Solving the Maya Riddle: Exploring the Mystery of Through Archeology - Archeology Essay Example

Solving the Maya Riddle: Exploring the Mystery of Through Archeology

Deep at the heart of Mexico and Central America stands the history of great civilization that lived as early as 1500 B - Solving the Maya Riddle: Exploring the Mystery of Through Archeology introduction.C. The Mayas are Mesoamerican Indians who occupied a nearly continuous territory in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and northern Belize. In the early 21st century some 70 Mayan languages were spoken by more than five million people, most of whom were bilingual in Spanish. Before the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Maya possessed one of the greatest civilizations of the Western Hemisphere. They practiced agriculture, built great stone buildings and pyramid temples, worked gold and copper, and made use of a form of hieroglyphic writing that has now largely been deciphered (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2006).


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Mayan civilization was acclaimed for their grandeur because they were the only people of America’s high cultures who developed glyph-script language capable of recording events, yet so far as is known they have left us little or nothing of themselves beyond certain calendric dates. No other culture in the Americas, perhaps in the world, in so confined a space has had so much attention paid to it from every possible angle of approach. Few lost civilizations have had so distinguished a list of investigators. From the time of Christopher Columbus, the first white man to see them (1502), down to the present turbulent times, when the Russian Dr. Yuri Knorosow (1955) claims to have a key to Maya glyphs, there has been a veritable parade of people drawn by the air of mystery that hangs over the Maya civilization. Just recently, Adam Herring’s Art and Writing in Maya Cities, A.D. 600-800: A Poetics of Line (2005) is an ambitious study of the cultural history of Maya calligraphy and a probing inquiry into ancient Maya aesthetics. Herring’s book takes as its frame of reference the Mayan word ts’ib’, which is both polyvalent and plastic in its ancient and modern forms. Whereas “writing” is a suitable translation, ts’ib’ is also a mark or line on a surface-or the act of making those marks-for which “painting” and “drawing” are appropriate translations, a fact substantiated by other scholars who have argued that Western analytical categories of text and image are therefore inappropriate for the Maya (O’Neil, September 2006).

Looking upon the findings of the modern research and archeology of the ancient Mayan civilization, there is gargantuan mysteries that are yet to be uncovered. In this paper, we will browse through the findings that are available in order take even a glimpse of how the Mayan civilization came to existence and why it came to its eventual decline.

Chronicles of the Maya Civilization

Although the Mayas have been discovered many years ago, archaeologists and ethnohistorians has still a lot of work to do as they had produced vast quantities of new data about the Maya in the 1980s and 1990s. Epigraphers have put forward an avalanche of new interpretations of glyphs and readings of texts that provide a rich source of information for reconstructing the scenarios of Classic Maya cities. The pace of development in the study of Maya texts and symbols is so rapid that it is difficult for epigraphers to present their new readings with all of the appropriate supporting arguments; it is even more difficult for them to retract or reassess all of the older (but still quite recent) interpretations that are superseded by each new reading. It is more difficult still for Maya researchers with other specializations to keep up (Henderson, 1997, p. xiii). Thus, the history of the Mayan civilization is still hazy until the union of the past and present findings will be correctly interpreted.

The Mayan civilization had been acclaimed for their magnificent architecture and sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. Although they had not discovered the wheel and were without metal tools, the Maya constructed massive pyramids, temples and monuments of hewn stone both in large cities and in smaller ceremonial centers throughout the lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula, which covers parts of what are now southern Mexico and Guatemala and essentially all of Belize. From celestial observatories, such as the one at Chichén Itzá, they tracked the progress of Venus and developed a calendar based on a solar year of 365 days. They created their own system of mathematics, using a base number of 20 with a concept of zero. And they developed a hieroglyphic scheme for writing, one that used hundreds of elaborate signs. During its Classic period (250-950 A.D.), Maya civilization reached a zenith. At its peak, around 750 A.D., the population may have topped 13 million. Then, between about 750 and 950 A.D., their society imploded. The Maya abandoned what had been densely populated urban centers, leaving their impressive stone edifices to fall into ruin. The demise of Maya civilization (which archaeologists call “the terminal Classic collapse”) has been one of the great anthropological mysteries of modern times (Peterson & Haug, Jul/Aug 2005).

