum of Belize in Belize City. It is the largest jade object ever found in the Maya world.

Visitors can easily walk along a short trail from the ruin south to Rockstone Pond, the village that gives the ruin it’s name. In Maya times the drainage was dammed to form a reservoir, and nearby stands the oldest structure at Altun Ha, a repository for a cache of antiquities imported from the city of Teotihuacan near Mexico City. These artifacts are evidence of the extremely early contact between the Belize Maya and Teotihuacan.

Cahal Pech

“Place of Ticks”

Cahal Pech overlooks the town of San Ignacio in Western Belize. This interesting Mayan royal acropolis-palace has undergone extensive restoration. Cahal Pech means “place of ticks” in modern-day Maya, and refers to the fact that the surrounding area was once used as pasture land, although this was the dwelling of a great family. Cahal Pech was occupied around 1000 BC and abandoned 200 years later. The site consists of plazas, temples, ballcourts, residential houses, an altar, and a sweathouse, all situated in a very small area.

A royal tomb was found in one of the structures. Inside the crypt a ruler had been laid to rest with the everything necessary for the afterlife: shell & bone ornaments, pottery vessels, obsidian blades, and jade artifacts, the most impressive being a jade & shell mosaic mask. The visitor center here has a display of a complete model of the site, along with murals showing Cahal Pech in its heyday, and an interpretive film.



Caracol is located on the Vaca Plateau south of the village of San Ignacio. Caracol is the crown jewel of all Mayan ruins in the country, and in fact one of the largest in all of the Mayan world, which includes Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Caracol was completely lost to rainforest cover for over 1000 years until its discovery in 1937, so it is still being restored. It is named “Snail” (“Caracol” in Spanish) because of the numerous snail shells found there, but the Mayans called it “Three Hill Water”, making this one of the few sites where the true name is known. The tallest structure in Belize – is Caracol’s “Sky Place” at a height of 137 feet. Over 100 tombs have been found at Caracol.

At its peak of occupancy, Caracol is thought to have been home to 150,000 people – a far greater density than at Tikal. Caracol was inhabited beween 600 BC and 900 AD, with some sources claiming it was inhabited until 1150 AD. The great Caracol city-state covered an area larger than modern day Belize City which has a population of about 80,000 at this writing. Culinary water was supplied by man-made reservoirs. One of these is used by archaeologists to this day. Explorers have discovered seven ancient roads leading to Caracol.

Caracol’s ancient record provided many hieroglyphic inscriptions, enabling scholars to piece together an accurate record of Caracol’s rulers from 600 AD to 860 AD. Especially significant are descriptions of the conflicts with Tikal, located in nearby Guatemala. What puzzles archeologists is why such a large city was built in a location with no permanent water source.



Cerros is a small site located right on the Belize coast. Beginning as a small village in about 300 BC, development followed and 250 years later it grew quickly into a major city. Perched on a small delta in Northern Belize, Cerros was abandoned early and never re-occupied. There are only two Pre-Classic sites with no later additions, which makes it an important addition to the Maya record. Cerros contains five temples, several plazas, ball courts and a system of water-ways. Due to its location at the mouth of the New River, Cerros was a regional center of active trade. It is postulated that trade routes shifted inland, and the site declined. Eventually the temples were abandoned and Cerros returned to a simple farming community before being deserted altogether. the archaeological record tells this story.


“Submerged Crocodile”

Arguably the favorite ruin in Belize (because of the wonderful river trip you take to get there, spotting exotic birds all along the way) Lamanai is the country’s longest continuously inhabited site. Research places the first dwellings at around 1500 BC. Lamanai is about 40 miles upstream from Cerros on the New River lagoon the two cities traded extensively. Recorded by Spanish explorers, Submerged Crocodile is the verified official Mayan name of the city. The site occupies almost 1000 acres and 70 structures have been excavated, but 10 times that number have been mapped.

One of the most spectacular features at Lamanai is the pair of jaguar masks flanking the stairway at the “Temple of the Jaguar”. All stelae at the site are in excellent condition.

To read more about day trips to Lamanai out of Belize City, visit our Things to Do in Belize page.


“Place of the Fallen Stones”

Located in southern Belize, Lubaantun can be visited if you are staying at Placencia or Punta Gorda, Belize. Sitting on a high ridge, the ruin actually affords a view of the Caribbean Sea over 18 miles away. The habitation period was brief, only 160 years from 730 to 890 AD. Jade and obsidian from Guatemala have been discovered here along with the bones of deep water marine animals, signifying and active trading region. Carved whistles and other musical instruments were also unearthed during excavation.

Lubaantun is famous because the renowned Crystal Skull was discovered here. The Crystal Skull is carved from a single crystal of quartz. It is considered one of the greatest Mayan treasures ever uncovered, although there is great controversy surrounding the truth of the discovery.

There is very little structural ornamentation at Lubaantun and there are no carved stelae either, leading to the notion that this was an administrative rather than a ceremonial center. Its rounded corners and simple shapes are like no other Maya site. The blocks use no mortar but are carved with particular precision so that the stones stay together easily.

Nim Li Punit

“The Big Hat”

Although located far from most tourism destinations, Nim Li Punit is a wonderful site with much to offer the visitor. To get there you drive past the turn-off to Placencia on the Southern Highway, and go almost to Punta Gorda. Nim Li Punit is mostly known for the many spectacular stelae discovered there. The onsite museum displays many of the stellae, and the others are in place at the ruin. The most impressive stelae depicts a ruler wearing a diadem or “big hat,” after which the site is named. There is a nicely preserved ballcourt, and another plaza that was most likely an astronomical observatory.

Major settlement was between 400 and 800 or 1000 AD. One of the more interesting structures is the Plaza of the Royal Tombs which was most likely a residence for the royal family, containing three tombs. One contains at least five people buried at different times. They were buried along with their treasures of pottery, stingray spines, and carved jade figures. Another tomb contained the remains of at least 6 people.


“The Place of Voices”

Located in Guatemala, it is actually easiest to get there starting in Belize. Tikal is truly the supreme Mayan city. Tikal was originally a village, dated to 900 BC, making this among the oldest of Maya sites. The sheer scale of Tikal is overwhelming, and it is best to plan a trip with multiple days to explore. Some 10 square miles of central Tikal have been mapped by archaeologists. Huge stones brought down by river served as the building blocks and raw materials for gigantic sculptures that have been found nearby. Tikal has five enormous temples. These are steep-sided pyramids that rise up to tower above the jungle canopy.

The Great Plaza is surrounded by stelae and altars, ceremonial buildings, residential and administrative palaces, and a ball court. At both ends of the plaza a gigantic temple faces the interior of the plaza. The Temple of the Giant Jaguar is the most famous of all of Tikal’s structures and measures more than 150 feet in height. No one knows what brought about Tikal’s final downfall, but by 900 AD almost the entire Mayan civilization had collapsed, and Tikal was abandoned.


“Maiden of the Rock”

Xunantunich (pronounced “CHEW-nahn-too-neech”) is located only ten miles from the Guatemalan border. This major ceremonial center peaked during the Classic period of the Maya and is home to 25 temples and palaces including the second tallest Mayan structure in Belize. The restored areas of this huge city-state contain a ceremonial center, residences for the rulers of this civilization, a middle-class residential area, and the ubiquitous ballcourt complex. From the top of this pyramid “El Castillo”, one is rewarded with a breathtaking view of three river valleys. From its perch explorers can also see all the way to Guatemala.

The construction is typical Maya a low terrace was designed to hold additional stone buildings, and on this level a temple was built. Later the entire temple was filled in and another was built on top of it. Thanks to excellent archaeological work, we get to see the various periods of construction. From research we know that Xunantunich was in power for only a few hundred years and abandoned after an earthquake.

We visit this ruin on our Belize Adventure Week package. We also offer it as a one-day tour out of Belize City for groups of eight or more.

If you have a group of four and a full day, it is affordable to get a vehicle from a Belize City car rental and drive to Xunantunich yourself.




The present name seems to derive from Oxmal, meaning "three times built." This seems to refer to the site's antiquity and the times it had to rebuild. The etymology is disputed another possibility is Uchmal which means "what is to come, the future." By tradition, this was supposed to be an "invisible city," built in one night by the magic of the dwarf king.

While much work has been done at the popular tourist destination of Uxmal to consolidate and restore buildings, little in the way of serious archeological excavation and research has been done. [ citation needed ] The city's dates of occupation are unknown and the estimated population (about 15,000 people) is a rough guess. [ citation needed ] Most of the city's major construction took place while Uxmal was the capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925 AD. After about 1000 AD, Toltec invaders took over, and most building ceased by 1100 AD. [ citation needed ]

Maya chronicles say that Uxmal was founded about 500 A.D. by Hun Uitzil Chac Tutul Xiu. For generations Uxmal was ruled over by the Xiu family. It was the most powerful site in western Yucatán, and for a while, in alliance with Chichen Itza, dominated all of the northern Maya area. Sometime after about 1200, no new major construction seems to have been made at Uxmal, possibly related to the fall of Uxmal's ally Chichen Itza and the shift of power in Yucatán to Mayapan. The Xiu moved their capital to Maní, and the population of Uxmal declined.

Uxmal was dominant from 875 to 900 CE. The site appears to have been the capital of a regional state in the Puuc region from 850-950 CE. The Maya dynasty expanded their dominion over their neighbors. This prominence did not last long, as the population dispersed around 1000 CE.

After the Spanish conquest of Yucatán (in which the Xiu allied with the Spanish), early colonial documents suggest that Uxmal was still an inhabited place of some importance into the 1550s. As the Spanish did not build a town here, Uxmal was soon after largely abandoned.

The Maya legend The Dwarf-Wizard of Uxmal is set in Uxmal. [1]

Even before the restoration work, Uxmal was in better condition than many other Maya sites. Much was built with well-cut stones set into a core of concrete not relying on plaster to hold the building together. [ citation needed ] The Maya architecture here is considered [ by whom? ] matched only by that of Palenque in elegance and beauty. The Puuc style of Maya architecture predominates. Thanks to its good state of preservation, it is one of the few Maya cities where the casual visitor can get a good idea of how the entire ceremonial center looked in ancient times.

Some of the more noteworthy buildings include:

  • The Governor's Palace, a long low building atop a huge platform, with the longest façades in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Governor's Palace rear view and details

Governor's Palace rear view

Governor's Palace side view

Nunnery Quadrangle and the Pyramid of the Magician

Traditional Mayan symbols

Maya images of people and animals

Snake and traditional Mayan lattice

Sculptural image on the corner of the building

  • The Adivino (a.k.a. the Pyramid of the Magician or the Pyramid of the Dwarf), is a stepped pyramid structure, unusual among Maya structures in that its layers' outlines are oval or elliptical in shape, instead of the more common rectilinear plan. It was a common practice in Mesoamerica to build new temple pyramids atop older ones, but here a newer pyramid was built centered slightly to the east of the older pyramid, so that on the west side the temple atop the old pyramid is preserved, with the newer temple above it.

The structure is featured in one of the best-known tales of Yucatec Maya folklore, "el enano del Uxmal" (the dwarf of Uxmal), which is also the basis for the structure's common name. Multiple versions of this tale are recorded. It was popularised after one of these was recounted by John Lloyd Stephens in his influential 1841 book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. According to Stephens' version, the pyramid was magically built overnight during a series of challenges issued to a dwarf by the gobernador (ruler or king) of Uxmal. The dwarf's mother (a bruja, or witch) arranged the trial of strength and magic to compete against the king. [5]

  • The Nunnery Quadrangle was built from 900-1000, and the name related with nuns was assigned in the 16th century because it resembled a convent. The quadrangle consists of four palaces placed on different levels that surround a courtyard. Of the different buildings that make up this palatial complex, several vault tops have been recovered, they are painted and represent partial calendrical dates from 906 to 907 AD, which is consistent with the Chan Chahk’ahk Nalajaw period of government. The formal entrance, the hierarchy of the structures through the different elevations, and the absence of domestic elements suggest that this space corresponds to a royal palace with administrative and non-residential functions, where the ruling group must have had meetings to collect the tribute, make decisions, and dictate sentences among other activities. [6] These set of buildings are the finest of Uxmal's several fine quadrangles of long buildings. It has elaborately carved façades on both the inside and outside faces.
  • A large Ballcourt for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. Its inscription says that it was dedicated in 901 by the ruler Chan Chak K'ak'nal Ajaw, also known as Lord Chac (before the decipherment of his corresponding name glyphs). The ball court's condition is very deteriorated, and it’s made of two constructions of medium dimensions that make up the sides of the court with the rings by which the ball was to be introduced. The originally carved stone rings were removed to protect them from the elements and were replaced by reproductions. This game has always been related to mythical and cosmic aspects. The ball symbolized the movements of the stars in the sky and the players, in repeated occasions, symbolically staged the fight of the day against the night or the struggle of the deities of the underworld against the gods of heaven. [7]

A number of other temple-pyramids, quadrangles, and other monuments, some of significant size, and in varying states of preservation, are also at Uxmal. These include North Long Building, House of the Birds, House of the Turtles, Grand Pyramid, House of the Doves, and South Temple.

The majority of hieroglyphic inscriptions were on a series of stone stelae unusually grouped together on a single platform. The stelae depict the ancient rulers of the city. They show signs that they were deliberately broken and toppled in antiquity some were re-erected and repaired. [ citation needed ] A further suggestion of possible war or battle is found in the remains of a wall which encircled most of the central ceremonial center.

A large raised stone pedestrian causeway links Uxmal with the site of Kabah, some 18 km to the south-east. Archaeological research at the small island site of Uaymil, located to the west on the Gulf coast, suggests that it may have served as a port for Uxmal and provided the site access to the circum-peninsular trade network.

The site, located not far from Mérida beside a road to Campeche, has attracted many visitors since the time of Mexico's independence. The first detailed account of the ruins was published by Jean Frederic Waldeck in 1838. John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood made two extended visits to Uxmal in the early 1840s, with architect/draftsman Catherwood reportedly making so many plans and drawings that they could be used to construct a duplicate of the ancient city (unfortunately most of the drawings are lost).) [ citation needed ] Désiré Charnay took a series of photographs of Uxmal in 1860. Some three years later Empress Carlota of Mexico visited Uxmal in preparation for her visit local authorities had some statues and architectural elements depicting phallic themes removed from the ancient façades. [ citation needed ]

Sylvanus G. Morley made a map of the site in 1909 which included some previously overlooked buildings. The Mexican government's first project to protect some of the structures from risk of collapse or further decay came in 1927. In 1930 Frans Blom led a Tulane University expedition to the site. They made plaster casts of the façades of the "Nunnery Quadrangle" using these casts, a replica of the Quadrangle was constructed and displayed at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, Illinois. The plaster replicas of the architecture were destroyed following the fair, but some of the plaster casts of Uxmal's monuments are still kept at Tulane's Middle American Research Institute. In 1936 a Mexican government repair and consolidation program was begun under José Erosa Peniche.

Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited on 27 February 1975 for the inauguration of the site's sound & light show. When the presentation reached the point where the sound system played the Maya prayer to Chaac (the Maya rain deity), a sudden torrential downpour occurred. [8] Gathered dignitaries included Gaspar Antonio Xiu, a descendant of the Xiu noble Maya lineage.

