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mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: copan

Ancient Maya produced high-quality textiles

girl with embroidered blouse in momostenango, guatemala

That the ancient Maya produced high-quality textiles will come as little surprise to anyone who has traveled through the modern Maya world. But because few textiles are preserved from ancient times, it has been difficult to confirm that this was the case. Now researchers at the University of Rhode Island have performed a lab analysis of forty-nine samples from a tomb at Copan. The analysis showed a high degree of sophistication in the textiles’ manufacture — one had a count of 100 yarns per inch, which would be high by modern technology and consequently “speaks to the technology they had at the time for making very fine fabrics” according to textiles conservator Margaret Ordoñez.

The story is at ScienceDaily. The article has a weird lead, which claims that “Very few textiles from the Mayan culture have survived.” When will people learn that the Maya culture is still very much alive? And that “Mayan” is the adjective for the language, not the culture?


Image of girl from Momostenango from DavidDennis’ photostream


Stela B, Copan

stela b, copan

In every civilization of the ancient world, there are art works and monuments that stand out among their fellows as objects of special character. The great portrait sculptures that stand in silent rows down the center of the Great Plaza of copan created one of these special places. They constitute one of the great masterpieces of the Maya legacy. Although the artists who made them did not sign their works and leave us their names, the patron of these great works did. He was Waxaklahun-Ubah-K’awil (commonly known as 18 Rabbit), the thirteenth king of the Copan dynasty.

— Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs

The trend in Maya archaeology has been away from architectural and fine arts connoisseurship and toward broader societal analysis, with new work focusing less on the grand monuments of the ruling elite than was the case in the past. A working archaeologist in the Maya area today is more likely to be sifting dirt for fragments of fish and animal bones than reconstructing a soaring temple overgrown with vegetation. But some achievements are too great to be resisted, and the stelae at Copan are among them.

Waxaklahun (whose name actually alludes not to a rabbit but to a War Serpent) assumed the thrown of Copan on July 19, 695, when the city was at the height of its power. He soon oversaw a prodigious program of construction of public monuments. His projects included Temple 22, a remodel of the ball court, and the initiation of work on the hieroglyphic stairs of temple 26, perhaps Copan’s most famous feature (see map). And, over a period of years, he filled the Great Plaza with a major series of stelae.

The stelae are in at least a couple of different styles. It was once thought that these styles relected an evolving artistic aesthetic, but we now know, from their inscriptions, that the historical sequence of the works does not correspond to the stylistic differences. Schele and Mathews suggest instead that the stelae were the works of two different artists (or workshops), one more “innovative,” producing works more fully in the round, and the other more “conservative” (traditional), producing works emphasizing shallower front and back reliefs.

Stela B is an example of the latter style. At the time of its construction (August 22, 731) the planet Venus appeared in the constellation Virgo, which the Maya associated with Chak, the rain god. The stela depicts Waxaklahun bedecked with the diadem of Chak in his headdress, and further allusions to Chak in his elaborate regal regalia. The stela formidably expresses the king’s royal authority and his association with Copan’s patron deities (complex allusions to the Macaw Mountain Lord are prominent on the reverse side).

Five years later, around the time Waxaklahun — now an old man who had reigned more than forty years — erected his last stela (Stela D) in 736, a representative of the Maya state of Kalakmul met with K’ak’-Tiliw, the vigorous, youthful ruler of Quirigua, a vassel state to Copan. Kalamul was an emerging power and the enemy of Copan’s trade partner, Tikal. Copan, though at the extreme southern limit of the Maya region, occupied a strategic position that offered the possibility of controlling trade in jade and obsidian through the Motogua valley. About a year after this portentous meeting, K’ak’-Tiliw attacked and defeated Waxaklahun. In the fighting the mighty patron of the Copan’s Great Plaza stelae was captured.

Waxaklahun was sacrificed to the gods in the Great Plaza of Quirigua. As he attended his priestly executioner he must seen that K’ak’-Tiliw’s monuments were not so fine as his own.

Maya Symbology: Bat

copan bat sculpture

The bat’s association with night and with caves was significant to the ancient Maya, who equated nightime with death and viewed caves as the gateway to the underworld, called Xibalba (literally, “place of fright”). At nightfall the sun appears to pass through the earth to enter the underworld.

In the northern Maya region, life-sustaining water is held in underground sinkholes, or cenotes, which are associated with Chak, the rain god. Thus from death comes life, a pattern seen again in the figure of the Maize God, who emerges from the underworld, through the crust of the earth, bringing forth the staple foodstuff of the Maya (as the rising sun heralds the daytime world).

