Ancient Maya Ancestor Veneration

The old men used to say that when men died, they didn’t perish, they once again began to live. . . They turned into spirits or gods. — Alfred Tozzer, American anthropologist This is likely a noble ancestor depicted on the frieze of a council house at Copan, Honduras. Among the ancient Maya, evidence of ancestor veneration shows up around the first century B.C. At that time, decisions were being made about the inheritance of land use. Land was not owned, but the right to use it was handed down. The principle… Read More

Ancient Maya Water Management

The rise and fall of intensive agriculture in the Maya area In this model of central Tikal, Guatemala the dark-colored basins indicate the location of  large, very deep reservoirs. The entire city was built with slopes so the runoff would fill them during the rainy season. These sustained the city all year longl. Around 2000 BC much of the Central Lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula consisted of year-round wetlands (bajos or swamps). The rainy season usually insures that the swamps were inundated, but during the dry season, they dried up and solidified… Read More

Maya Thrones

The seat of divine power and influence Scholars observed that whenever kings are depicted on monuments, they stand higher than those around them. This indicates their elevated status and positions them closer to the sky and the celestial gods. On vases, where palace scenes are depicted, they may sit lower. But the throne signifies their anointed, higher position relative to others. Only the gods had the power, by virtue of divine lineage, to seat a king of the throne. Maya thrones were first seen in the Guatemalan Highlands in the Late Preclassic… Read More

The Maya Triadic Architectural Complex

Reminiscent of the Three Hearthstone “Thrones” in the Sky The Maya began erecting enormous pyramid platforms that had three temples on top, two facing each other across a plaza and the third centered behind them. Above, I’m looking down from the central temple atop the platform called “Caana” at Caracol in Belize. In 2000, extensive excavation was underway, and my lens wasn’t wide enough to include the other temples. This is the central pyramid. The previous photo was taken atop these steps, between the coverings protecting large scucco masks from the rain…. Read More

Ancient Maya Hearth Stones

They modeled creation by establishing a center in a house and vitalizing it Operating on the principle, as above so below, the ancients “centered” their homes in the world following the example of the celestial deities who placed three “stones” in the universe to establish the center. The hearth wasn’t necessarily placed in the center of the house. The centering it provided was symbolic and spiritual. A Maya farmer showed me this hearth in a house that was no longer used. The guardian-spirit had long been released.  According to art historian Julia… Read More

Maya Stone Monuments: Stelae

Keeping the spirits of deceased kings alive and active (Stelae) were more than mere representation; they were themselves animate embodiments of the king, extensions of the kingly self that always ‘acted’ to insure the perpetual renewal of time and the cosmos. David Stuart, Archaeologist  Maya stelae are tall stone monuments, erected in the Classic Period between 100 and 300 AD. Many of them were sculpted in low relief on all four sides with kings, gods, ancestors and hieroglyphs. They were mostly painted red—the color of the life force—but uncarved stelae were also… Read More

Ancient Maya Solar Observatories

Stages for community-wide ritual and celebration By 500 B.C. there were numerous large architectural assemblages throughout the central lowlands of Guatemala and Mexico. At first, they appeared to function solely as line-of-site markers of the sun’s solstice and equinox turning points. Archaeologists named them E-Group complexes.  Although there was great diversity in these structures across time and place, what they had in common was a large rectangular, flat, paved plaza with a square four-sided pyramid aligned to the cardinal  directions, situated west of a long narrow platform with small temples that ran… Read More

Caves: Entrances To The Underworld

Places closer to the gods were portals and places of ritual Rio Frio Cave, Belize Caves, where one descends toward the k’u’x (heart or center) of a mountain, are especially hot places. This is due to their symbolic proximity to the powers unleashed by cosmic convergence at the axis mundi. Eduard Fisher (Anthropologist) The Yucatan Peninsula is one of the largest limestone shelves in the world. In the north, the bedrock is porous and the landscape relatively flat, so rainwater runs and collects in underground caves. There are no visible rivers here…. Read More

The Ancient Maya Ball Game

Where the story of creation was repeated and celebrated Ball Court: Copan, Honduras Scholars believe that in earlier Maya times, the contest was a ritual that represented the fight of the opposing and forces of the universe—life-death, Sun-Moon, day-night, light-darkness—in order to insure balance, continuity and fertility. Some say it was a metaphor for the movements of heavenly bodies, the ball representing the journey of the Sun god passing in and out of the underworld. Because some courts have stone rings on the walls for the ball to pass through, other say… Read More

Climate Change and Drought

Major factor in the decline of Maya civilization Land bridge between reservoirs. Tikal, Guatemala In the Late Classic period (A.D. 500-900) this path separated two immense reservoirs in Tikal’s city center. When I was there in 2008 it was overgrown and difficult to see the bottom on either side. I estimated them to be about as deep as an eight-to-ten-story building.   Maya farmers are still around today; kings, however, disappeared 1,000 years ago. There is a lesson here on how people and water managers respond to long-term climate change, something our… Read More