Three hotels and a small museum have been built within walking distance of the ancient city. [ citation needed ]

Microbial biofilms have been found degrading stone buildings at Uxmal and Kabah. Phototrophs such as Xenococcus are found more often on interior walls. Stone degrading Gloeocapsa and Synechocystis were also present in large numbers. [9] Aureobasidium and Fusarium fungi species are present at Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Cyanobacteria were prevalent in the interiors of rooms with low light levels. [10]

Xunantunich | A Maya Ruin

Our first trip to a Maya ruin in Belize, Xunantunich was spectacular! It was smoking hot in the sun, but we endured the heat in order to climb to the top of El Castillo, at 136 feet it's Belize's second tallest structure by only one foot.

Maya Site | San Jose Succotz Belize | Photo taken by Indiana Architectural Photographer Jason Humbracht "> Xunantunich Maya Site | San Jose Succotz, Belize

Xunantunich was first explored in the 1800’s by Dr. Thomas Gann a British medical officer. The first recorded photograph of the site was taken in 1904 and displayed in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for many years. After this, activities at the site were abandoned until 1924, with the return of Gann. Records show that in his second visit, he unearthed much Maya treasures, history of which have been lost and the whereabouts unknown. It is believed and quite possible that many museums and private collectors of Maya Artifacts are displaying these items, with no idea of their origin.

Looking east toward El Castillo with Altar 1 in foreground

In comparison to other neighboring sites, the history of the Maya at Xunantunich is relatively short. Early Belize Maya settlers may have established a small village at the site during the Middle ,Preclassic (600-300 BC) period, but the ancient city, as we know it, rose to prominence and declined between AD 700 to 1000. This rather late development is unusual because it indicates that while most other cities in the region were waning during the troubled Terminal Classic period (AD 800-900), the fortunes of Xunantunich were on the rise. A well developed site, Xunantunich is on the Top Ten Maya Sites of Belize list.

Atop El Castillo of Xunantunich Maya Site

The last date recorded on a stela (Stela 9) at the site is AD 830. Thereafter we know that activity continued into the Early Postclassic period (AD 900-1000) but by this time the pace of development was nowhere what it was in the ninth century. The Early Postclassic period is also very unclear and activities during this time may have been associated with small groups who attempted to reoccupy the city after abandonment.

Northeast View from El Castillo

View of Cayo from El Castillo

View from the back of El Castillo with Guatemala in the distance

Another Mayan ruin in Belize, Cahal Pech, can be viewed by clicking the provided link.

View of the Cayo District

Southwest side of El Castillo

Hieroglyphs of El Castillo

For tips on shooting with a wide angle lens, go to my post Wide Angle Photography Tips.

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Archaeology digs of numerous houses excavated at two sites in southern Belize is providing insight into gaping wealth inequality in ancient Maya cities – a disparity that researchers believe was closely linked to despotic leadership. Archaeologists on Wednesday said they studied remains of 180 homes in the medium-sized city of Uxbenká and 93 homes in [&hellip]

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La marchandisation de la culture:tourisme et identité maya. Cette étude ethnographique examine comment la marchandisation de la culture pour le tourisme a affecté les usages traditionnels dans un ancien village maya qui se trouve à côté des ruines mayas les plus visitées du Belize. Bien que la majorité des villageois avaient abandonné leur identité indigène, ils ont répondu à la demande du tourisme pour des représentations des caractéristiques essentielles de la culture maya en utilisant de nouvelles voies d’accès aux traditions qu’ils ne pouvaient plus apprendre de la vieille façon ils se sont donc servis des publications des archéologues et des épigraphistes qui étudient les Mayas des temps anciens. Tout en développant leur expertise dans les traditions culturelles de leurs ancêtres, les villageois n’étaient pas sûrs que leur acquisition de ces connaissances constituât une base suffisante pour la récupération de leur identité maya.

Maya Decipherment

The summer of 2016 produced discoveries of tremendous importance for understanding the political history of the Classic Maya lowlands. While excavating Structure A9 at Xunantunich, Belize, Jaime Awe and his team unearthed two inscribed monuments of rare significance, their contents revealed in detailed textual analyses by Christophe Helmke (Helmke and Awe 2016a, 2016b). These inscriptions support and elaborate some existing proposals, while supplying entirely new twists to the story. What follows are a few thoughts inspired by these finds.

Xunantunich Panels 3 and 4 were immediately recognizable as parts of a hieroglyphic stairway first uncovered at the site of Naranjo (Maler 1908:91-93, Pls.24-28 Morley 1937-38.2:42-59 Graham 1978:107-110). There Teobert Maler uncovered 12 blocks bearing outlined medallions of text in two different formats, one of nine glyph-blocks and the other of four. The Xunantunich stones differ in their larger size and the inclusion of two of the smaller medallions apiece. That the monument had a complex history, with portions of it moved in ancient times, was already clear from the discovery a lone block at Ucanal—first designated in the Naranjo series as Step XIII and later as Ucanal Miscellaneous Stone 1 (Graham 1978:107, 110, 1980:153-154). In regard to its content, it has long been realized that the narrative focus falls on the career of the Caracol king we know as K’an II, repeating much of the information we find on his Caracol Stela 3 (Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:12-22, Figs. 3, 4 Stone, Reents, and Coffman 1985:273-274, Table 1). In this light the stairway’s presence at Naranjo was initially explained as a “conquest monument” erected by K’an II to celebrate his subjugation of Naranjo (Schele and Freidel 1990:174, 178). But there were a number of holes in that argument, and I later suggested that the steps did not originate at Naranjo but were instead brought there from an original setting at Caracol (Martin 2000:57-58).

Figure 1. Inscribed fragment from Caracol, Str. B5 (drawing by S. Martin, after one by N. Grube in Grube 1994:Fig.9.14a)

That idea was provoked not simply by the Caracol subject matter, but by an inscribed stone fragment excavated by Arlen and Diane Chase from rubble at the foot of Caracol Structure B5 (see Grube 1994:113, Fig.19.4a) (Figure 1). It shared the outlined border and rounded corners of the stairway medallions and, anecdotally, was carved from the same pale grey limestone that one can see when visiting the Naranjo steps stored in the British Museum. Importantly, when the drawing was sized to the scale of those blocks it proved to be a very close match (Martin 2000:Fig.12 see also Helmke and Awe 2016:Fig.3b). The hypothesis put forward was that the Caracol fragment was a discarded piece of the same monument. There is no way to be sure when the stairway was broken up and removed, but we know that Naranjo attacked Caracol in 680, forcing its king to flee, and the 168 days that the Caracol king was exiled would seem to be a good opportunity to seize such a trophy. With two further parts now found at Xunantunich, the dispersal of this dismembered monument proves to be wider still, and Helmke and Awe (2016a:4) have noted the likely significance of both Ucanal and Xunantunich as one-time allies, associates, or clients of Naranjo in the Late Classic period. In short, there may be political meaning behind the distribution.

Figure 2. Step V of the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (HS. 1) (drawing by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:108. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University)

Xunantunich Panel 4 has been identified as part of the opening statement of the inscription, directly following the Long Count of, falling in 642, on Step V of the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (Helmke and Awe 2016b:9, Fig.9) (Figure 2, 3a).[1] The first medallion completes the essentials of the Period Ending and names its presiding deities, but the second pivots to describe a key political upheaval of the time, the shift of the dominant portion of the Snake dynasty from Dzibanche to Calakmul (ibid.:16) (Figure 3b). Such a transfer had been posited from converging lines of evidence pointing to a “reconstitution” of the polity at Calakmul during, or shortly before, the reign of its most important king Yuknoom Ch’een II (Martin 2005). That such an explicit statement is now forthcoming—describing first the negation and then the formation of political authority at the toponyms of Dzibanche (kaanul) and Calakmul (uxte’tuun) respectively—confirms the historicity of this event and demonstrates the significance it held for its contemporaries (Helmke and Awe 2016b:13-16 Martin and Velásquez 2016). The implications of its placement here at the very start of the narrative are startling, since it compels us to see the entire monument as a single metahistory, in which each event contributes to the greater story of the transfer.

Figure 3. Text medallions from Xunantunich Panel 4 (drawings by S. Martin after those by C. Helmke in Helmke and Awe 2016b:Fig.11)

The other find at Xunantunich, Panel 3, has contributed entirely new information (Helmke and Awe 2016a:8-10, Fig.7). Here the first medallion offers us the death-date of K’an II’s mother in 638, while the second presents a further death in 640, this time specified as ti-ye-TUUN-ni ti yehtuun, literally “at the edge of the stone.” The exact meaning of this construction continues to be debated, but there is little doubt that it is associated with an act of violence consistent with execution. The subject is named as Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan and his full k’uhul kaanul ajaw title establishes him as a previously unknown Snake monarch. As Helmke and Awe point out, this sheds immediate light on Step I from Naranjo, where the partially surviving name of this king—absent his title—has him suffering a “star war” defeat in 636 at the hands of another Snake lord, this one a lesser kaanul ajaw, I’ve previously nicknamed Yuknoom Head (see Martin and Grube 2000:106). From this we learn that the break between Dzibanche and Calakmul was a violent one, a conflict that we can essentially characterize as a civil war. Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan evidently spent four years as a captive, or on the run, before he was put to death. Crucially, Panel 3 comes at the very end of the text, its chronology advancing to the same Period Ending in 642 with which the stairway begins. This is the last action recorded on the monument and therefore constitutes its narrative closure—perfectly in line with the metahistorical purpose set out on Panel 4.

If this summarizes what the Xunantunich discoveries have told us thus far, what other implications can be seen to arise from them? With Panel 4 established as the second block in the program, I believe we can go further with this re-assembly and here I would like to offer a speculative scheme for the next four step-blocks, of which three are currently known. The first move is to suggest that the reference to the Calakmul toponym 3-TE’-TUUN-ni uxte’tuun that ends Panel 4 is part of a pair and joins the other Calakmul toponym, chi[ku]-NAHB chiiknahb, that begins Step XII from Naranjo (Figure 4a). These place-names are paired, in this order, on La Corona Element 13 (formerly Site Q Ballplayer 1) (Stuart and Houston 1994:28-29, Fig.29 also Schele and Miller 1986:257-258, Pl.101), and appear together again on Step VI—if there employed for a different purpose (see below).

Figure 4. Steps XII and XI from the Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stairway (HS.1) (drawings by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:110. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University).

But this is not the only argument one can make for the sequencing of these blocks. After a “focus marker” the text on Step XII moves directly to the verb i-pi-tzi-ji ipitzij “then ball is played,” with no subject named. An unusual event to be associated with a Period Ending, this is precisely the verb that re-appears at the close of the program when Xunantunich Panel 3 refers to the upcoming mark (Helmke and Awe 2016a:7, 11, Fig.9).[2] This association is even better evidence that Step XII should be inserted at this point. Symbolic ballgames are regularly associated with monumental steps, where they were staged to celebrate success in war and the subsequent tormenting of prisoners (Miller and Houston 1987:52-63). Indeed, Step XII goes on to name the steps in question with a-ku-?-TUUN-ni u-K’ABA’-ba-a ?-tuun uk’aba’ “?-stone is the name of.” It has been appreciated for some time that this passage continues on Step XI, which begins ye-bu for yehb “the stair of” and then provides the beginning of a royal name (Figure 4b). There can be little doubt that this takes us into the extended name phrase of K’an II.

Figure 5. Steps IX and III from the Naranjo stairway (HS. 1) ([a] drawing by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:109. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University [b] drawing by S. Martin after photograph by T. Maler) The next suggested join is less certain. Step II contains the name and emblem glyph of K’an II and would seem to be a possible fit here. However, that text goes on to list two deities which supervise the king’s actions, a construction that does not typically fit with the syntax and subject matter we have here. Instead, Step IX, which also includes the name and titles of K’an II, shares the same double-size glyphs as Step XI and, for this reason alone, is a better candidate (Figure 5a). It might have followed Step XII directly, or via one or more other now-missing steps that made for an even longer nominal sequence. Since Step IX does not include a Caracol emblem glyph or other terminal titles we must assume, lacking a suitable candidate, that the following step is missing. The next contender for a continuation of the sequence is Step III, which is dedicated to the parentage of K’an II (Martin in Grube 1994:107) (redrawn here as Figure 5b). While it could have been placed at other points in the narrative, this first reference to the king would be a typical position. The combined scheme is set out in Figure 6, below.

Figure 6. A speculative scheme for the opening sequence of the Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway. (a) NAR HS.1, Step V (b, c) XUN Pan. 4 (d) NAR HS.1, Step II, (e) NAR HS.1, Step XI (f) missing (g) NAR HS.1, Step III. (Drawings of the Naranjo HS by I. Graham, courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University drawings of Xunantunich panel by S. Martin, after those by C. Helmke in Helmke and Awe 2016b:Fig. 11)

From here on we must turn to the chronology of the stairway, which is one of the more important contributions of the new studies (Helmke and Awe 2016b:Table 2). We still do not know how many step-blocks were in the original composition, but the number of proven joins suggest that a good proportion are already in hand. Of the 13 steps from Naranjo and Ucanal, seven can be fixed in relative order by means of their dates and distance numbers, while four undated ones receive suggested placements in this study. This leaves only two blocks, Steps II and IV (Figure 7a, b). The closest parallel for the supervision of deities on the first of these appears on Caracol Stela 3 at C5-D5, where the same divine oversight takes place at K’an II’s accession in 618. It is not unlikely that the stairway text referred to this important event and one might posit that Step II is a surviving part of that account. If so, this is an area where two or more adjoining blocks must be missing, since we have no Distance Numbers to count to and from that point. Step IV presents a steeper challenge. The text looks very much like a truncated version of the one on Stela 3 at D10b-D14a. There a series of actions are recounted for the day in 622, including the arrival of what seems to be a god effigy of some sort and the presentation of a gift, using the ya-k’a-wa yak’aw verb seen on Step IV, where the Snake king Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ is named as the bestower (the gift may well be the effigy itself). However, Step IV ends with a Distance Number of 14.7.10, which is too large to fit into the slowly accumulating chronology of the stairway as we currently understand it. Since Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ acceded in 622 and died in 630 it cannot link events within his reign. Wherever this stone fits, it is an outlier of some kind, directing us to another event of unknown significance in the future or past.[3]

Figure 7. Steps II and IV of the Naranjo hieroglyphic stairway (HS.1) (Drawings by I. Graham, from Graham 1978:107-8. Courtesy of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Trustees of Harvard University)

But there is a final nagging feature of the stairway narrative that demands our attention. As we have seen, the known text discusses two characters that bear the full k’uhul kaanul ajaw title of Snake kings, Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ (in 630) and Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan (in 636 and 640), as well as one carrying the lesser epithet of kaanul ajaw Yuknoom Head (in 631 and 636) (Figure 8a). Conspicuous by his absence is the Snake king in power when the stairway was commissioned in 642, Yuknoom Ch’een, who had assumed the throne six years earlier in April 636—an event that, according to the new chronology, the stairway completely ignores.[4] I have previously wondered if Yuknoom Head could not be some pre-accession guise for Yuknoom Ch’een since, if true, it would resolve a number of difficulties (Martin 2005:7, n.9).

Figure 8. Comparison of names of Yuknoom Head from Steps VI and I of the Naranjo hieroglyphic stairway (drawings by S. Martin after personal inspection of the originals).

