Ancient Maya Solar Observatories

Stages for community-wide ritual and celebration Structure E-VII-sub Uaxactun, Guatemala By 500 B.C., in the Middle Preclassic Period, 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… Read More

Ancient Maya War And Warriors

Ritualized skirmishes evolved into large scale warfare Rollout vase photos courtesy of Justin Kerr   It was the custom among them to pledge what they possessed to each other; upon collection and payment they began to quarrel and attack each other. Frey Diego de Landa   They never had peace, especially when the cultivation (of milpas) was over, and their greatest desire was to seize important men to sacrifice, because the greater the quality of the victim, the more acceptable their service to the gods.  Alfred Tozzer   War was the way… 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

Ancient Maya Clothing

What you wore was a sign of who you were and where you lived Whether intended or not, clothing communicates. For example, an apron in modern society can signal that the wearer is a chef or manual laborer. It can also symbolize the wearer’s beliefs and values, as when an apron is worn by a Rabbi. The elite Maya of the Classic Period went to extremes in the latter category, investing many items of clothing with meaning.  While commoner garments were simply intended to beautify or eroticize the body, those depicted in… Read More

Climate Change and Drought

A 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… Read More

The Sacred Calendar of The Maya

Time was cyclical rather than linear Calendar glyphs. Copan Stela N (Back) Sacred time is that in which the gods manifested themselves and created; so each time man wants to ensure a fortunate outcome for something, he re-actualizes the original sacred event—creation; what is actually sought is the regeneration of the human being. Sacred time is reversible, it’s a primordial mythical time made present. Mircea Eliade Many of the ideas put forth by professor Eliade in his groundbreaking book, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion applies to the ancient… Read More

Hunting Deer

Vase rollout courtesy of Justin Kerr They joined together in companies of fifty and roasted the flesh of deer so it would not be wasted; they make presents of it to their lord and distribute the rest among friends.                                           Fray Diego de Landa, Bishop Inquisitor of Colonial Yucatan Deer were treated like gods because their main god had appeared to them in that form. In some places there were deer parks… Read More

Ancient Maya Termination Rituals

Temples and other structures were ritually buried when no longer used Caracol Structure B5 For the ancient Maya the most important interaction was not between persons, objects or buildings, it was their relationship with the spirits that resided within them. While everything was perceived as being alive, only those things that were useful were ritually ensouled with a guardian spirit—or a deity in the case of temples, palaces and sacred places. When a house, palace or temple was built, an och’ k’ak’ “fire-entering” ritual was held to ensoul it with a guardian… Read More

Prophecy And Order

As happened in the past, the future will bring Prophecy was a prominent feature in all the known ancient cultures. Feeling at the mercy of the gods who represented the forces of nature, complex societies needed a way to understand their behavior so they could brace themselves for the next god-made flood, drought or other catastrophe and hope the gods would yield to the petitions and bargaining sacrifices of their kings and holy men. Maya kings established order by relying on observations of the motions of the sun, moon and other heavenly… Read More

Ancient Maya Color Symbolism

I’m standing in front of Rosalila, a life-size replica of a 6th century shrine, the centerpiece of the museum at the Copan, Honduras archaeological park. Although the structure was completely buried, it was found whole and in excellent condition with much of the original paint. Inside, there were ceramic incense burners containing charcoal, two of which were resting on sculpted, stone jaguar pedestals. There were offerings of flint knives for sacrificing, nine elaborate, ceremonial scepters wrapped in a deep blue bundle, carved jade jewelry, conch shells, stingray spines (for bloodletting rites), shark vertebrae,… Read More