Mayans ancient civilization
'Queen of Uxmal' limestone sculpture, AD 600-900 (Image: Consejo Nacional)
The archaeologist J Eric Thompson followed in their wake, spreading his belief that the Maya had been a peaceful, rural people, whose grand urban plazas were visited only for the performance of priest-led rites on special dates. These were sites of religious devotion – hence their demise after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century and clamped down on indigenous faith.
Thompson’s view of the Maya prevailed: that they were serene sophisticates. And as a new exhibition about them will demonstrate, they made some astonishing art. On show at the World’s Museum, Liverpool, will be painted ceramics, gold figurines, intricate stone carvings, and a remarkable collection of jade, death masks found in the tombs of different rulers. Even their cutting instruments look the part: razor-sharp blades of shiny, black obsidian.
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Mayan territory extended 125, 000 square miles – across what today is Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador – and the artistic style varied widely, from the stylised to the realistic. We patronisingly expect the former from non-Western sculpture, but there’s also a portrait bust on show from the burial chamber of Palenque’s 7th-century ruler, Pakal, of quite stunning individuality. It boasts protruding cheekbones, thin lips, a sharp chin, even a slight cranial deformation. This isn’t primitive sculpture in any sense, but highly naturalistic.
These artists’ influence has stretched far beyond their own time and place, too. Henry Moore’s long line of reclining figures were famously inspired by Mayan “chacmool” sculptures. Frank Lloyd Wright and his US peers, in turn, were so awed by Mesoamerican architecture that they spawned an early-20th-century style called Mayan Revivalist. The Maya, in short, have been deemed cultivated enough to justify imitation.
Majestic: The ruins of the Mayan temple grounds at Tulum (Photo: Brian Jannsen / Alamy)
Keen mathematicians, they invented the concept of zero, centuries before the Europeans grasped it. They also developed the most developed writing system in the Americas. Spanish friars destroyed most traces of it, alas, when – during colonialisation – they burned every book they came across, for purportedly idolatrous content. Just four Mayan codices survive.
The script was also found on monuments, but remained indecipherable for decades. Which meant that it wasn’t until a series of breakthroughs in the mid-20th century that we had any real insight into what made the Maya tick.
There was no eureka moment; no equivalent to the Rosetta Stone, the key to decrypting Ancient Egyptian. Mayan script was deciphered gradually. athough one major step was the realisation that it was both pictographic and phonetic.
Mayan Civilization: Explore the History and Mystery of the Ancient Mayan Ruins, Religion, Calendar, and More (Mayan Ruins, Mayan Religion, Ancient Civilization, Mayan Calendar)
What was the ancient Mayans challenges?
drought or no rain for long time