To examine this question, we should begin by comparing what we know of each character. In addition to his mentions on the stairway, Yuknoom Head is twice named on Caracol Stela 3, at D20a and F4a, where he is linked to conflicts in 627 and 631. The later of the two is the great triumph also commemorated on Step VI, his conquest of Naranjo by means of a “star war.” The earlier one is a battle credited to K’an II which is done yiitij/yitaaj “with” Yuknoom Head (this phrase is syntactically scrambled so that the Caracol emblem glyph can complete the rear face text). This no doubt indicates cooperative military action between the two polities, though not necessarily as equals. Although Yuknoom Head is without title here, the reference is consistent with his lack of kingly status since Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ was alive at this time. When Yuknoom Head battles the next k’uhul kaanul ajaw, Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan, in the “civil war” of 636 he is identified with a combination where his title ka-KAAN[AJAW] overlays his name, which can be seen only as yu[ku] at top and li below (Figure 8b). This is not a unique case, not dissimilar amalgams occur in the texts of the later Calakmul king Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, for example on Calakmul Stela 52 at G1.[5]

Turning now to Yuknoom Ch’een, until recently we knew nothing of his career before his attack on Dos Pilas in 648 (Guenter 2003). However, one of the new La Corona panels delivers a much earlier reference, describing a ballgame he conducted at that site in February 635 (Stuart 2012). It is notable that this date falls between the two mentions of Yuknoom Head on the stairway. The ballgame occurs 54 days before a “foundation” event—a verb associated with both newly installed and restored royal authority—which appears to take place at Dzibanche (Stuart 2012 Martin and Velásquez 2016). Evidence from Calakmul establishes that Yuknoom Ch’een took the role of “founder” in its short dynastic count, clearly claiming that he was the first Snake king at that site (Martin 2005:7-8). However, on Step VI a reference to Yuknoom Head as “at Uxte’tuun, Chiik Nahb Person” appears to place him as the first Snake dynast at Calakmul (Tokovinine 2007:19-21). Yuknoom Ch’een acceded to office just 58 days after Yuknoom Head’s victory over Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan, and the two events seem connected—indeed that the second appears to be dependent on the first (see also Helmke and Awe 2016b:18).

To recap, here is a chronology of the major events falling between 630 and 640: 630 Death of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’ (Ucanal Misc. Stone 1) 631 Naranjo conquered by Yuknoom Head (Naranjo HS Step VI & Caracol St. 3) 635 Ballgame of Yuknoom Ch’een (La Corona Elements 33 & 35) 635 Foundation at(?) kaanul (La Corona Element 33) 636 Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan defeated by Yuknoom Head (Naranjo HS. Step I) 636 Accession of Yuknoom Ch’een (Calculated from La Corona Altar 1) 640 Execution of Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan (Xunantunich Panel 3)

What are we to make of all this? Lacking a clear solution, we are left with two main scenarios:

(1) Yuknoom Head and Yuknoom Ch’een were contemporaries, perhaps siblings or a father and son. The former was established at Calakmul by at least 631 (kaanul having at some point replaced an existing dynasty there) and after the death of Tajoom Ukab K’ahk’ he fought the next king and holder of the k’uhul kaanul ajaw title Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan. He succeeds but, possibly wounded or killed, disappears at much the same moment and Yuknoom Ch’een quickly takes on the kingly mantle or (2) The same set of events unfold but Yuknoom Head is either a pre-accession name, or simply a distinct or more elaborated moniker, for Yuknoom Ch’een. It would be the same person who establishes a base at Calakmul, attacks Naranjo, triumphs in the civil war, and assumes the full Snake title.

There are pros and cons to both positions. If the stairway seeks to encapsulate the instantiation of legitimate authority and practical power at Calakmul, how can the first true Snake king there—and the current one at that—be excluded from the narrative? Was the immense influence that Yuknoom Ch’een later displayed based on no more than his good fortune in inheriting the accomplishments of his predecessor, or was it instead grounded in spectacular successes from his early career? The strongest counter-argument is that it would be very unusual for a pre-regnal name to so closely resemble that of an eventual king. That point recedes if the form were instead an unusually complete or alternative name for Yuknoom Ch’een, since Classic Maya kings had lengthy nominal sequences and the short name ubiquitously ascribed to him can only be one part of it. Snake kings seem especially prone to having different parts of their name emphasized at different places and times (e.g. Martin and Beliaev, in press). Even so, it is patently an obstacle that no other source associates him with the form given at Caracol.

To conclude, the finds at Xunantunich provide valuable new insights into Caracol’s hieroglyphic stairway and the events it describes. It is a Period Ending monument, but one dedicated to the ritual ballgame that appropriately chimes with the martial flavor of the whole text. Beyond that, its rhetorical purpose is to assert K’an II’s support for the new Snake order, presenting its own wars against Naranjo as contributions to the decisive Calakmul triumph over that rival in 631. K’an II was a self-declared client of the kaanul dynasty, having received his royal headband in a ceremony supervised by Yuknoom Ti’ Chan in 619, the year after his initial accession (Martin 2009, 2014:184). He continued to be a dutiful subject ally in the time of Yuknoom Ti’ Chan’s successor, Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’—accounting for the positive contact with that king—but evidently took common cause with Yuknoom Head against Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kaan. Alex Tokovinine (pers. comm. 2016) suggests that the wars between Naranjo and Caracol arose because they backed different sides in the civil war. Here Naranjo, itself a long-time vassal to the kaanul kings, would play the loyalist and thus enemy to the aspiring power of Calakmul, whereas Caracol supported the breakaway and the stairway celebrates the success of that choice. Yet the general struggle must have begun somewhat earlier, in the time of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’, since Caracol was at odds with Naranjo from at least 626. The data demonstrate that as early as 642 the rise of Calakmul was considered to be a significant development in the political landscape of the central lowlands, one worthy of special record. The following decades of Yuknoom Ch’een’s rule would more than bear out that judgement, as the Snake dynasty drew ever more royal houses into its orbit and came closer than any of its rivals to forming a Maya “imperium.”


My thanks go to David Stuart, Stephen Houston, and Christophe Helmke who made helpful comments in the development of this text.

[1] Theoretically, there could be an intervening Lunar Series on another block or blocks. However, the direct join between Glyph F on Naranjo HS Step VI and 18 K’ank’in on the first medallion of Xunantunich Panel 4 makes that unlikely.

[2] David Stuart (pers. comm. 2016) reminds me of a pair of monuments at Ceibal (Seibal)—Stela 5 and 7— that show a single king equipped with ballplaying gear, where the texts also associate a Period Ending with a game.

[3] Following incremental insights and corrections from Spinden and Joyce, Morley (1937-38.2:44) connected this Distance Number of 14.7.10 to the terminal mark of This would date the missing event to in 628, which has no outside corroboration but does at least have the merit of falling within the reign of Tajoom Uk’ab K’ahk’.

[4] It could be argued that the lack of interest shown in Yuknoom Ch’een was because K’an II had, by means of his support for the new regime, pulled away from kaanul supervision. There may be something to that, but the grandiosity of this monumental statement—which serves to glorify Calakmul—must place as much of an eye on the present and future as it does on the past.

[5] The names of Yuknoom Head and Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil share several features. Both show the yu[ku] conflation atop a human face with a dot on its cheek, together with a li suffix (Martin 2005:5, n.5). The same form appears in the name of an unrelated sculptor on Calakmul Stela 51 (Martin, Houston, and Zender 2015) and, more distantly, at Palenque where K’inich Kan Bahlam II is associated with the same name as a child (Tablet of the Foliated Cross, G4, and Tablet of the Sun, J2). Variable elements are cloth-like projections extending over the cheek, an infixed k’in sign that might signal CH’EEN (none of the examples are sufficiently well-preserved to be clear on this point), and a TOOK’ “flint” sign. Yuknoom Head’s name does not include these, but on Caracol Stela 3 at D20a we might see the presence of the arm-and-stone motif that cues the god-name YOPAAT, but that identification remains uncertain.

Beetz, Carl P., and Linton Satterthwaite. 1981. The Monuments and Inscriptions of Caracol, Belize. University Museum Monograph 45. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Graham, Ian. 1978. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Vol. 2, Part 2: Naranjo, Chunhuitz, Xunantunich. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1980. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Vol. 2, Part 3: Ixkun, Ucanal, Ixtutz, Naranjo. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Grube, Nikolai. 1994. Epigraphic Research at Caracol, Belize. In Studies in the Archaeology of Caracol, Belize, Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute Monograph 7, edited by Diane Z. and Arlen F. Chase, pp.83-122. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

Guenter, Stanley Paul. 2003. The Inscriptions of Dos Pilas associated with B’ajlaj Chan K’awiil. Pilas/

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime Awe. 2016a. Death Becomes Her: An Analysis of Panel 3, Xunantunich, Belize. PARI Journal 16(4):1-14.

__________________________. 2016b. Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: A Tale of the Snake-head Dynasty as Recounted on Xunantunich Panel 4. PARI Journal 17(2):1-22.

Maler, Teobert. 1908. Explorations in the Department of Peten, Guatemala and Adjacent Region Topoxté, Yaxhá, Benque Viejo, Naranjo: Reports of Explorations for the Museum. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 4(2). Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Martin, Simon. 2000. At the Periphery: The Movement, Modification and Re-use of Early Monuments in the Environs of Tikal. In The Sacred and the Profane: Architecture and Identity in the Southern Maya Lowlands, edited by P.R. Colas, K. Delvendahl, M. Kuhnert, and A. Pieler, pp. 51-62. Acta Mesoamericana 10, Markt Schwaben.

___________. 2005 Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. The PARI Journal 6(2):5-15.

___________. “On the Trail of the Serpent State: The Unusual History of the Kan Polity.” Paper presented at the 33rd Maya Meetings at Texas “History and Politics of the Snake Kingdom”, February 23rd-March 1st 2009. University of Texas at Austin.

____________. 2014 The Classic Maya Polity: An Epigraphic Approach to Reconstructing a Pre-Hispanic Political System. PhD thesis, University College London.

Martin, Simon, and Dmitri Beliaev. In press. K’ahk’ Ti’ Ch’ich’: A New Snake King from the Early Classic Period. The PARI Journal 17(3).

Martin, Simon, and Erik Velásquez. 2016. Polities and Places: Tracing the Toponyms of the Snake Dynasty. The PARI Journal 17(2):23-33.

Morley, Sylvanus G. 1937-8. Inscriptions of Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 437: 5 Vols. Washington, D.C.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and Stephen D. Houston. 1987. The Classic Maya Ballgame and its Architectural Setting: A Study of Relations between Text and Image. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 14:46-65.

Schele, Linda and David Freidel. 1990. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. William Morrow, New York.

Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Sotheby’s and Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.

Stone, Andrea, Dorie Reents, and Robert Coffman. 1985. Genealogical Documentation of the Middle Classic Dynasty of Caracol, El Cayo, Belize. In Fourth Palenque Round Table, 1980, Volume IV, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson, pp. 267-276. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

Payne’s Creek National Park – What You Need to Know Before You Visit

Payne’s Creek National Park is located in the southern Toledo District of Belize and measures more than 37,000 acres (150 square kilometers) in size. The park is classified as a nature reserve and is home to broadleaf forests in the interior and large stands of mangrove trees in the coastal area.

Also known as Paynes Creek, this area was declared a protected nature reserve in 1994 and is bordered by the Monkey River to the north and the Port Honduras Marine Reserve to the south. Throughout Payne’s Creek, there are regions of both old-growth forest as well as second-growth forest interspersed with swamps and mangrove-lined lagoons. The park’s eastern border has striking sequences of storm-built ridges and sandy beaches interspersed with littoral vegetation like cocoplum and sea-grape.

With high levels of salinity and the brackish nature of much of the wetlands in Payne’s Creek, the park is home to over 300 species of birds. Animals found within the park include large herds of white-tail deer as well as foxes, peccaries, gibnuts, jaguars, armadillos, crocodiles, and black howler monkeys.

Because of the high water table in much of the park, the best way to explore Payne’s Creek is usually by boat, entering through the Punta Ycacos Lagoon. The lagoon is also home to many manatees which use the area as a breeding ground. Near Punta Ycacos Lagoon, visitors can also see a nesting site used by ibis birds, a site used to lay eggs by hawksbill turtles, and huge numbers of wading birds that pluck small crustaceans and amphibians from the water.

On October 8, 2018, an academic paper was published by an archeological team from Louisiana State University which has been excavating in Payne’s Creek since 2004. The team discovered more the remains of more than 4,000 wooden posts that were used as the foundation of large buildings where open fires were kept burning day and night in order to boil seawater to create large cakes of salt.

The paper showed that a microscopic analysis of stone tools discovered at the site showed clear signs of being used to prepare fish and meat. Combined with the knowledge that the Maya were producing salt in vast quantities at Payne’s Creek, the logical conclusion is that the ancient Maya were using their saltworks to preserve fish and meat for trade with cities further inland. These salted meats were essential foods used to feed an estimated population of some one million people.


The Maya civilization developed within the Mesoamerican cultural area, which covers a region that spreads from northern Mexico southwards into Central America. [3] Mesoamerica was one of six cradles of civilization worldwide. [4] The Mesoamerican area gave rise to a series of cultural developments that included complex societies, agriculture, cities, monumental architecture, writing, and calendrical systems. [5] The set of traits shared by Mesoamerican cultures also included astronomical knowledge, blood and human sacrifice, and a cosmovision that viewed the world as divided into four divisions aligned with the cardinal directions, each with different attributes, and a three-way division of the world into the celestial realm, the earth, and the underworld. [6]

By 6000 BC, the early inhabitants of Mesoamerica were experimenting with the domestication of plants, a process that eventually led to the establishment of sedentary agricultural societies. [7] The diverse climate allowed for wide variation in available crops, but all regions of Mesoamerica cultivated the base crops of maize, beans, and squashes. [8] All Mesoamerican cultures used Stone Age technology after c. 1000 AD copper, silver and gold were worked. Mesoamerica lacked draft animals, did not use the wheel, and possessed few domesticated animals the principal means of transport was on foot or by canoe. [9] Mesoamericans viewed the world as hostile and governed by unpredictable deities. The ritual Mesoamerican ballgame was widely played. [10] Mesoamerica is linguistically diverse, with most languages falling within a small number of language families—the major families are Mayan, Mixe–Zoquean, Otomanguean, and Uto-Aztecan there are also a number of smaller families and isolates. The Mesoamerican language area shares a number of important features, including widespread loanwords, and use of a vigesimal number system. [11]

The territory of the Maya covered a third of Mesoamerica, [12] and the Maya were engaged in a dynamic relationship with neighbouring cultures that included the Olmecs, Mixtecs, Teotihuacan, the Aztecs, and others. [13] During the Early Classic period, the Maya cities of Tikal and Kaminaljuyu were key Maya foci in a network that extended beyond the Maya area into the highlands of central Mexico. [14] At around the same time, there was a strong Maya presence at the Tetitla compound of Teotihuacan. [15] Centuries later, during the 9th century AD, murals at Cacaxtla, another site in the central Mexican highlands, were painted in a Maya style. [16] This may have been either an effort to align itself with the still-powerful Maya area after the collapse of Teotihuacan and ensuing political fragmentation in the Mexican Highlands, [17] or an attempt to express a distant Maya origin of the inhabitants. [18] The Maya city of Chichen Itza and the distant Toltec capital of Tula had an especially close relationship. [19]