Death and life also come together in the act of sacrifice, and a people as obsessed with bloodletting as the Maya could hardly fail to notice the vampire bat’s habit of making an incision in the skin of its victim and lapping up its blood. This is probably why some representations of the bat depict flint knives on the snout or wings.

Sometimes the bat is shown together with a severed human head, and in the Popul Vuh the hero twin Hunahpu’s head is cut off by the Cama Zotz, or “death bat.” So decapitation and sacrifice are among the qualities most strongly associated with bats by the ancient Maya.

The image above is a bat carving from the sourthern Maya site of Copan. Maya cities were identified with totem animals, and Copan’s was the bat, which was often displayed on the city’s emblem glyphs. This large carving, now in the Sculpture Musem at Copan, was probably a roof ornament.

LINK: Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya

Interactive Copan Map

copan interactive map

PAPAC, the Proyecto Arqueologico para la Planificacion de la Antigua Copan (Copan Urban Planning Project) has announced a new interactive map of the ruins. In truth there isn’t much up yet, but it’s an exciting concept and shows promise of being nicely executed. Click the map to visit the site.

Ancient Maya Tomb Found in Copan

maya tomb

The tomb is dated to 650, placing it near the beginning of the Late Classic period. With typical journalistic hype, the National Geographic article announcing the find states that “until now, much about the political makeup and cultural range of the city—famous for its funerary slabs—has been poorly understood.” As if this discovery suddenly makes everything clear.

In fact, the discovery raises more questions than it answers. Why was this individual buried far from the Acropolis, the main Copan center, where other burials have been found? Why is he seated in a cross-legged position that is not typical of Maya burials? Why was he buried with ceramics, apparently from the region of present-day El Savador, that bear non-Maya heiroglyphs?

The find reminds us that the tropical forests of the lowland Maya hide many secrets, and despite astonishing advances by Mayanists over the past several decades there is still much we don’t understand. It will be some time until we make sense of this find.

The image is taken from the National Geographic article.

Maya Architecture and the Golden Mean

the golden mean at copan honduras

Mathematicians define the golden section as a relation in which the smaller unit is to te larger unit as the larger is to the sum. In other words, a:b = b:(a+b). The name for this relation is phi. Its numeric value is 1.618034. Phi is an interesting number. If you add 1 to it you get its square. If you subtract 1 from it, you get its reciprocal (1/phi). If you keep multiplying it by itself you get an infinite series that retains the phi proportion.

The thirteen-century Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci discovered that the phi proportion often manifests itself in nature as a spiral of increase found in snails, seashells, pinecones, and so forth. And so, it is said, did Maya mathematicians.

One element contributing to the beauty of Maya architecture may be its use of the golden section. (In the image above, I have drawn an approximate golden section over the opening atop the east court at the Maya ruins of Copan in Honduras.) Of course, we must beware of what a professor of mine called “the blueberry principle” — if you are out gathering blueberries you tend not to notice anything else, and you tend to see blueberries wherever you look. If we go looking for the golden section, we are likely to find it. But does this mean the Maya consciously employed it?

A researcher named Christopher Powell concluded that the answer to this question is “yes.” He says that the fundamental shape of Maya geometry is the golden section, and that the Maya composed such sections using a procedure that is brilliant in its simplicity. Using a cord, it is easy to construct a square. If the cord is doubled back on itself it obviously becomes half the length, and that halved cord can be used to find the midpoint of one of the sides of the square. Next, if the cord is placed on the midpoint and extended to one of the opposite corners, it can be swung like a compass in an arc that will define the length of a golden section, from which the final rectangle can be constructed.

Powell observed modern Yucatec Maya using this very technique. He was told that the use of the cord makes houses that are like flowers because of the relations of their proportions. His theory appears to have been confirmed by red marks that remain on some structures at Copan and Tikal and suggest sizing via this cord method.

In the Popul Vuh it is written that gods used the following method to lay out the cosmos:

Its four sides
Its four cornerings
Its measurings
Its four stakings

Its doubling-over cord measurement
Its stretching cord measurement
Its womb sky
Its womb earth
Four sides
Four corners as it is said


  • Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings (Scribner)
  • Alan Christenson, tr., The Popul Vuh, translation adapted by Schele and Mathews
  • See also the Dennis Tedlock version of the Popul Vuh with his comment on this section in which he says that it is based on the cord approach to layout, and he reports that a source informed him that the passage “describes the measuring out of the sky and earth as if a cornfield were being laid out for cultivation.”
  • Christopher Powell

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