To wit, problems of explaining rise and fall of the Mayan civilization have preoccupied some of the best minds in archaeology. Maya civilization, unusual in its setting and its form, makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of the general processes involved in the origins of civilization. The general public and theorists alike almost universally view civilizations as urban phenomena and focus on cities as their most prominent feature. Theories that purport to account for the origins of civilization are often in fact explanations for the beginnings of urban life. Maya civilization was organized around great civic centers that were seats of power and hubs of social, religious, economic, and political affairs, but those centers were noticeably different from cities as they are usually defined. Only a few Maya cities ever approached the density of population usually associated with urbanism, and even that growth occurred centuries after the essential features of Maya civilization had emerged. No stable theory has still successfully focused on demographic aspects of the rise of cities can account for Maya development (Henderson, 1997, p. 2).

Several people have attempted substantiate their findings about the Mayan civilization. John L. Stephens, who made the Maya famous in the English-speaking world more than 160 years ago, speculated that the ancient Maya were ancestral to the modern Maya and that the glyphic texts contained their histories. Yuri Knorosov is the Russian linguist who most clearly and consistently argued for the anchoring of Maya glyphs in Mayan language. The vindication of Knorsov’s general phonetic and logo-graphic approach gained worldwide honors he now receives in the scholarly world. In the 1960s, other major proponents of the historical content of Maya texts and of decipherment rose, especially Tatiana Proskouriakoff and David H. Kelley. The battle for Maya decipherment continued through the 1970s and ’80s. In it were pitted an emerging group of people pursuing ancient written Mayan, led by such energetic young epigraphers as Linda Schele and Peter Mathews and the prominent linguist Floyd Lounsbury, against an increasingly unhappy cadre of archeologists brought up to believe Thompson’s despairing conclusion that the non-calendric texts were linguistically impenetrable. The band of working glyphers enjoyed support and meeting opportunities provided by people like Elizabeth Benson and Merle Greene Robertson. Still, through the years some prominent archeologists continued to devise interpretations of the Pre-Columbian Maya world that studiously minimized the value of the texts–all in the name of science and sober method (Freidel, 1992).

Archeological Finds

It was Copan excavations (1891 to 1895) that moved Maya archeology beyond its initial explorer stage and are viewed by some scholars as the start of the modern period of Maya studies.  The effort consisted in large part of clearing the earth that had accumulated over the centuries on the surface of the central stone buildings and exposing the buildings that had collapsed and fallen.  The standing structures and the open spaces between them were thus revealed with greater clarity than had been possible from earlier surface examinations, allowing archeologists to survey the temples, palaces, and carved monuments of the site in detail and produce an improved site map. From 1895 to 1925, exploration continued and some excavation, and further breakthroughs in the study of Maya hieroglyphic writing and iconography was achieved.  For example, Harvard archeologist R.E. Merwin excavated a large temple at the site of Holmul in northern Guatemala.  He was able to reveal a limited sequence of changing architectural styles and pottery types.  Epigraphers related dates of the Maya calendar to

Christian calendars so that researchers could understand the precise dates of the many monuments that were inscribed with Maya dates.  In addition, analysts of Maya art helped reveal the nature of the Maya religious cosmos and its gods and attempted to order Maya art chronologically in terms of changing styles (Sabloff, January 1991).

The most important piece in that had been found in Mayan archeology is the Mayan calendar (Figure 1), which consisted of a ritual cycle of 260 named days, and a year of 365 days divided into eighteen named months of twenty days each. The days of the ritual cycle (Tzolkin) are marked by a combination of number (1– 13) and name (from a sequence of twenty). The cycle and the year ran concurrently, forming a longer cycle of 18,980 days or fifty-two years called a Calendar Round. A day would be designated by its numeral and name in the ritual cycle, along with the name of the month and the position within the month (a number from nought to nineteen, indicating days elapsed since the start of the month). Such a date occurs once in each Calendar Round. For longer periods— and the Maya were extremely interested in their past— the so-called ‘Long Count’ was established, using a series of periods of increasing size: one day (kin) —twenty days (uinal) —360 days (tun) —7,200 days (katun) — 144,000 days (baktun). Counts of these period units were then fixed to a base date, four Ahau eight Cumku, which marked the end of a round of thirteen baktuns in the remote past, and which can be tied in to the modern calendar to give a date of 13 August 3113 BC. Upon realizing this, Lounsbury (1978) stated that it is the most famous and best understood of among the American calendars; other Mesoamerican civilizations had variants of the basic structure of the Mayan calendar, notably the Aztec.


Figure 1. Mayan archeological relic showing the date of 6 July 292 A.D. in Tikal, Guatamela (University of Pennsylvania Museum).

