What did the Mayans look like?

RESOURCE: Ancient Maya clothing
February 12, 2017 – 06:19 pm
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We are sincerely grateful to Cara Grace Tremain, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, studying ancient Maya dress and identity, and Field Director of the Ka’Kabish Archaeological Research Project in Belize, where she has worked since 2010, for this illuminating introductory article on ancient Maya dress.

Pic 1: Maya noble, from lintel 24 at Yaxhilan; illustration by Krystyna Deuss (Click on image to enlarge)

What did the ancient Maya wear?
The ancient Maya are well-known for their exotic, vibrant, appearances and practice of unusual body modifications. They exploited the materials available to them in their tropical environments to manufacture colourful textiles and striking ornamentation. They produced a wide range of outfits for different occasions, including lavish dress for large public events; vibrant dance costumes; protective armour for conflicts; sporting attire; and simpler, yet no less sophisticated, clothing for everyday situations.

Pic 2: Stela H, Copan archaeological site, Honduras (Click on image to enlarge)

Public Events
During large public events, where the community would come together to witness the performance of rituals or other ceremonial duties, the ruling elite would wear large, lavish, outfits to reflect their important positions in society. These outfits would include large feathered headdresses, jade jewellery, and clothing made from the skins of dangerous animals (such as jaguars). Images of such lavish outfits are often seen on carved monuments set in public areas of ancient Maya sites, for all the community to see (see pic 2).

Pic 3: God Aprime dances in blood sacrifice costume as he 1) cuts his head with a stone knife, 2) uses a hand stone, and 3) transforms into the bee keeper; details from a Maya ceramic vase (K2942) (Click on image to enlarge)

Dance Costumes
Participants in celebratory dance events are often portrayed with very large costumes that encompass the body with an extravagant costume made of jade, feathers, and other exotic materials. In addition to large headdresses, dance participants often wore large backracks with long feathers. Despite the size of these costumes, they were designed to be light enough to move around with, so it is likely they had a light wooden frame onto which materials were attached.

Protective Armour
The ancient Maya regularly participated in wars and conflicts and developed protective clothing as a means of defense. These outfits involved a padded mantle (perhaps made from twisted cotton or thick leaves), often covered with animal skin, and accoutrements such as shields decorated with animal hide or feathers. Interestingly, ancient Maya scenes show war captives and prisoners stripped of much clothing and their ear jewellery replaced with strips of bark paper—which archaeologists take to be a sign of humiliation and defeat.

Pic 4: Ballgame scene, from a ceramic Maya vase (K1209) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sporting Attire
The ballgame is a well-known Mesoamerican sport, and ballplayers wore specific and distinct attire. To reduce injury to the parts of the body which regularly came into contact with the hard rubber playing ball, a horseshoe-shaped yoke was worn around the waist and padding was worn around the knees and elbows. Scenes on painted pottery often show distinctive headdresses being worn to indicate which team a ballplayer belonged to (see pic 4).

Pic 5: Male and female Maya clothing (Click on image to enlarge)

Everyday Clothing
Basic components of everyday dress included a loincloth or short skirt for men and a huipil or long skirt (perhaps paired with a quechquemitl) for women (see image to right). These outfits would often be embellished with jewellery such as bracelets and anklets, necklaces, and ear jewellery. Hairstyles were given much attention, and would be tied up (almost never left loose) and decorated with bands of fabric and long feathers. The ancient Maya show neatly maintained hairstyles in their art, suggesting that they may have put a stiffener in their hair to keep it in place.

Pic 6: Ear jewellery made from shell, jade and ceramic. Photo taken at the Maya Hidden Worlds Revealed Exhibit, Denver Museum of Art and Science, Colorado (Click on image to enlarge)

What evidence do we have for Maya dress?
Archaeologists often recover pieces of jewellery such as earrings, necklaces, and rings made from durable material such as shell, bone, precious stone, and even metal (see pic 6). Additionally, body modifications such as elongated heads and shaped and decorated teeth are recovered from ancient Maya burials (see pic 7). Unfortunately archaeologists rarely find evidence of textiles or attire made from perishable materials because the hot, humid, environment of the Maya region causes them to disintegrate. Fortunately, information about clothing that does not survive in the archaeological record can be seen in a wide range of Maya art including murals, ceramics, sculpture, figurines, and books (known as codices). These images show many elite Maya individuals but there is little information about the dress of lower classes, because they are not often portrayed in the art. Nevertheless, archaeologists assume that non-elites wore plainer clothing and did not have access to the full range of exotic materials seen in elite outfits.

Pic 7: Modified Maya skull, Museo Regional de Antropología, Palacio Canton, Mérida, Yucatán (Click on image to enlarge)

What materials did the ancient Maya use?
Animal Skins
Skins from various animals were turned into hides to decorate clothes and produce footwear. Jaguar hides were a favoured form of decoration because they were a reflection of wealth and power. The bones of animals were also used in the manufacture of various ornaments and jewellery.

Bird Feathers
The feathers of different birds were used to decorate headdresses and other items. Sometimes birds were trapped and bred and other times they were hunted and released. The Resplendent Quetzal was revered for its long iridescent green tail feathers, which were often used to decorate headdresses and backracks (see pic 8).

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