The Maya civilization occupied a wide territory that included southeastern Mexico and northern Central America. This area included the entire Yucatán Peninsula and all of the territory now incorporated into the modern countries of Guatemala and Belize, as well as the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. [20] Most of the peninsula is formed by a vast plain with few hills or mountains and a generally low coastline. [21]

The Petén region consists of densely forested low-lying limestone plain [22] a chain of fourteen lakes runs across the central drainage basin of Petén. [23] To the south the plain gradually rises towards the Guatemalan Highlands. [24] Dense forest covers northern Petén and Belize, most of Quintana Roo, southern Campeche, and a portion of the south of Yucatán state. Farther north, the vegetation turns to lower forest consisting of dense scrub. [25]

The littoral zone of Soconusco lies to the south of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, [26] and consists of a narrow coastal plain and the foothills of the Sierra Madre. [27] The Maya highlands extend eastwards from Chiapas into Guatemala, reaching their highest in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. The major pre-Columbian population centres of the highlands were located in the largest highland valleys, such as the Valley of Guatemala and the Quetzaltenango Valley. In the southern highlands, a belt of volcanic cones runs parallel to the Pacific coast. The highlands extend northwards into Verapaz, and gradually descend to the east. [28]

The history of Maya civilization is divided into three principal periods: the Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic periods. [29] These were preceded by the Archaic Period, during which the first settled villages and early developments in agriculture emerged. [30] Modern scholars regard these periods as arbitrary divisions of Maya chronology, rather than indicative of cultural evolution or decline. [31] Definitions of the start and end dates of period spans can vary by as much as a century, depending on the author. [32]

Maya chronology [33]
Period Division Dates
Archaic 8000–2000 BC [34]
Preclassic Early Preclassic 2000–1000 BC
Middle Preclassic Early Middle Preclassic 1000–600 BC
Late Middle Preclassic 600–350 BC
Late Preclassic Early Late Preclassic 350–1 BC
Late Late Preclassic 1 BC – AD 159
Terminal Preclassic AD 159–250
Classic Early Classic AD 250–550
Late Classic AD 550–830
Terminal Classic AD 830–950
Postclassic Early Postclassic AD 950–1200
Late Postclassic AD 1200–1539
Contact period AD 1511–1697 [35]

Preclassic period (c. 2000 BC – 250 AD)

The Maya developed their first civilization in the Preclassic period. [36] Scholars continue to discuss when this era of Maya civilization began. Maya occupation at Cuello (modern-day Belize) has been carbon dated to around 2600 BC. [37] Settlements were established around 1800 BC in the Soconusco region of the Pacific coast, and the Maya were already cultivating the staple crops of maize, beans, squash, and chili pepper. [38] This period was characterised by sedentary communities and the introduction of pottery and fired clay figurines. [39]

A Lidar survey of the newly discovered Aguada Fénix site at Tabasco, Mexico uncovered large structures suggested to be a ceremonial site dating from between 1000 and 800 BC. The 2020 report of the survey, in the journal Nature, suggests its use as a ceremonial observation of the winter and summer solstices, with associated festivities and social gatherings. [40]

During the Middle Preclassic Period, small villages began to grow to form cities. [41] Nakbe in the Petén department of Guatemala is the earliest well-documented city in the Maya lowlands, [42] where large structures have been dated to around 750 BC. [41] The northern lowlands of Yucatán were widely settled by the Middle Preclassic. [43] By approximately 400 BC, early Maya rulers were raising stelae. [44] A developed script was already being used in Petén by the 3rd century BC. [45] In the Late Preclassic Period, the enormous city of El Mirador grew to cover approximately 16 square kilometres (6.2 sq mi). [46] Although not as large, Tikal was already a significant city by around 350 BC. [47]

In the highlands, Kaminaljuyu emerged as a principal centre in the Late Preclassic. [48] Takalik Abaj and Chocolá were two of the most important cities on the Pacific coastal plain, [49] and Komchen grew to become an important site in northern Yucatán. [50] The Late Preclassic cultural florescence collapsed in the 1st century AD and many of the great Maya cities of the epoch were abandoned the cause of this collapse is unknown. [51]

Classic period (c. 250–900 AD)

The Classic period is largely defined as the period during which the lowland Maya raised dated monuments using the Long Count calendar. [53] This period marked the peak of large-scale construction and urbanism, the recording of monumental inscriptions, and demonstrated significant intellectual and artistic development, particularly in the southern lowland regions. [53] The Classic period Maya political landscape has been likened to that of Renaissance Italy or Classical Greece, with multiple city-states engaged in a complex network of alliances and enmities. [54] The largest cities had populations numbering 50,000 to 120,000 and were linked to networks of subsidiary sites. [55]

During the Early Classic, cities throughout the Maya region were influenced by the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the distant Valley of Mexico. [56] In AD 378, Teotihuacan decisively intervened at Tikal and other nearby cities, deposed their rulers, and installed a new Teotihuacan-backed dynasty. [57] This intervention was led by Siyaj Kʼakʼ ("Born of Fire"), who arrived at Tikal in early 378. The king of Tikal, Chak Tok Ichʼaak I, died on the same day, suggesting a violent takeover. [58] A year later, Siyaj Kʼakʼ oversaw the installation of a new king, Yax Nuun Ahiin I. [59] The installation of the new dynasty led to a period of political dominance when Tikal became the most powerful city in the central lowlands. [59]

Tikal's great rival was Calakmul, another powerful city in the Petén Basin. [60] Tikal and Calakmul both developed extensive systems of allies and vassals lesser cities that entered one of these networks gained prestige from their association with the top-tier city, and maintained peaceful relations with other members of the same network. [61] Tikal and Calakmul engaged in the manoeuvering of their alliance networks against each other. At various points during the Classic period, one or other of these powers would gain a strategic victory over its great rival, resulting in respective periods of florescence and decline. [62]

In 629, Bʼalaj Chan Kʼawiil, a son of the Tikal king Kʼinich Muwaan Jol II, was sent to found a new city at Dos Pilas, in the Petexbatún region, apparently as an outpost to extend Tikal's power beyond the reach of Calakmul. [63] For the next two decades he fought loyally for his brother and overlord at Tikal. In 648, king Yuknoom Chʼeen II of Calakmul captured Balaj Chan Kʼawiil. Yuknoom Chʼeen II then reinstated Balaj Chan Kʼawiil upon the throne of Dos Pilas as his vassal. [64] He thereafter served as a loyal ally of Calakmul. [65]

In the southeast, Copán was the most important city. [60] Its Classic-period dynasty was founded in 426 by Kʼinich Yax Kʼukʼ Moʼ. The new king had strong ties with central Petén and Teotihuacan. [66] Copán reached the height of its cultural and artistic development during the rule of Uaxaclajuun Ubʼaah Kʼawiil, who ruled from 695 to 738. [67] His reign ended catastrophically when he was captured by his vassal, king Kʼakʼ Tiliw Chan Yopaat of Quiriguá. [68] The captured lord of Copán was taken back to Quiriguá and was decapitated in a public ritual. [69] It is likely that this coup was backed by Calakmul, in order to weaken a powerful ally of Tikal. [70] Palenque and Yaxchilan were the most powerful cities in the Usumacinta region. [60] In the highlands, Kaminaljuyu in the Valley of Guatemala was already a sprawling city by 300. [71] In the north of the Maya area, Coba was the most important capital. [72]

Classic Maya collapse

During the 9th century AD, the central Maya region suffered major political collapse, marked by the abandonment of cities, the ending of dynasties, and a northward shift in activity. [56] No universally accepted theory explains this collapse, but it likely had a combination of causes, including endemic internecine warfare, overpopulation resulting in severe environmental degradation, and drought. [73] During this period, known as the Terminal Classic, the northern cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal showed increased activity. [56] Major cities in the northern Yucatán Peninsula continued to be inhabited long after the cities of the southern lowlands ceased to raise monuments. [74]

Classic Maya social organization was based on the ritual authority of the ruler, rather than central control of trade and food distribution. This model of rulership was poorly structured to respond to changes, because the ruler's actions were limited by tradition to such activities as construction, ritual, and warfare. This only served to exacerbate systemic problems. [75] By the 9th and 10th centuries, this resulted in collapse of this system of rulership. In the northern Yucatán, individual rule was replaced by a ruling council formed from elite lineages. In the southern Yucatán and central Petén, kingdoms declined in western Petén and some other areas, the changes were catastrophic and resulted in the rapid depopulation of cities. [76] Within a couple of generations, large swathes of the central Maya area were all but abandoned. [77] Both the capitals and their secondary centres were generally abandoned within a period of 50 to 100 years. [55] One by one, cities stopped sculpting dated monuments the last Long Count date was inscribed at Toniná in 909. Stelae were no longer raised, and squatters moved into abandoned royal palaces. Mesoamerican trade routes shifted and bypassed Petén. [78]

Postclassic period (c. 950–1539 AD)

Although much reduced, a significant Maya presence remained into the Postclassic period after the abandonment of the major Classic period cities the population was particularly concentrated near permanent water sources. [80] Unlike during previous cycles of contraction in the Maya region, abandoned lands were not quickly resettled in the Postclassic. [55] Activity shifted to the northern lowlands and the Maya Highlands this may have involved migration from the southern lowlands, because many Postclassic Maya groups had migration myths. [81] Chichen Itza and its Puuc neighbours declined dramatically in the 11th century, and this may represent the final episode of Classic Period collapse. After the decline of Chichen Itza, the Maya region lacked a dominant power until the rise of the city of Mayapan in the 12th century. New cities arose near the Caribbean and Gulf coasts, and new trade networks were formed. [82]

The Postclassic Period was marked by changes from the preceding Classic Period. [83] The once-great city of Kaminaljuyu in the Valley of Guatemala was abandoned after continuous occupation of almost 2,000 years. [84] Across the highlands and neighbouring Pacific coast, long-occupied cities in exposed locations were relocated, apparently due to a proliferation of warfare. Cities came to occupy more-easily defended hilltop locations surrounded by deep ravines, with ditch-and-wall defences sometimes supplementing the protection provided by the natural terrain. [84] One of the most important cities in the Guatemalan Highlands at this time was Qʼumarkaj, the capital of the aggressive Kʼicheʼ kingdom. [83] The government of Maya states, from the Yucatán to the Guatemalan highlands, was often organised as joint rule by a council. However, in practice one member of the council could act as a supreme ruler, while the other members served him as advisors. [85]

Mayapan was abandoned around 1448, after a period of political, social and environmental turbulence that in many ways echoed the Classic period collapse in the southern Maya region. The abandonment of the city was followed by a period of prolonged warfare, disease and natural disasters in the Yucatán Peninsula, which ended only shortly before Spanish contact in 1511. [86] Even without a dominant regional capital, the early Spanish explorers reported wealthy coastal cities and thriving marketplaces. [82] During the Late Postclassic, the Yucatán Peninsula was divided into a number of independent provinces that shared a common culture but varied in internal sociopolitical organization. [87] On the eve of the Spanish conquest, the highlands of Guatemala were dominated by several powerful Maya states. [88] The Kʼicheʼ had carved out a small empire covering a large part of the western Guatemalan Highlands and the neighbouring Pacific coastal plain. However, in the decades before the Spanish invasion the Kaqchikel kingdom had been steadily eroding the kingdom of the Kʼicheʼ. [89]

Contact period and Spanish conquest (1511–1697 AD)

In 1511, a Spanish caravel was wrecked in the Caribbean, and about a dozen survivors made landfall on the coast of Yucatán. They were seized by a Maya lord, and most were sacrificed, although two managed to escape. From 1517 to 1519, three separate Spanish expeditions explored the Yucatán coast, and engaged in a number of battles with the Maya inhabitants. [90] After the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish in 1521, Hernán Cortés despatched Pedro de Alvarado to Guatemala with 180 cavalry, 300 infantry, 4 cannons, and thousands of allied warriors from central Mexico [91] they arrived in Soconusco in 1523. [92] The Kʼicheʼ capital, Qʼumarkaj, fell to Alvarado in 1524. [93] Shortly afterwards, the Spanish were invited as allies into Iximche, the capital city of the Kaqchikel Maya. [94] Good relations did not last, due to excessive Spanish demands for gold as tribute, and the city was abandoned a few months later. [95] This was followed by the fall of Zaculeu, the Mam Maya capital, in 1525. [96] Francisco de Montejo and his son, Francisco de Montejo the Younger, launched a long series of campaigns against the polities of the Yucatán Peninsula in 1527, and finally completed the conquest of the northern portion of the peninsula in 1546. [97] This left only the Maya kingdoms of the Petén Basin independent. [98] In 1697, Martín de Ursúa launched an assault on the Itza capital Nojpetén and the last independent Maya city fell to the Spanish. [99]

Persistence of Maya culture

The Spanish conquest stripped away most of the defining features of Maya civilization. However, many Maya villages remained remote from Spanish colonial authority, and for the most part continued to manage their own affairs. Maya communities and the nuclear family maintained their traditional day-to-day life. [100] The basic Mesoamerican diet of maize and beans continued, although agricultural output was improved by the introduction of steel tools. Traditional crafts such as weaving, ceramics, and basketry continued to be practised. Community markets and trade in local products continued long after the conquest. At times, the colonial administration encouraged the traditional economy in order to extract tribute in the form of ceramics or cotton textiles, although these were usually made to European specifications. Maya beliefs and language proved resistant to change, despite vigorous efforts by Catholic missionaries. [101] The 260-day tzolkʼin ritual calendar continues in use in modern Maya communities in the highlands of Guatemala and Chiapas, [102] and millions of Mayan-language speakers inhabit the territory in which their ancestors developed their civilization. [103]

Investigation of Maya civilization

The agents of the Catholic Church wrote detailed accounts of the Maya, in support of their efforts at Christianization, and absorption of the Maya into the Spanish Empire. [104] This was followed by various Spanish priests and colonial officials who left descriptions of ruins they visited in Yucatán and Central America. [105] In 1839, American traveller and writer John Lloyd Stephens set out to visit a number of Maya sites with English architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood. [106] Their illustrated accounts of the ruins sparked strong popular interest, and brought the Maya to the attention of the world. [104] The later 19th century saw the recording and recovery of ethnohistoric accounts of the Maya, and the first steps in deciphering Maya hieroglyphs. [107]

The final two decades of the 19th century saw the birth of modern scientific archaeology in the Maya region, with the meticulous work of Alfred Maudslay and Teoberto Maler. [108] By the early 20th century, the Peabody Museum was sponsoring excavations at Copán and in the Yucatán Peninsula. [109] In the first two decades of the 20th century, advances were made in deciphering the Maya calendar, and identifying deities, dates, and religious concepts. [110] Since the 1930s, archaeological exploration increased dramatically, with large-scale excavations across the Maya region. [111]

In the 1960s, the distinguished Mayanist J. Eric S. Thompson promoted the ideas that Maya cities were essentially vacant ceremonial centres serving a dispersed population in the forest, and that the Maya civilization was governed by peaceful astronomer-priests. [112] These ideas began to collapse with major advances in the decipherment of the script in the late 20th century, pioneered by Heinrich Berlin, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, and Yuri Knorozov. [113] With breakthroughs in understanding of Maya script since the 1950s, the texts revealed the warlike activities of the Classic Maya kings, and the view of the Maya as peaceful could no longer be supported. [114]

