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Maya Art and Pottery

The Maya civilization, a collection of city states with a common culture that were ruled by nobles, flourished in Central America from around 1000 B.C. to the Spanish conquest in 1697 and were especially dominant in the classic period. It was centered in the Yucatan peninsula, but Mayan territory extended over the modern Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana, Roo, Tabasco, and part of the state of Chiapas, and parts of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. They left a wealth of information about their highly developed complex society in their hieroglyphic writing, art, pottery, and physical structures.

Religion was central to the Mayan life. They built enormous pyramid temples and religious centers to honor their many gods. These sites, with their massive stone structures and decorative Maya art carvings, display the advanced technology and artistry the Mayans possessed. The Temple of the Giant Jaguar in Tikal, located in the middle of the ceremonial center around which the city extended, has nine sloping terraces and is 161 feet high. Chichen Itza, at the center of the Yucatan peninsula, was an important commercial center that was greatly influenced by the earlier Toltec civilization and that also had a large religious complex. The pyramid-temple El Castillo, or the Pyramid of Kukulcan, is approximately 72 feet high.  Palanque is in the middle of a tropical jungle, and it also has a religious complex centered around a large pyramid. The Temple of the Inscriptions pyramid has hidden deep inside of it the funeral chamber of Pacal, who ruled for sixty-eight years before dying in 683 A.D.

In the Mayan religious system, self-sacrifice was vital and highly esteemed. They worshipped many gods, who were patrons of various tasks and natural processes, through sacrifice and effigy. Chac, god of rain, was sacrificed to by drowning children in wells.  Ixchel was the patroness of weaving.

As with all ancient civilizations, Mayan life focused on the production and acquisition of food for survival. Life revolved around the agricultural cycle. They raised maize, squash, beans, avocadoes, tomatoes and other plants using simple tools made of wood and stone, like axes, hoes and digging sticks. They also hunted peccary, which is like a pig, and deer with bows, arrows and spears made of chipped stone or obsidian and rabbits and dogs with nets. They fished for shellfish, larger fish, and sea mammals, using hooks made from cactus thorns, shell and bone.

Every morning the women would rekindle the fire and grind maize on the metlatl, or grinding stone, which was usually made of basalt. Tortillas were made daily and consumed with every meal. They were maize pancakes that were formed and cooked over an open fire on a comal, a clay disk. Today they are still a staple of the Mesoamerican diet, just as they were in pre-Columbian times.  Chilies and tomatoes, used for making spices and sauces, were ground in a stone mortar and pestle. The mortar had three feet, and the pestle was club-shaped.

They usually buried their dead in the ground or under the floors of their houses, though sometimes corpses were cremated, buried in caves or interred in urns. The rich were buried in elaborate tombs with many household articles, giving later archeologists much insight into their culture.

The Maya were quite well educated, with advanced writing and astronomical systems. They used a hieroglyphic writing system to keep written records. Four of their codices, collections of hieroglyphic symbols written on paper, cloth or animal skin?similar in function to a modern book, survive. They also developed a counting system based on the number twenty and a calendar.  Great observatories, such as El Caracol at Chichen Itza, were used to study the stars.

Attire denoted rank in Mayan society, as only the wealthy were able to afford elaborate costumes. Only nobles were allowed to adorn themselves with jewelry. Tunics were often made of animal pelts, especially jaguar fur. Jaguar skins were valuable because the black spots symbolized the night sky. A jaguar helmet was a warrior's insignia and his protection.

Music was linked to religion and was created by rattles, whistles, trumpets, drums, flutes, copper bells and shells. Flutes, ranging from simple and straight to multi-toned and intricate, were employed widely.

Mayan art reflected their environment, religion and everyday life. Their region was inhabited by foxes, owls, jaguars, fish, birds, hummingbirds, deer, rabbit and duck, and they domesticated turkeys and dogs. These animals often were an inspiration for their art and decoration. Pottery was simple for everyday use, while it was elaborately decorated for the wealthy and for rituals. Ceramic pots were used to store liquids and foods and formed an essential part of every Mayan household. While most often plain and simply utilitarian, some had patterns carved into them or were painted.  A back-strap loom, so named because of the strap that passes behind the weaver's back to keep the warp taut, was used in ancient times and is still used widely today to create beautiful textiles.

--Lisa Graff

Bibliography

Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca and Maya (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

Chichen Itza (Mexico City: Panorama Editorial, 1987).

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Aztecs | Day of the Dead | Mayan | Molas | Olmec | Pre Columbian