The researchers of the Maya relics have also been astounded by the art and architecture of their civilization. The Classic Maya people produced objects both of use and of pleasure with tools of stone alone. The Marxist stereotype, that cultural behavior is determined by the instruments of production, finds no confirmation in Maya art. Its forms, though comparable to those made by the metal-using civilizations of Mediterranean antiquity, belong technologically to much older, Neolithic horizons of prehistory. Classic Maya art spanned the centuries from the time of Christ until about 1000, and had its home in central Yucatán, bounded on the south by the Guatemalan highlands and on the north by a flat and dry limestone plain. The term ‘Classic’ distinguishes monuments exactly dated by inscriptions in Maya calendrical notation from pre-Maya, from non-Maya, and from Toltec Maya manufactures after 1000 (Roys 1934, p. 27).

Also, Classic Maya art consists a of stone architecture using corbelled vaults and burnt-lime cement or concrete; of stela-like slabs and prisms of stone carved in low relief commemorating the priests, the warriors, and the various periods of Maya history; and of calendrical inscriptions which permit exact dating, to the day, within a 700-year range. Other products, such as painted pottery and jade carving, are often part of manufactures of the Classic style, but they are not constitutive or diagnostic, in the sense of the corbelled vault, the stela, and the calendrical inscription, which define Classic Maya art (Smith 1940, p. 221).

According to Smith, the corbelled vault is a system of cantilevered stones, each placed to overhang the course immediately underneath. The Maya vault consists of bearing walls, capped by the overhanging vault, which is of about the same height as the bearing walls. The spatial enclosure is attained simply by the inclination of two or more walls towards one another. The system is inherently unstable. Its equilibrium depends upon a nice adjustment among the unstable overhangs, and upon various devices of counter-balance. Burnt-lime mortar, cement cores, wooden tie-rods, and special stereotomic forms, such as the boot-shaped stones used in late vaults, contributed to stability. On the other hand, the stela (such as Figure 1) of the Classic Maya art is a free-standing monument having the shape of a slab or prism, often rounded at the top, and occasionally approaching human contours. The stelae usually recorded the passage of time by elaborate inscriptions. Wooden stelae may have preceded those of stone, which mark the known duration of central Maya civilization, and many districts may never have erected anything but wooden ones. In any case, the “Stela cult” records priestly computations of historical time and of astronomical events, and it delimits the spread of Classic Maya art. The figural themes of the stelae are usually standing male figures elaborately dressed, representing warriors, rulers, priests, or god-impersonators. They are often accompanied by minor accessory figures as well as by sky bands, masks of symbolic monsters, and extensive inscriptions.

There are three distinguishing traits of Classic Maya tradition — the vault, the stela, and the dated inscription that all attest to their obsession with recorded permanence. More than any other civilization of America, the Maya peoples of antiquity left their conception of themselves and of the universe in an indelible record of monuments marking historical intervals. The dated sequence of Maya monuments is the most complete of its type in older human experience. All other historical records of the same era are less detailed and less extensive. No ancient people kept more complete tallies of time than the Maya, whose technological equipment resembled that of the Neolithic flint-knackers and pottery-makers of prehistoric Europe and Asia (Kubler, 1962, p. 119).

In sculpture, the Maya Classic era artists were Stone Age professionals moving from one site to another as demand required. Their figural art displays stylistic unity during a thousand-year period. They used limestone, sandstone , trachyte, stucco, wood, clay, and jade. These were the customary materials, worked without knowledge of metal tools. The genres were architectural decoration, commemorative reliefs, figurines, pottery, and jewelry. All large monumental sculpture obeyed architectural lines of force in its placing. Low relief carving is predominant, full-round sculpture rare. The governing impression is of an art of linear contour, transferred from painting in order to secure more permanent effects, without investigation of the sculptural possibilities of bodies in space. Between the Leyden Plate of incised jade and an early stela from Tikal, the main differences are in scale and technique. The formula of linear silhouettes in the flat plane is common to both. Six hundred years later, the murals of Bonampak (in Mexico) and the figural reliefs of Piedras Negras (in Guatamela) show similarities of the same order, although the reliefs have less pictorial scope than the murals, and a more rigid hieratic symbolism. Studied proportions, often with complex harmonic relations, characterize Maya sculpture, in a manner reflecting or echoing the obsession of the Maya mind with astronomical, mathematical, and ritual divisions of time (Kubler, 1962, p. 151).