The capital of Sak Tz’i’ (an Ancient Maya kingdom) now named Lacanja Tzeltal, was revealed by researchers led by associate anthropology professor Charles Golden and bioarchaeologist Andrew Scherer in Chiapas in the backyard of a Mexican farmer in 2020. [115] Multiple domestic constructions used by the population for religious purposes. “Plaza Muk’ul Ton” or Monuments Plaza where people used to gather for ceremonies was also unearthed by the team. [116] [117]

The city will continue to be inspected and scanned by archaeologists under thick forest canopy using LIDAR technology (light detection and range) in June 2020. [115]

Unlike the Aztecs and the Inca, the Maya political system never integrated the entire Maya cultural area into a single state or empire. Rather, throughout its history, the Maya area contained a varying mix of political complexity that included both states and chiefdoms. These polities fluctuated greatly in their relationships with each other and were engaged in a complex web of rivalries, periods of dominance or submission, vassalage, and alliances. At times, different polities achieved regional dominance, such as Calakmul, Caracol, Mayapan, and Tikal. The first reliably evidenced polities formed in the Maya lowlands in the 9th century BC. [118]

During the Late Preclassic, the Maya political system coalesced into a theopolitical form, where elite ideology justified the ruler's authority, and was reinforced by public display, ritual, and religion. [119] The divine king was the centre of political power, exercising ultimate control over the administrative, economic, judicial, and military functions of the polity. The divine authority invested within the ruler was such that the king was able to mobilize both the aristocracy and commoners in executing huge infrastructure projects, apparently with no police force or standing army. [120] Some polities engaged in a strategy of increasing administration, and filling administrative posts with loyal supporters rather than blood relatives. [121] Within a polity, mid-ranking population centres would have played a key role in managing resources and internal conflict. [122]

The Maya political landscape was highly complex and Maya elites engaged in political intrigue to gain economic and social advantage over neighbours. [123] In the Late Classic, some cities established a long period of dominance over other large cities, such as the dominance of Caracol over Naranjo for half a century. In other cases, loose alliance networks were formed around a dominant city. [124] Border settlements, usually located about halfway between neighbouring capitals, often switched allegiance over the course of their history, and at times acted independently. [125] Dominant capitals exacted tribute in the form of luxury items from subjugated population centres. [126] Political power was reinforced by military power, and the capture and humiliation of enemy warriors played an important part in elite culture. An overriding sense of pride and honour among the warrior aristocracy could lead to extended feuds and vendettas, which caused political instability and the fragmentation of polities. [127]

From the Early Preclassic, Maya society was sharply divided between the elite and commoners. As population increased over time, various sectors of society became increasingly specialised, and political organization became increasingly complex. [128] By the Late Classic, when populations had grown enormously and hundreds of cities were connected in a complex web of political hierarchies, the wealthy segment of society multiplied. [129] A middle class may have developed that included artisans, low ranking priests and officials, merchants, and soldiers. Commoners included farmers, servants, labourers, and slaves. [130] According to indigenous histories, land was held communally by noble houses or clans. Such clans held that the land was the property of the clan ancestors, and such ties between the land and the ancestors were reinforced by the burial of the dead within residential compounds. [131]

King and court

Classic Maya rule was centred in a royal culture that was displayed in all areas of Classic Maya art. The king was the supreme ruler and held a semi-divine status that made him the mediator between the mortal realm and that of the gods. From very early times, kings were specifically identified with the young maize god, whose gift of maize was the basis of Mesoamerican civilization. Maya royal succession was patrilineal, and royal power only passed to queens when doing otherwise would result in the extinction of the dynasty. Typically, power was passed to the eldest son. A young prince was called a chʼok ("youth"), although this word later came to refer to nobility in general. The royal heir was called bʼaah chʼok ("head youth"). Various points in the young prince's childhood were marked by ritual the most important was a bloodletting ceremony at age five or six years. Although being of the royal bloodline was of utmost importance, the heir also had to be a successful war leader, as demonstrated by taking of captives. The enthronement of a new king was a highly elaborate ceremony, involving a series of separate acts that included enthronement upon a jaguar-skin cushion, human sacrifice, and receiving the symbols of royal power, such as a headband bearing a jade representation of the so-called "jester god", an elaborate headdress adorned with quetzal feathers, and a sceptre representing the god Kʼawiil. [133]

Maya political administration, based around the royal court, was not bureaucratic in nature. Government was hierarchical, and official posts were sponsored by higher-ranking members of the aristocracy officials tended to be promoted to higher levels of office during the course of their lives. Officials are referred to as being "owned" by their sponsor, and this relationship continued even after the death of the sponsor. [134] The Maya royal court was a vibrant and dynamic political institution. [135] There was no universal structure for the Maya royal court, instead each polity formed a royal court that was suited to its own individual context. [136] A number of royal and noble titles have been identified by epigraphers translating Classic Maya inscriptions. Ajaw is usually translated as "lord" or "king". In the Early Classic, an ajaw was the ruler of a city. Later, with increasing social complexity, the ajaw was a member of the ruling class and a major city could have more than one, each ruling over different districts. [137] Paramount rulers distinguished themselves from the extended nobility by prefixing the word kʼuhul to their ajaw title. A kʼuhul ajaw was "divine lord", originally confined to the kings of the most prestigious and ancient royal lines. [138] Kalomte was a royal title, whose exact meaning is not yet deciphered, but it was held only by the most powerful kings of the strongest dynasties. It indicated an overlord, or high king, and the title was only in use during the Classic period. [139] By the Late Classic, the absolute power of the kʼuhul ajaw had weakened, and the political system had diversified to include a wider aristocracy, that by this time may well have expanded disproportionately. [140]

A sajal was ranked below the ajaw, and indicated a subservient lord. A sajal would be lord of a second- or third-tier site, answering to an ajaw, who may himself have been subservient to a kalomte. [137] A sajal would often be a war captain or regional governor, and inscriptions often link the sajal title to warfare they are often mentioned as the holders of war captives. [142] Sajal meant "feared one". [143] The titles of ah tzʼihb and ah chʼul hun are both related to scribes. The ah tzʼihb was a royal scribe, usually a member of the royal family the ah chʼul hun was the Keeper of the Holy Books, a title that is closely associated with the ajaw title, indicating that an ajaw always held the ah chʼul hun title simultaneously. [144] Other courtly titles, the functions of which are not well understood, were yajaw kʼahk' ("Lord of Fire"), tiʼhuun and ti'sakhuun. These last two may be variations on the same title, [145] and Mark Zender has suggested that the holder of this title may have been the spokesman for the ruler. [146] Courtly titles are overwhelmingly male-oriented, and in those relatively rare occasions where they are applied to a woman, they appear to be used as honorifics for female royalty. [147] Titled elites were often associated with particular structures in the hieroglyphic inscriptions of Classic period cities, indicating that such office holders either owned that structure, or that the structure was an important focus for their activities. [148] A lakam, or standard-bearer, was possibly the only non-elite post-holder in the royal court. [134] The lakam was only found in larger sites, and they appear to have been responsible for the taxation of local districts [134] one lakam, Apoch'Waal, was a diplomatic emissary for the ajaw of Calakmul, notable for establishing an alliance between Calakmul and Copán in 726. [149]

Different factions may have existed in the royal court. The kʼuhul ahaw and his household would have formed the central power-base, but other important groups were the priesthood, the warrior aristocracy, and other aristocratic courtiers. Where ruling councils existed, as at Chichen Itza and Copán, these may have formed an additional faction. Rivalry between different factions would have led to dynamic political institutions as compromises and disagreements were played out. In such a setting, public performance was vital. Such performances included ritual dances, presentation of war captives, offerings of tribute, human sacrifice, and religious ritual. [150]


Commoners are estimated to have comprised over 90% of the population, but relatively little is known about them. Their houses were generally constructed from perishable materials, and their remains have left little trace in the archaeological record. Some commoner dwellings were raised on low platforms, and these can be identified, but an unknown quantity of commoner houses were not. Such low-status dwellings can only be detected by extensive remote-sensing surveys of apparently empty terrain. [151] The range of commoners was broad it consisted of everyone not of noble birth, and therefore included everyone from the poorest farmers to wealthy craftsmen and commoners appointed to bureaucratic positions. [152] Commoners engaged in essential production activities, including that of products destined for use by the elite, such as cotton and cacao, as well as subsistence crops for their own use, and utilitarian items such as ceramics and stone tools. [153] Commoners took part in warfare, and could advance socially by proving themselves as outstanding warriors. [154] Commoners paid taxes to the elite in the form of staple goods such as maize flour and game. [126] It is likely that hard-working commoners who displayed exceptional skills and initiative could become influential members of Maya society. [155]

Warfare was prevalent in the Maya world. Military campaigns were launched for a variety of reasons, including the control of trade routes and tribute, raids to take captives, scaling up to the complete destruction of an enemy state. Little is known about Maya military organization, logistics, or training. Warfare is depicted in Maya art from the Classic period, and wars and victories are mentioned in hieroglyphic inscriptions. [156] Unfortunately, the inscriptions do not provide information upon the causes of war, or the form it took. [157] In the 8th–9th centuries, intensive warfare resulted in the collapse of the kingdoms of the Petexbatún region of western Petén. [157] The rapid abandonment of Aguateca by its inhabitants has provided a rare opportunity to examine the remains of Maya weaponry in situ. [158] Aguateca was stormed by unknown enemies around 810 AD, who overcame its formidable defences and burned the royal palace. The elite inhabitants of the city either fled or were captured, and never returned to collect their abandoned property. The inhabitants of the periphery abandoned the site soon after. This is an example of intensive warfare carried out by an enemy in order to completely eliminate a Maya state, rather than subjugate it. Research at Aguateca indicated that Classic period warriors were primarily members of the elite. [159]

From as early as the Preclassic period, the ruler of a Maya polity was expected to be a distinguished war leader, and was depicted with trophy heads hanging from his belt. In the Classic period, such trophy heads no longer appeared on the king's belt, but Classic period kings are frequently depicted standing over humiliated war captives. [156] Right up to the end of the Postclassic period, Maya kings led as war captains. Maya inscriptions from the Classic show that a defeated king could be captured, tortured, and sacrificed. [154] The Spanish recorded that Maya leaders kept track of troop movements in painted books. [160]

The outcome of a successful military campaign could vary in its impact on the defeated polity. In some cases, entire cities were sacked, and never resettled, as at Aguateca. [161] In other instances, the victors would seize the defeated rulers, their families, and patron gods. The captured nobles and their families could be imprisoned, or sacrificed. At the least severe end of the scale, the defeated polity would be obliged to pay tribute to the victor. [162]


During the Contact period, it is known that certain military positions were held by members of the aristocracy, and were passed on by patrilineal succession. It is likely that the specialised knowledge inherent in the particular military role was taught to the successor, including strategy, ritual, and war dances. [154] Maya armies of the Contact period were highly disciplined, and warriors participated in regular training exercises and drills every able-bodied adult male was available for military service. Maya states did not maintain standing armies warriors were mustered by local officials who reported back to appointed warleaders. There were also units of full-time mercenaries who followed permanent leaders. [163] Most warriors were not full-time, however, and were primarily farmers the needs of their crops usually came before warfare. [164] Maya warfare was not so much aimed at destruction of the enemy as the seizure of captives and plunder. [165]

There is some evidence from the Classic period that women provided supporting roles in war, but they did not act as military officers with the exception of those rare ruling queens. [166] By the Postclassic, the native chronicles suggest that women occasionally fought in battle. [154]


The atlatl (spear-thrower) was introduced to the Maya region by Teotihuacan in the Early Classic. [168] This was a 0.5-metre-long (1.6 ft) stick with a notched end to hold a dart or javelin. [169] The stick was used to launch the missile with more force and accuracy than could be accomplished by simply hurling it with the arm alone. [168] Evidence in the form of stone blade points recovered from Aguateca indicate that darts and spears were the primary weapons of the Classic Maya warrior. [170] Commoners used blowguns in war, which also served as their hunting weapon. [168] The bow and arrow is another weapon that was used by the ancient Maya for both war and hunting. [157] Although present in the Maya region during the Classic period, its use as a weapon of war was not favoured [171] it did not become a common weapon until the Postclassic. [168] The Contact period Maya also used two-handed swords crafted from strong wood with the blade fashioned from inset obsidian, [172] similar to the Aztec macuahuitl. Maya warriors wore body armour in the form of quilted cotton that had been soaked in salt water to toughen it the resulting armour compared favourably to the steel armour worn by the Spanish when they conquered the region. [173] Warriors bore wooden or animal hide shields decorated with feathers and animal skins. [164]

Trade was a key component of Maya society, and in the development of the Maya civilization. The cities that grew to become the most important usually controlled access to vital trade goods, or portage routes. Cities such as Kaminaljuyu and Qʼumarkaj in the Guatemalan Highlands, and Chalchuapa in El Salvador, variously controlled access to the sources of obsidian at different points in Maya history. [174] The Maya were major producers of cotton, which was used to make the textiles to be traded throughout Mesoamerica. [175] The most important cities in the northern Yucatán Peninsula controlled access to the sources of salt. [174] In the Postclassic, the Maya engaged in a flourishing slave trade with wider Mesoamerica. [176]

The Maya engaged in long distance trade across the Maya region, and across greater Mesoamerica and beyond. As an illustration, an Early Classic Maya merchant quarter has been identified at the distant metropolis of Teotihuacan, in central Mexico. [177] Within Mesoamerica beyond the Maya area, trade routes particularly focused on central Mexico and the Gulf coast. In the Early Classic, Chichen Itza was at the hub of an extensive trade network that imported gold discs from Colombia and Panama, and turquoise from Los Cerrillos, New Mexico. Long-distance trade of both luxury and utilitarian goods was probably controlled by the royal family. Prestige goods obtained by trade were used both for consumption by the city's ruler, and as luxury gifts to consolidate the loyalty of vassals and allies. [174]

Trade routes not only supplied physical goods, they facilitated the movement of people and ideas throughout Mesoamerica. [178] Shifts in trade routes occurred with the rise and fall of important cities in the Maya region, and have been identified in every major reorganization of the Maya civilization, such as the rise of Preclassic Maya civilization, the transition to the Classic, and the Terminal Classic collapse. [174] Even the Spanish Conquest did not immediately terminate all Maya trading activity [174] for example, the Contact period Manche Chʼol traded the prestige crops of cacao, annatto and vanilla into colonial Verapaz. [179]


Little is known of Maya merchants, although they are depicted on Maya ceramics in elaborate noble dress. From this, it is known that at least some traders were members of the elite. During the Contact period, it is known that Maya nobility took part in long-distance trading expeditions. [180] The majority of traders were middle class, but were largely engaged in local and regional trade rather than the prestigious long distance trading that was the preserve of the elite. [181] The travelling of merchants into dangerous foreign territory was likened to a passage through the underworld the patron deities of merchants were two underworld gods carrying backpacks. When merchants travelled, they painted themselves black, like their patron gods, and went heavily armed. [177]

The Maya had no pack animals, so all trade goods were carried on the backs of porters when going overland if the trade route followed a river or the coast, then goods were transported in canoes. [182] A substantial Maya trading canoe was encountered off Honduras on Christopher Columbus's fourth voyage. It was made from a large hollowed-out tree trunk and had a palm-covered canopy. The canoe was 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) broad and was powered by 25 rowers. Trade goods carried included cacao, obsidian, ceramics, textiles, food and drink for the crew, and copper bells and axes. [183] Cacao was used as currency (although not exclusively), and its value was such that counterfeiting occurred by removing the flesh from the pod, and stuffing it with dirt or avocado rind. [184]


