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
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
Every morning the women would rekindle the fire and grind maize on
the metlatl, or grinding stone, which was usually made of basalt.
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
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
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
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
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.
Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca and Maya (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1993).
Chichen Itza (Mexico City: Panorama Editorial, 1987).
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