Recent Findings

At present, there has been an amazing progress in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs in the last few decades has caused a landslide in our understanding of many aspects of Classic Maya culture. Epigraphic insights have contributed significantly to our knowledge of the dynastic history and political landscape of the Maya as well as to Classic Maya religion and language distribution (Nielsen, December 2005). Shannon Plank (2004) had a book on Maya dwellings that revealed the potential the inscriptions also hold for a profound understanding of how the ancient Maya perceived, classified and described their natural and built environment. Plank’s subject is the structures the Maya themselves called ‘dwellings’; to apprehend their multiple social, political and religious functions, the author draws extensively on the inscriptions encountered on or near these structures. Her research goals are twofold: “to develop an understanding of the way the ancient elite Maya classified, constructed, occupied, and cognized a type of space that they themselves have categorized”, and, “to show in what ways emic categories from Maya texts are relevant for archaeologists by comparing them to etic classifications applied to ancient architecture” (p. 1).

Moreover, large temple pyramids, as central elements of every city of the Classic Maya (AD 250-900), were also studied. The construction of temples representing the dominant ideology was probably one of the most important projects that the ruler and court officials planned and organized. Such construction projects, which brought a large number of people together under the command of the elite, were stimulants for developments in administrative organization, occasions for reconstitutions of communities, and arenas for the imposition and negotiation of power (Trigger 1990). A study of construction methods and processes therefore provides critical insights into administrative systems, the organization of specialized labor, and the nature of power relations between the elite and non-elite. Maya dwellings in hieroglyphs and archaeology: an integrative approach to ancient architecture and spatial cognition. This is why Inomata et al.(December 2004)  examined a temple at the Classic Maya site of Aguateca, Guatemala, was still in the process of construction when it was attacked and abandoned at the beginning of the ninth century AD. Their study of the ruin is expected to provide valuable information on Maya building methods and processes, as well as guidance on how unfinished buildings may be restored in order to maintain these beautiful relics.


There are still numerous aspects in the Maya civilization that need to be defined and explained. These could only be achieved if more archeological breakthroughs will be discovered as these will unite all the past discoveries that still emanates a shade of mystery. For example, historians have long thought that religion and warfare were the power bases of Maya civilization. The new evidence yielded from Cancuen, Guatamela of a Maya king who gained authority by controlling trade rather than fighting wars, could change historians’ minds (Ebersole, 17 November 2000). This because artifacts and hieroglyphics revealed that Cancuen was unique among Maya cities due to its immense power rested, not on religion or warfare, but on commerce. Indeed, there is unparalleled richness of evidence from survey and excavation of previously unexplored sites, the fine-tuning of iconographical understanding and the pragmatic history emerging from the inscriptions on dynastic monuments are moving us rapidly forwards to a point where Maya civilization could be compared with the well-documented rulerships of the Old World. This is why more discoveries and integration of past findings should be done in order to solve the riddle of the fate of Maya civilization.


Works Cited

Ebersole, Rene S. What Lies Beneath. Current Science. 86.6 (Nov 17, 2000): 8.

Freidel, David A. Breaking the Maya Code. Science 257.5077 (Sept 18, 1992): 1773-4.

Henderson, John S. The World of the Ancient Maya. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Herring, Adam. Art and Writing in the Maya Cities, A.D. 600-800: A Poetics of Line. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Inomata, Takeshi, Ponciano, Erick, Chinchilla, Oswaldo, Román, Otto et al. An Unfinished Temple at the Classic Maya Centre of Aguateca, Guatemala. Antiquity. 78.302 (Dec 2004): 798-812.

Knorosow, Yuri. USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1955.

Kubler, George. The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1962.

Maya. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 17 Oct. 2006  <>.

Nielsen, Jesper. Maya dwellings in hieroglyphs and archaeology: an integrative approach to ancient architecture and spatial cognition. Antiquity. 79.306 (Dec 2005): 979-980..

O’Neil, Megan. Art and Writing in the Maya Cities, A.D. 600-800: A Poetics of Line American Anthropologist. 108.2 (Sep 2006): 594-595..

Peterson, Larry C. and Haug, Gerald H. Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization American Scientist,.93.4 (Jul/Aug 2005): 322-330.

Roys, R.L. The Engineering Knowledge of the Maya, C.A.A., II(1934): 27-105. 4.

Sabloff, Jeremy A. Turning Points: Maya Archeology Comes of Age. Natural History, (January 1991): 7-11. 17 Oct. 2006. <>.

Smith, A.L. The Corbelled Arch in the New World, The Maya and their Neighbors (New York, 1940).

Trigger, B.C. Monumental Architecture: A Thermodynamic Explanation of Symbolic Behavior, World Archaeology, 22 (1990):19-32.

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