Marketplaces are difficult to identify archaeologically. [185] However, the Spanish reported a thriving market economy when they arrived in the region. [186] At some Classic period cities, archaeologists have tentatively identified formal arcade-style masonry architecture and parallel alignments of scattered stones as the permanent foundations of market stalls. [187] A 2007 study analysed soils from a modern Guatemalan market and compared the results with those obtained from analysis at a proposed ancient market at Chunchucmil. Unusually high levels of zinc and phosphorus at both sites indicated similar food production and vegetable sales activity. The calculated density of market stalls at Chunchucmil strongly suggests that a thriving market economy already existed in the Early Classic. [188] Archaeologists have tentatively identified marketplaces at an increasing number of Maya cities by means of a combination of archaeology and soil analysis. [189] When the Spanish arrived, Postclassic cities in the highlands had markets in permanent plazas, with officials on hand to settle disputes, enforce rules, and collect taxes. [190]

Maya art is essentially the art of the royal court. It is almost exclusively concerned with the Maya elite and their world. Maya art was crafted from both perishable and non-perishable materials, and served to link the Maya to their ancestors. Although surviving Maya art represents only a small proportion of the art that the Maya created, it represents a wider variety of subjects than any other art tradition in the Americas. [193] Maya art has many regional styles, and is unique in the ancient Americas in bearing narrative text. [194] The finest surviving Maya art dates to the Late Classic period. [195]

The Maya exhibited a preference for the colour green or blue-green, and used the same word for the colours blue and green. Correspondingly, they placed high value on apple-green jade, and other greenstones, associating them with the sun-god Kʼinich Ajau. They sculpted artefacts that included fine tesserae and beads, to carved heads weighing 4.42 kilograms (9.7 lb). [196] The Maya nobility practised dental modification, and some lords wore encrusted jade in their teeth. Mosaic funerary masks could also be fashioned from jade, such as that of Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal, king of Palenque. [197]

Maya stone sculpture emerged into the archaeological record as a fully developed tradition, suggesting that it may have evolved from a tradition of sculpting wood. [199] Because of the biodegradability of wood, the corpus of Maya woodwork has almost entirely disappeared. The few wooden artefacts that have survived include three-dimensional sculptures, and hieroglyphic panels. [200] Stone Maya stelae are widespread in city sites, often paired with low, circular stones referred to as altars in the literature. [201] Stone sculpture also took other forms, such as the limestone relief panels at Palenque and Piedras Negras. [202] At Yaxchilan, Dos Pilas, Copán, and other sites, stone stairways were decorated with sculpture. [203] The hieroglyphic stairway at Copán comprises the longest surviving Maya hieroglyphic text, and consists of 2,200 individual glyphs. [204]

The largest Maya sculptures consisted of architectural façades crafted from stucco. The rough form was laid out on a plain plaster base coating on the wall, and the three-dimensional form was built up using small stones. Finally, this was coated with stucco and moulded into the finished form human body forms were first modelled in stucco, with their costumes added afterwards. The final stucco sculpture was then brightly painted. [205] Giant stucco masks were used to adorn temple façades by the Late Preclassic, and such decoration continued into the Classic period. [206]

The Maya had a long tradition of mural painting rich polychrome murals have been excavated at San Bartolo, dating to between 300 and 200 BC. [207] Walls were coated with plaster, and polychrome designs were painted onto the smooth finish. The majority of such murals have not survived, but Early Classic tombs painted in cream, red, and black have been excavated at Caracol, Río Azul, and Tikal. Among the best preserved murals are a full-size series of Late Classic paintings at Bonampak. [208]

Flint, chert, and obsidian all served utilitarian purposes in Maya culture, but many pieces were finely crafted into forms that were never intended to be used as tools. [210] Eccentric flints are among the finest lithic artefacts produced by the ancient Maya. [211] They were technically very challenging to produce, [212] requiring considerable skill on the part of the artisan. Large obsidian eccentrics can measure over 30 centimetres (12 in) in length. [213] Their actual form varies considerably but they generally depict human, animal and geometric forms associated with Maya religion. [212] Eccentric flints show a great variety of forms, such as crescents, crosses, snakes, and scorpions. [214] The largest and most elaborate examples display multiple human heads, with minor heads sometimes branching off from larger one. [215]

Maya textiles are very poorly represented in the archaeological record, although by comparison with other pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Aztecs and the Andean region, it is likely that they were high-value items. [216] A few scraps of textile have been recovered by archaeologists, but the best evidence for textile art is where they are represented in other media, such as painted murals or ceramics. Such secondary representations show the elite of the Maya court adorned with sumptuous cloths, generally these would have been cotton, but jaguar pelts and deer hides are also shown. [217]

Ceramics are the most commonly surviving type of Maya art. The Maya had no knowledge of the potter's wheel, and Maya vessels were built up by coiling rolled strips of clay into the desired form. Maya pottery was not glazed, although it often had a fine finish produced by burnishing. Maya ceramics were painted with clay slips blended with minerals and coloured clays. Ancient Maya firing techniques have yet to be replicated. [218] A quantity of extremely fine ceramic figurines have been excavated from Late Classic tombs on Jaina Island, in northern Yucatán. They stand from 10 to 25 centimetres (3.9 to 9.8 in) high and were hand modelled, with exquisite detail. [219] The Ik-style polychrome ceramic corpus, including finely painted plates and cylindrical vessels, originated in Late Classic Motul de San José. It includes a set of features such as hieroglyphs painted in a pink or pale red colour and scenes with dancers wearing masks. One of the most distinctive features is the realistic representation of subjects as they appeared in life. The subject matter of the vessels includes courtly life from the Petén region in the 8th century AD, such as diplomatic meetings, feasting, bloodletting, scenes of warriors and the sacrifice of prisoners of war. [220]

Bone, both human and animal, was also sculpted human bones may have been trophies, or relics of ancestors. [199] The Maya valued Spondylus shells, and worked them to remove the white exterior and spines, to reveal the fine orange interior. [221] Around the 10th century AD, metallurgy arrived in Mesoamerica from South America, and the Maya began to make small objects in gold, silver and copper. The Maya generally hammered sheet metal into objects such as beads, bells, and discs. In the last centuries before the Spanish Conquest, the Maya began to use the lost-wax method to cast small metal pieces. [222]

One poorly studied area of Maya folk art is graffiti. [223] Additional graffiti, not part of the planned decoration, was incised into the stucco of interior walls, floors, and benches, in a wide variety of buildings, including temples, residences, and storerooms. Graffiti has been recorded at 51 Maya sites, particularly clustered in the Petén Basin and southern Campeche, and the Chenes region of northwestern Yucatán. At Tikal, where a great quantity of graffiti has been recorded, the subject matter includes drawings of temples, people, deities, animals, banners, litters, and thrones. Graffiti was often inscribed haphazardly, with drawings overlapping each other, and display a mix of crude, untrained art, and examples by artists who were familiar with Classic-period artistic conventions. [224]

The Maya produced a vast array of structures, and have left an extensive architectural legacy. Maya architecture also incorporates various art forms and hieroglyphic texts. Masonry architecture built by the Maya evidences craft specialization in Maya society, centralised organization and the political means to mobilize a large workforce. It is estimated that a large elite residence at Copán required an estimated 10,686 man-days to build, which compares to 67-man-days for a commoner's hut. [225] It is further estimated that 65% of the labour required to build the noble residence was used in the quarrying, transporting, and finishing of the stone used in construction, and 24% of the labour was required for the manufacture and application of limestone-based plaster. Altogether, it is estimated that two to three months were required for the construction of the residence for this single noble at Copán, using between 80 and 130 full-time labourers. A Classic-period city like Tikal was spread over 20 square kilometres (7.7 sq mi), with an urban core covering 6 square kilometres (2.3 sq mi). The labour required to build such a city was immense, running into many millions of man-days. [226] The most massive structures ever erected by the Maya were built during the Preclassic period. [227] Craft specialization would have required dedicated stonemasons and plasterers by the Late Preclassic, and would have required planners and architects. [226]

Urban design

Maya cities were not formally planned, and were subject to irregular expansion, with the haphazard addition of palaces, temples and other buildings. [228] Most Maya cities tended to grow outwards from the core, and upwards as new structures were superimposed upon preceding architecture. [229] Maya cities usually had a ceremonial and administrative centre surrounded by a vast irregular sprawl of residential complexes. [228] The centres of all Maya cities featured sacred precincts, sometimes separated from nearby residential areas by walls. [230] These precincts contained pyramid temples and other monumental architecture dedicated to elite activities, such as basal platforms that supported administrative or elite residential complexes. Sculpted monuments were raised to record the deeds of the ruling dynasty. City centres also featured plazas, sacred ballcourts and buildings used for marketplaces and schools. [231] Frequently causeways linked the centre to outlying areas of the city. [230] Some of these classes of architecture formed lesser groups in the outlying areas of the city, which served as sacred centres for non-royal lineages. The areas adjacent to these sacred compounds included residential complexes housing wealthy lineages. The largest and richest of these elite compounds sometimes possessed sculpture and art of craftsmanship equal to that of royal art. [231]

The ceremonial centre of the Maya city was where the ruling elite lived, and where the administrative functions of the city were performed, together with religious ceremonies. It was also where the inhabitants of the city gathered for public activities. [228] Elite residential complexes occupied the best land around the city centre, while commoners had their residences dispersed further away from the ceremonial centre. Residential units were built on top of stone platforms to raise them above the level of the rain season floodwaters. [232]

Building materials and methods

The Maya built their cities with Neolithic technology [233] they built their structures from both perishable materials and from stone. The exact type of stone used in masonry construction varied according to locally available resources, and this also affected the building style. Across a broad swathe of the Maya area, limestone was immediately available. [234] The local limestone is relatively soft when freshly cut, but hardens with exposure. There was great variety in the quality of limestone, with good-quality stone available in the Usumacinta region in the northern Yucatán, the limestone used in construction was of relatively poor quality. [233] Volcanic tuff was used at Copán, and nearby Quiriguá employed sandstone. [234] In Comalcalco, where suitable stone was not available locally, [235] fired bricks were employed. [234] Limestone was burned at high temperatures in order to manufacture cement, plaster, and stucco. [235] Lime-based cement was used to seal stonework in place, and stone blocks were fashioned using rope-and-water abrasion, and with obsidian tools. The Maya did not employ a functional wheel, so all loads were transported on litters, barges, or rolled on logs. Heavy loads were lifted with rope, but probably without employing pulleys. [233]

Wood was used for beams, and for lintels, even in masonry structures. [236] Throughout Maya history, common huts and some temples continued to be built from wooden poles and thatch. Adobe was also applied this consisted of mud strengthened with straw and was applied as a coating over the woven-stick walls of huts. Like wood and thatch, adobe was used throughout Maya history, even after the development of masonry structures. In the southern Maya area, adobe was employed in monumental architecture when no suitable stone was locally available. [235]

Principal construction types

The great cities of the Maya civilization were composed of pyramid temples, palaces, ballcourts, sacbeob (causeways), patios and plazas. Some cities also possessed extensive hydraulic systems or defensive walls. The exteriors of most buildings were painted, either in one or multiple colours, or with imagery. Many buildings were adorned with sculpture or painted stucco reliefs. [237]

Palaces and acropoleis

These complexes were usually located in the site core, beside a principal plaza. Maya palaces consisted of a platform supporting a multiroom range structure. The term acropolis, in a Maya context, refers to a complex of structures built upon platforms of varying height. Palaces and acropoleis were essentially elite residential compounds. They generally extended horizontally as opposed to the towering Maya pyramids, and often had restricted access. Some structures in Maya acropoleis supported roof combs. Rooms often had stone benches, used for sleeping, and holes indicate where curtains once hung. Large palaces, such as at Palenque, could be fitted with a water supply, and sweat baths were often found within the complex, or nearby. During the Early Classic, rulers were sometimes buried underneath the acropolis complex. [239] Some rooms in palaces were true throne rooms in the royal palace of Palenque there were a number of throne rooms that were used for important events, including the inauguration of new kings. [240]

Palaces are usually arranged around one or more courtyards, with their façades facing inwards some examples are adorned with sculpture. [241] Some palaces possess associated hieroglyphic descriptions that identify them as the royal residences of named rulers. There is abundant evidence that palaces were far more than simple elite residences, and that a range of courtly activities took place in them, including audiences, formal receptions, and important rituals. [242]

Pyramids and temples

Temples were sometimes referred to in hieroglyphic texts as kʼuh nah, meaning "god's house". Temples were raised on platforms, most often upon a pyramid. The earliest temples were probably thatched huts built upon low platforms. By the Late Preclassic period, their walls were of stone, and the development of the corbel arch allowed stone roofs to replace thatch. By the Classic period, temple roofs were being topped with roof combs that extended the height of the temple and served as a foundation for monumental art. The temple shrines contained between one and three rooms, and were dedicated to important deities. Such a deity might be one of the patron gods of the city, or a deified ancestor. [244] In general, freestanding pyramids were shrines honouring powerful ancestors. [245]

E-Groups and observatories

The Maya were keen observers of the sun, stars, and planets. [246] E-Groups were a particular arrangement of temples that were relatively common in the Maya region [247] they take their names from Group E at Uaxactun. [248] They consisted of three small structures facing a fourth structure, and were used to mark the solstices and equinoxes. The earliest examples date to the Preclassic period. [247] The Lost World complex at Tikal started out as an E-Group built towards the end of the Middle Preclassic. [249] Due to its nature, the basic layout of an E-Group was constant. A structure was built on the west side of a plaza it was usually a radial pyramid with stairways facing the cardinal directions. It faced east across the plaza to three small temples on the far side. From the west pyramid, the sun was seen to rise over these temples on the solstices and equinoxes. [246] E-Groups were raised across the central and southern Maya area for over a millennium not all were properly aligned as observatories, and their function may have been symbolic. [250]

As well as E-Groups, the Maya built other structures dedicated to observing the movements of celestial bodies. [246] Many Maya buildings were aligned with astronomical bodies, including the planet Venus, and various constellations. [251] [247] The Caracol structure at Chichen Itza was a circular multi-level edifice, with a conical superstructure. It has slit windows that marked the movements of Venus. At Copán, a pair of stelae were raised to mark the position of the setting sun at the equinoxes. [246]

Triadic pyramids

Triadic pyramids first appeared in the Preclassic. They consisted of a dominant structure flanked by two smaller inward-facing buildings, all mounted upon a single basal platform. The largest known triadic pyramid was built at El Mirador in the Petén Basin it covers an area six times as large as that covered by Temple IV, the largest pyramid at Tikal. [252] The three superstructures all have stairways leading up from the central plaza on top of the basal platform. [253] No securely established forerunners of Triadic Groups are known, but they may have developed from the eastern range building of E-Group complexes. [254] The triadic form was the predominant architectural form in the Petén region during the Late Preclassic. [255] Examples of triadic pyramids are known from as many as 88 archaeological sites. [256] At Nakbe, there are at least a dozen examples of triadic complexes and the four largest structures in the city are triadic in nature. [257] At El Mirador there are probably as many as 36 triadic structures. [258] Examples of the triadic form are even known from Dzibilchaltun in the far north of the Yucatán Peninsula, and Qʼumarkaj in the Highlands of Guatemala. [259] The triadic pyramid remained a popular architectural form for centuries after the first examples were built [254] it continued in use into the Classic Period, with later examples being found at Uaxactun, Caracol, Seibal, Nakum, Tikal and Palenque. [260] The Qʼumarkaj example is the only one that has been dated to the Postclassic Period. [261] The triple-temple form of the triadic pyramid appears to be related to Maya mythology. [262]


The ballcourt is a distinctive pan-Mesoamerican form of architecture. Although the majority of Maya ballcourts date to the Classic period, [263] the earliest examples appeared around 1000 BC in northwestern Yucatán, during the Middle Preclassic. [264] By the time of Spanish contact, ballcourts were only in use in the Guatemalan Highlands, at cities such as Qʼumarkaj and Iximche. [263] Throughout Maya history, ballcourts maintained a characteristic form consisting of an ɪ shape, with a central playing area terminating in two transverse end zones. [265] The central playing area usually measures between 20 and 30 metres (66 and 98 ft) long, and is flanked by two lateral structures that stood up to 3 or 4 metres (9.8 or 13.1 ft) high. [266] The lateral platforms often supported structures that may have held privileged spectators. [267] The Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza is the largest in Mesoamerica, measuring 83 metres (272 ft) long by 30 metres (98 ft) wide, with walls standing 8.2 metres (27 ft) high. [268]

Regional architectural styles

Although Maya cities shared many common features, there was considerable variation in architectural style. [269] Such styles were influenced by locally available construction materials, climate, topography, and local preferences. In the Late Classic, these local differences developed into distinctive regional architectural styles. [270]

Central Petén

The central Petén style of architecture is modelled after the great city of Tikal. The style is characterised by tall pyramids supporting a summit shrine adorned with a roof comb, and accessed by a single doorway. Additional features are the use of stela-altar pairings, and the decoration of architectural façades, lintels, and roof combs with relief sculptures of rulers and gods. [270] One of the finest examples of Central Petén style architecture is Tikal Temple I. [271] Examples of sites in the Central Petén style include Altun Ha, Calakmul, Holmul, Ixkun, Nakum, Naranjo, and Yaxhá. [272]

The exemplar of Puuc-style architecture is Uxmal. The style developed in the Puuc Hills of northwestern Yucatán during the Terminal Classic it spread beyond this core region across the northern Yucatán Peninsula. [270] Puuc sites replaced rubble cores with lime cement, resulting in stronger walls, and also strengthened their corbel arches [273] this allowed Puuc-style cities to build freestanding entrance archways. The upper façades of buildings were decorated with precut stones mosaic-fashion, erected as facing over the core, forming elaborate compositions of long-nosed deities such as the rain god Chaac and the Principal Bird Deity. The motifs also included geometric patterns, lattices and spools, possibly influenced by styles from highland Oaxaca, outside the Maya area. In contrast, the lower façades were left undecorated. Roof combs were relatively uncommon at Puuc sites. [274]


The Chenes style is very similar to the Puuc style, but predates the use of the mosaic façades of the Puuc region. It featured fully adorned façades on both the upper and lower sections of structures. Some doorways were surrounded by mosaic masks of monsters representing mountain or sky deities, identifying the doorways as entrances to the supernatural realm. [275] Some buildings contained interior stairways that accessed different levels. [276] The Chenes style is most commonly encountered in the southern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula, although individual buildings in the style can be found elsewhere in the peninsula. [275] Examples of Chenes sites include Dzibilnocac, Hochob, Santa Rosa Xtampak, and Tabasqueño. [276]

Río Bec

The Río Bec style forms a sub-region of the Chenes style, [275] and also features elements of the Central Petén style, such as prominent roof combs. [277] Its palaces are distinctive for their false-tower decorations, lacking interior rooms, with steep, almost vertical, stairways and false doors. [278] These towers were adorned with deity masks, and were built to impress the viewer, rather than serve any practical function. Such false towers are only found in the Río Bec region. [275] Río Bec sites include Chicanná, Hormiguero, and Xpuhil. [277]


The Usumacinta style developed in the hilly terrain of the Usumacinta drainage. Cities took advantage of the hillsides to support their major architecture, as at Palenque and Yaxchilan. Sites modified corbel vaulting to allow thinner walls and multiple access doors to temples. As in Petén, roof combs adorned principal structures. Palaces had multiple entrances that used post-and-lintel entrances rather than corbel vaulting. Many sites erected stelae, but Palenque instead developed finely sculpted panelling to decorate its buildings. [270]

Before 2000 BC, the Maya spoke a single language, dubbed proto-Mayan by linguists. [279] Linguistic analysis of reconstructed Proto-Mayan vocabulary suggests that the original Proto-Mayan homeland was in the western or northern Guatemalan Highlands, although the evidence is not conclusive. [3] Proto-Mayan diverged during the Preclassic period to form the major Mayan language groups that make up the family, including Huastecan, Greater Kʼicheʼan, Greater Qʼanjobalan, Mamean, Tzʼeltalan-Chʼolan, and Yucatecan. [20] These groups diverged further during the pre-Columbian era to form over 30 languages that have survived into modern times. [280] The language of almost all Classic Maya texts over the entire Maya area has been identified as Chʼolan [281] Late Preclassic text from Kaminaljuyu, in the highlands, also appears to be in, or related to, Chʼolan. [282] The use of Chʼolan as the language of Maya text does not necessarily indicate that it was the language commonly used by the local populace – it may have been equivalent to Medieval Latin as a ritual or prestige language. [283] Classic Chʼolan may have been the prestige language of the Classic Maya elite, used in inter-polity communication such as diplomacy and trade. [284] By the Postclassic period, Yucatec was also being written in Maya codices alongside Chʼolan. [285]

The Maya writing system is one of the outstanding achievements of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas. [287] It was the most sophisticated and highly developed writing system of more than a dozen systems that developed in Mesoamerica. [288] The earliest inscriptions in an identifiably Maya script date back to 300–200 BC, in the Petén Basin. [289] However, this is preceded by several other Mesoamerican writing systems, such as the Epi-Olmec and Zapotec scripts. Early Maya script had appeared on the Pacific coast of Guatemala by the late 1st century AD, or early 2nd century. [290] Similarities between the Isthmian script and Early Maya script of the Pacific coast suggest that the two systems developed in tandem. [291] By about AD 250, the Maya script had become a more formalised and consistent writing system. [292]

The Catholic Church and colonial officials, notably Bishop Diego de Landa, destroyed Maya texts wherever they found them, and with them the knowledge of Maya writing, but by chance three uncontested pre-Columbian books dated to the Postclassic period have been preserved. These are known as the Madrid Codex, the Dresden Codex and the Paris Codex. [293] A few pages survive from a fourth, the Grolier Codex, whose authenticity is disputed. Archaeology conducted at Maya sites often reveals other fragments, rectangular lumps of plaster and paint chips which were codices these tantalizing remains are, however, too severely damaged for any inscriptions to have survived, most of the organic material having decayed. [294] In reference to the few extant Maya writings, Michael D. Coe stated:

[O]ur knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and 'Pilgrim's Progress').

Most surviving pre-Columbian Maya writing dates to the Classic period and is contained in stone inscriptions from Maya sites, such as stelae, or on ceramics vessels. Other media include the aforementioned codices, stucco façades, frescoes, wooden lintels, cave walls, and portable artefacts crafted from a variety of materials, including bone, shell, obsidian, and jade. [295]

Writing system

The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphs from a superficial resemblance to Ancient Egyptian writing) [296] is a logosyllabic writing system, combining a syllabary of phonetic signs representing syllables with logogram representing entire words. [295] [297] Among the writing systems of the Pre-Columbian New World, Maya script most closely represents the spoken language. [298] At any one time, no more than around 500 glyphs were in use, some 200 of which (including variations) were phonetic. [295]

The Maya script was in use up to the arrival of the Europeans, its use peaking during the Classic Period. [299] In excess of 10,000 individual texts have been recovered, mostly inscribed on stone monuments, lintels, stelae and ceramics. [295] The Maya also produced texts painted on a form of paper manufactured from processed tree-bark generally now known by its Nahuatl-language name amatl used to produce codices. [300] [301] The skill and knowledge of Maya writing persisted among segments of the population right up to the Spanish conquest. The knowledge was subsequently lost, as a result of the impact of the conquest on Maya society. [302]

The decipherment and recovery of the knowledge of Maya writing has been a long and laborious process. [303] Some elements were first deciphered in the late 19th and early 20th century, mostly the parts having to do with numbers, the Maya calendar, and astronomy. [304] Major breakthroughs were made from the 1950s to 1970s, and accelerated rapidly thereafter. [305] By the end of the 20th century, scholars were able to read the majority of Maya texts, and ongoing work continues to further illuminate the content. [306] [307]

Logosyllabic script

The basic unit of Maya logosyllabic text is the glyph block, which transcribes a word or phrase. The block is composed of one or more individual glyphs attached to each other to form the glyph block, with individual glyph blocks generally being separated by a space. Glyph blocks are usually arranged in a grid pattern. For ease of reference, epigraphers refer to glyph blocks from left to right alphabetically, and top to bottom numerically. Thus, any glyph block in a piece of text can be identified. C4 would be third block counting from the left, and the fourth block counting downwards. If a monument or artefact has more than one inscription, column labels are not repeated, rather they continue in the alphabetic series if there are more than 26 columns, the labelling continues as A', B', etc. Numeric row labels restart from 1 for each discrete unit of text. [308]

Although Mayan text may be laid out in varying manners, generally it is arranged into double columns of glyph blocks. The reading order of text starts at the top left (block A1), continues to the second block in the double-column (B1), then drops down a row and starts again from the left half of the double column (A2), and thus continues in zig-zag fashion. Once the bottom is reached, the inscription continues from the top left of the next double column. Where an inscription ends in a single (unpaired) column, this final column is usually read straight downwards. [308]

Individual glyph blocks may be composed of a number of elements. These consist of the main sign, and any affixes. Main signs represent the major element of the block, and may be a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, or phonetic sign. Some main signs are abstract, some are pictures of the object they represent, and others are "head variants", personifications of the word they represent. Affixes are smaller rectangular elements, usually attached to a main sign, although a block may be composed entirely of affixes. Affixes may represent a wide variety of speech elements, including nouns, verbs, verbal suffixes, prepositions, pronouns, and more. Small sections of a main sign could be used to represent the whole main sign, and Maya scribes were highly inventive in their usage and adaptation of glyph elements. [309]

Writing tools

Although the archaeological record does not provide examples of brushes or pens, analysis of ink strokes on the Postclassic codices suggests that it was applied with a brush with a tip fashioned from pliable hair. [301] A Classic period sculpture from Copán, Honduras, depicts a scribe with an inkpot fashioned from a conch shell. [310] Excavations at Aguateca uncovered a number of scribal artefacts from the residences of elite status scribes, including palettes and mortars and pestles. [159]

Scribes and literacy

Commoners were illiterate scribes were drawn from the elite. It is not known if all members of the aristocracy could read and write, although at least some women could, since there are representations of female scribes in Maya art. [311] Maya scribes were called aj tzʼib, meaning "one who writes or paints". [312] There were probably scribal schools where members of the aristocracy were taught to write. [313] Scribal activity is identifiable in the archaeological record Jasaw Chan Kʼawiil I, king of Tikal, was interred with his paint pot. Some junior members of the Copán royal dynasty have also been found buried with their writing implements. A palace at Copán has been identified as that of a noble lineage of scribes it is decorated with sculpture that includes figures holding ink pots. [314]

Although not much is known about Maya scribes, some did sign their work, both on ceramics and on stone sculpture. Usually, only a single scribe signed a ceramic vessel, but multiple sculptors are known to have recorded their names on stone sculpture eight sculptors signed one stela at Piedras Negras. However, most works remained unsigned by their artists. [315]

In common with the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya used a base 20 (vigesimal) system. [316] The bar-and-dot counting system that is the base of Maya numerals was in use in Mesoamerica by 1000 BC [317] the Maya adopted it by the Late Preclassic, and added the symbol for zero. [318] This may have been the earliest known occurrence of the idea of an explicit zero worldwide, [319] although it may have been predated by the Babylonian system. [320] The earliest explicit use of zero occurred on monuments dated to 357 AD. [321] In its earliest uses, the zero served as a place holder, indicating an absence of a particular calendrical count. This later developed into a numeral that was used to perform calculation, [322] and was used in hieroglyphic texts for more than a thousand years, until the writing system was extinguished by the Spanish. [323]

The basic number system consists of a dot to represent one, and a bar to represent five. [324] By the Postclassic period a shell symbol represented zero during the Classic period other glyphs were used. [325] The Maya numerals from 0 to 19 used repetitions of these symbols. [324] The value of a numeral was determined by its position as a numeral shifted upwards, its basic value multiplied by twenty. In this way, the lowest symbol would represent units, the next symbol up would represent multiples of twenty, and the symbol above that would represent multiples of 400, and so on. For example, the number 884 would be written with four dots on the lowest level, four dots on the next level up, and two dots on the next level after that, to give 4×1 + 4×20 + 2×400 = 884. Using this system, the Maya were able to record huge numbers. [316] Simple addition could be performed by summing the dots and bars in two columns to give the result in a third column. [326]

The Maya calendrical system, in common with other Mesoamerican calendars, had its origins in the Preclassic period. However, it was the Maya that developed the calendar to its maximum sophistication, recording lunar and solar cycles, eclipses and movements of planets with great accuracy. In some cases, the Maya calculations were more accurate than equivalent calculations in the Old World for example, the Maya solar year was calculated to greater accuracy than the Julian year. The Maya calendar was intrinsically tied to Maya ritual, and it was central to Maya religious practices. [327] The calendar combined a non-repeating Long Count with three interlocking cycles, each measuring a progressively larger period. These were the 260-day tzolkʼin, [328] the 365-day haabʼ, [329] and the 52-year Calendar Round, resulting from the combination of the tzolkʼin with the haab'. [330] There were also additional calendric cycles, such as an 819-day cycle associated with the four quadrants of Maya cosmology, governed by four different aspects of the god Kʼawiil. [331]

The basic unit in the Maya calendar was one day, or kʼin, and 20 kʼin grouped to form a winal. The next unit, instead of being multiplied by 20, as called for by the vigesimal system, was multiplied by 18 in order to provide a rough approximation of the solar year (hence producing 360 days). This 360-day year was called a tun. Each succeeding level of multiplication followed the vigesimal system. [332]

Long Count periods [332]
Period Calculation Span Years (approx.)
kʼin 1 day 1 day
winal 1 x 20 20 days
tun 18 x 20 360 days 1 year
kʼatun 20 x 18 x 20 7,200 days 20 years
bakʼtun 20 x 18 x 20 x 20 144,000 days 394 years
piktun 20 x 18 x 20 x 20 x 20 2,880,000 days 7,885 years
kalabtun 20 x 18 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 57,600,000 days 157,700 years
kinchiltun 20 x 18 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 1,152,000,000 days 3,154,004 years
alawtun 20 x 18 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 23,040,000,000 days 63,080,082 years

The 260-day tzolkʼin provided the basic cycle of Maya ceremony, and the foundations of Maya prophecy. No astronomical basis for this count has been proved, and it may be that the 260-day count is based on the human gestation period. This is reinforced by the use of the tzolkʼin to record dates of birth, and provide corresponding prophecy. The 260-day cycle repeated a series of 20-day-names, with a number from 1 to 13 prefixed to indicated where in the cycle a particular day occurred. [331]

The 365-day haab was produced by a cycle of eighteen named 20-day winals, completed by the addition of a 5-day period called the wayeb. [333] The wayeb was considered to be a dangerous time, when the barriers between the mortal and supernatural realms were broken, allowing malignant deities to cross over and interfere in human concerns. [330] In a similar way to the tzʼolkin, the named winal would be prefixed by a number (from 0 to 19), in the case of the shorter wayeb period, the prefix numbers ran 0 to 4. Since each day in the tzʼolkin had a name and number (e.g. 8 Ajaw), this would interlock with the haab, producing an additional number and name, to give any day a more complete designation, for example 8 Ajaw 13 Keh. Such a day name could only recur once every 52 years, and this period is referred to by Mayanists as the Calendar Round. In most Mesoamerican cultures, the Calendar Round was the largest unit for measuring time. [333]

As with any non-repeating calendar, the Maya measured time from a fixed start point. The Maya set the beginning of their calendar as the end of a previous cycle of bakʼtuns, equivalent to a day in 3114 BC. This was believed by the Maya to be the day of the creation of the world in its current form. The Maya used the Long Count Calendar to fix any given day of the Calendar Round within their current great Piktun cycle consisting of either 20 bakʼtuns. There was some variation in the calendar, specifically texts in Palenque demonstrate that the piktun cycle that ended in 3114 BC had only 13 bakʼtuns, but others used a cycle of 13 + 20 bakʼtun in the current piktun. [334] Additionally, there may have been some regional variation in how these exceptional cycles were managed. [335]

A full long count date consisted of an introductory glyph followed by five glyphs counting off the number of bakʼtuns, katʼuns, tuns, winals, and kʼins since the start of the current creation. This would be followed by the tzʼolkin portion of the Calendar Round date, and after a number of intervening glyphs, the Long Count date would end with the Haab portion of the Calendar Round date. [336]

Correlation of the Long Count calendar

Although the Calendar Round is still in use today, [337] the Maya started using an abbreviated Short Count during the Late Classic period. The Short Count is a count of 13 kʼatuns. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel [338] contains the only colonial reference to classic long-count dates. The most generally accepted correlation is the Goodman-Martínez-Thompson, or GMT, correlation. This equates the Long Count date 13 Ajaw 8 Xul with the Gregorian date of 12 November 1539. [339] Epigraphers Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube argue for a two-day shift from the standard GMT correlation. [340] The Spinden Correlation would shift the Long Count dates back by 260 years it also accords with the documentary evidence, and is better suited to the archaeology of the Yucatán Peninsula, but presents problems with the rest of the Maya region. [339] The George Vaillant Correlation would shift all Maya dates 260 years later, and would greatly shorten the Postclassic period. [339] Radiocarbon dating of dated wooden lintels at Tikal supports the GMT correlation. [339]

The famous astrologer John Dee used an Aztec obsidian mirror to see into the future. We may look down our noses at his ideas, but one may be sure that in outlook he was far closer to a Maya priest astronomer than is an astronomer of our century.

The Maya made meticulous observations of celestial bodies, patiently recording astronomical data on the movements of the sun, moon, Venus, and the stars. This information was used for divination, so Maya astronomy was essentially for astrological purposes. Although Mayan astronomy was mainly used by the priesthood to comprehend past cycles of time, and project them into the future to produce prophecy, it also had some practical applications, such as providing aid in crop planting and harvesting. [343] [344] The priesthood refined observations and recorded eclipses of the sun and moon, and movements of Venus and the stars these were measured against dated events in the past, on the assumption that similar events would occur in the future when the same astronomical conditions prevailed. [345] Illustrations in the codices show that priests made astronomical observations using the naked eye, assisted by crossed sticks as a sighting device. [346] Analysis of the few remaining Postclassic codices has revealed that, at the time of European contact, the Maya had recorded eclipse tables, calendars, and astronomical knowledge that was more accurate at that time than comparable knowledge in Europe. [347]

The Maya measured the 584-day Venus cycle with an error of just two hours. Five cycles of Venus equated to eight 365-day haab calendrical cycles, and this period was recorded in the codices. The Maya also followed the movements of Jupiter, Mars and Mercury. When Venus rose as the Morning Star, this was associated with the rebirth of the Maya Hero Twins. [348] For the Maya, the heliacal rising of Venus was associated with destruction and upheaval. [346] Venus was closely associated with warfare, and the hieroglyph meaning "war" incorporated the glyph-element symbolizing the planet. [349] Sight-lines through the windows of the Caracol building at Chichen Itza align with the northernmost and southernmost extremes of Venus' path. [346] Maya rulers launched military campaigns to coincide with the heliacal or cosmical rising of Venus, and would also sacrifice important captives to coincide with such conjunctions. [349]

Solar and lunar eclipses were considered to be especially dangerous events that could bring catastrophe upon the world. In the Dresden Codex, a solar eclipse is represented by a serpent devouring the kʼin ("day") hieroglyph. [350] Eclipses were interpreted as the sun or moon being bitten, and lunar tables were recorded in order that the Maya might be able to predict them, and perform the appropriate ceremonies to ward off disaster. [349]

In common with the rest of Mesoamerica, the Maya believed in a supernatural realm inhabited by an array of powerful deities who needed to be placated with ceremonial offerings and ritual practices. [351] At the core of Maya religious practice was the worship of deceased ancestors, who would intercede for their living descendants in dealings with the supernatural realm. [352] The earliest intermediaries between humans and the supernatural were shamans. [353] Maya ritual included the use of hallucinogens for chilan, oracular priests. Visions for the chilan were likely facilitated by consumption of water lilies, which are hallucinogenic in high doses. [354] As the Maya civilization developed, the ruling elite codified the Maya world view into religious cults that justified their right to rule. [351] In the Late Preclassic, [355] this process culminated in the institution of the divine king, the kʼuhul ajaw, endowed with ultimate political and religious power. [353]

The Maya viewed the cosmos as highly structured. There were thirteen levels in the heavens and nine in the underworld, with the mortal world in between. Each level had four cardinal directions associated with a different colour north was white, east was red, south was yellow, and west was black. Major deities had aspects associated with these directions and colours. [356]

Maya households interred their dead underneath the floors, with offerings appropriate to the social status of the family. There the dead could act as protective ancestors. Maya lineages were patrilineal, so the worship of a prominent male ancestor would be emphasised, often with a household shrine. As Maya society developed, and the elite became more powerful, Maya royalty developed their household shrines into the great pyramids that held the tombs of their ancestors. [352]

Belief in supernatural forces pervaded Maya life and influenced every aspect of it, from the simplest day-to-day activities such as food preparation, to trade, politics, and elite activities. Maya deities governed all aspects of the world, both visible and invisible. [357] The Maya priesthood was a closed group, drawing its members from the established elite by the Early Classic they were recording increasingly complex ritual information in their hieroglyphic books, including astronomical observations, calendrical cycles, history and mythology. The priests performed public ceremonies that incorporated feasting, bloodletting, incense burning, music, ritual dance, and, on certain occasions, human sacrifice. During the Classic period, the Maya ruler was the high priest, and the direct conduit between mortals and the gods. It is highly likely that, among commoners, shamanism continued in parallel to state religion. By the Postclassic, religious emphasis had changed there was an increase in worship of the images of deities, and more frequent recourse to human sacrifice. [358]

Archaeologists painstakingly reconstruct these ritual practices and beliefs using several techniques. One important, though incomplete, resource is physical evidence, such as dedicatory caches and other ritual deposits, shrines, and burials with their associated funerary offerings. [359] Maya art, architecture, and writing are another resource, and these can be combined with ethnographic sources, including records of Maya religious practices made by the Spanish during the conquest. [357]

Human sacrifice

Blood was viewed as a potent source of nourishment for the Maya deities, and the sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful blood offering. By extension, the sacrifice of a human life was the ultimate offering of blood to the gods, and the most important Maya rituals culminated in human sacrifice. Generally only high status prisoners of war were sacrificed, with lower status captives being used for labour. [360]

Important rituals such as the dedication of major building projects or the enthronement of a new ruler required a human offering. The sacrifice of an enemy king was the most prized, and such a sacrifice involved decapitation of the captive ruler in a ritual reenactment of the decapitation of the Maya maize god by the death gods. [360] In AD 738, the vassal king Kʼakʼ Tiliw Chan Yopaat of Quiriguá captured his overlord, Uaxaclajuun Ubʼaah Kʼawiil of Copán and a few days later ritually decapitated him. [69] Sacrifice by decapitation is depicted in Classic period Maya art, and sometimes took place after the victim was tortured, being variously beaten, scalped, burnt or disembowelled. [361] Another myth associated with decapitation was that of the Hero Twins recounted in the Popol Vuh: playing a ballgame against the gods of the underworld, the heroes achieved victory, but one of each pair of twins was decapitated by their opponents. [362] [360]

During the Postclassic period, the most common form of human sacrifice was heart extraction, influenced by the rites of the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico [360] this usually took place in the courtyard of a temple, or upon the summit of the pyramid. [363] In one ritual, the corpse would be skinned by assistant priests, except for the hands and feet, and the officiating priest would then dress himself in the skin of the sacrificial victim and perform a ritual dance symbolizing the rebirth of life. [363] Archaeological investigations indicate that heart sacrifice was practised as early as the Classic period. [364]


The Maya world was populated by a great variety of deities, supernatural entities and sacred forces. The Maya had such a broad interpretation of the sacred that identifying distinct deities with specific functions is inaccurate. [366] The Maya interpretation of deities was closely tied to the calendar, astronomy, and their cosmology. [367] The importance of a deity, its characteristics, and its associations varied according to the movement of celestial bodies. The priestly interpretation of astronomical records and books was therefore crucial, since the priest would understand which deity required ritual propitiation, when the correct ceremonies should be performed, and what would be an appropriate offering. Each deity had four manifestations, associated with the cardinal directions, each identified with a different colour. They also had a dual day-night/life-death aspect. [356]

Itzamna was the creator god, but he also embodied the cosmos, and was simultaneously a sun god [356] Kʼinich Ahau, the day sun, was one of his aspects. Maya kings frequently identified themselves with Kʼinich Ahau. Itzamna also had a night sun aspect, the Night Jaguar, representing the sun in its journey through the underworld. [368] The four Pawatuns supported the corners of the mortal realm in the heavens, the Bacabs performed the same function. As well as their four main aspects, the Bakabs had dozens of other aspects that are not well understood. [369] The four Chaacs were storm gods, controlling thunder, lightning, and the rains. [370] The nine lords of the night each governed one of the underworld realms. [369] Other important deities included the moon goddess, the maize god, and the Hero Twins. [371]

The Popol Vuh was written in the Latin script in early colonial times, and was probably transcribed from a hieroglyphic book by an unknown Kʼicheʼ Maya nobleman. [372] It is one of the most outstanding works of indigenous literature in the Americas. [312] The Popul Vuh recounts the mythical creation of the world, the legend of the Hero Twins, and the history of the Postclassic Kʼicheʼ kingdom. [372] Deities recorded in the Popul Vuh include Hun Hunahpu, the Kʼicheʼ maize god, [373] and a triad of deities led by the Kʼicheʼ patron Tohil, and also including the moon goddess Awilix, and the mountain god Jacawitz. [374]

In common with other Mesoamerican cultures, the Maya worshipped feathered serpent deities. Such worship was rare during the Classic period, [375] but by the Postclassic the feathered serpent had spread to both the Yucatán Peninsula and the Guatemalan Highlands. In Yucatán, the feathered serpent deity was Kukulkan, [376] among the Kʼicheʼ it was Qʼuqʼumatz. [377] Kukulkan had his origins in the Classic period War Serpent, Waxaklahun Ubah Kan, and has also been identified as the Postclassic version of the Vision Serpent of Classic Maya art. [378] Although the cult of Kukulkan had its origins in these earlier Maya traditions, the worship of Kukulkan was heavily influenced by the Quetzalcoatl cult of central Mexico. [379] Likewise, Qʼuqʼumatz had a composite origin, combining the attributes of Mexican Quetzalcoatl with aspects of the Classic period Itzamna. [380]

The ancient Maya had diverse and sophisticated methods of food production. It was believed that shifting cultivation (swidden) agriculture provided most of their food, [381] but it is now thought that permanent raised fields, terracing, intensive gardening, forest gardens, and managed fallows were also crucial to supporting the large populations of the Classic period in some areas. [382] Indeed, evidence of these different agricultural systems persist today: raised fields connected by canals can be seen on aerial photographs. [383] Contemporary rainforest species composition has significantly higher abundance of species of economic value to ancient Maya in areas that were densely populated in pre-Columbian times, [384] and pollen records in lake sediments suggest that maize, manioc, sunflower seeds, cotton, and other crops have been cultivated in association with deforestation in Mesoamerica since at least 2500 BC. [385]

The basic staples of the Maya diet were maize, beans, and squashes. These were supplemented with a wide variety of other plants either cultivated in gardens or gathered in the forest. At Joya de Cerén, a volcanic eruption preserved a record of foodstuffs stored in Maya homes, among them were chilies and tomatoes. Cotton seeds were in the process of being ground, perhaps to produce cooking oil. In addition to basic foodstuffs, the Maya also cultivated prestige crops such as cotton, cacao and vanilla. Cacao was especially prized by the elite, who consumed chocolate beverages. [386] Cotton was spun, dyed, and woven into valuable textiles in order to be traded. [387]

The Maya had few domestic animals dogs were domesticated by 3000 BC, and the Muscovy duck by the Late Postclassic. [388] Ocellated turkeys were unsuitable for domestication, but were rounded up in the wild and penned for fattening. All of these were used as food animals dogs were additionally used for hunting. It is possible that deer were also penned and fattened. [389]

There are hundreds of Maya sites spread across five countries: Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. [390] The six sites with particularly outstanding architecture or sculpture are Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, and Yaxchilan in Mexico, Tikal in Guatemala and Copán in Honduras. Other important, but difficult to reach, sites include Calakmul and El Mirador. The principal sites in the Puuc region, after Uxmal, are Kabah, Labna, and Sayil. In the east of the Yucatán Peninsula are Coba and the small site of Tulum. [391] The Río Bec sites of the base of the peninsula include Becan, Chicanná, Kohunlich, and Xpuhil. The most noteworthy sites in Chiapas, other than Palenque and Yaxchilan, are Bonampak and Toniná. In the Guatemalan Highlands are Iximche, Kaminaljuyu, Mixco Viejo, and Qʼumarkaj (also known as Utatlán). [392] In the northern Petén lowlands of Guatemala there are many sites, though apart from Tikal access is generally difficult. Some of the Petén sites are Dos Pilas, Seibal, and Uaxactún. [393] Important sites in Belize include Altun Ha, Caracol, and Xunantunich. [394]

There are many museums across the world with Maya artefacts in their collections. The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies lists over 250 museums in its Maya Museum database, [395] and the European Association of Mayanists lists just under 50 museums in Europe alone. [396]

Watch the video: Virtual Tour of Xunantunich Mayan Ruins (November 2021).