mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: ruins

Maya Symbology: Parrot

Parrot Relief on Great Pyramid at Uxmal

This parrot is carved in stone near the top of the Great Pyramid at the classic Maya site of Uxmal in the Yucatan.

“Uxmal” means thrice-built, but archaeologists have uncovered at least five stages of construction. The Maya often constructed new pyramids on top of existing ones, and it is speculated that this pyramid, located in the southern part of the site, was being prepared for such a treatment when it was abandoned.

Parrots — especially macaws, the largest members of the parrot family, which are native to Mexico and Central and South America — were associated with fire, and the sun, by the Maya because of their bright colors. Images of macaws appear in the Dresden and Madrid codices, in both cases bearing torches. The hero twins of the Popul Vuh trick the death gods by placing macaw feathers at the end of cigars to make them appear to be burning.

In general in Mesocamerica fire represented the principle of change. For the Maya fire was a vehicle for for communicating with the gods. Offerings of bloody paper were burnt, the rising smoke viewed as carrying the people’s supplications heavenward.

The Spanish word for the macaw — guacamaya –is more euphonious and suits him better. When we lived in Mixco in Guatemala a large, very bright-colored guacamaya appeared in our yard and spent several months with us. It was a long time before I realized this was the same bird called macaw in English

A new discovery at El Mirador

A pair of monumental (26-foot) stucco panels have been discovered at the important classic Maya site of El Mirador in the Peten by a team led by Richard Hansen of Idaho State University. The figures in the panels appear to represent the heros twins of the Maya creation myth.

This is clearly an important find. The panels can be dated to the Late Preclassic period, from about 300 BCE to a little after the beginning of the common era.


Video via MSNBC


View from the Mohoch Mul temple, Coba

view from the nohoch mul temple at the ancient maya archaeological site of coba in the southeastern yuucatan

We all know that the classic Maya temple was a place of religious ritual. But these structures must also have been pretty handy during times of conflict (most times). From the top of the large temple at Coba, which is 42 meters (138 feet, or about 12-14 stories) high, you can see quite a distance — under favorable conditions all the way to Ek Balaam, I think.

In this image you can see a structure from the central Coba group, which I think is called the Castillo, in the middle distance at the left, and the lakes of Coba (right) and Macanxoc (left) just below the horizon line. The five lakes of Coba are a very unusual feature in the Yucatan.

Tikal admission hike

Admission to Tikal for foreigners will rise to about US $20. I don’t think this will trouble many people unduly.

>> POSTING WILL BE LIGHT for a while on this site while I am traveling.

tikal admission rises

View of temple 1, Tikal, from east plaza

This is a watercolor I did some years ago.

watercolor by thomas christensen, first view of temple one, tikal, from east plaza

Tulum and Dean


The Maya ruins of Tulum are located on the Yucatan coast, in the southern Riviera Maya. Tulum is not exactly a major Maya site. It’s a late one, and the construction is a little crude compared to the finest Maya stonework.

During the period the city was at its height the Yucatan was racked with warfare, and consequently Tulum is one of the few walled Maya cities. Today Tulum is appallingly overrun with tourists, which makes it a bit difficult to fully enjoy. Nonetheless, it boasts a spectacular location. Few significant Maya cities are built directly on the coast (no doubt its seaside location was a defensive factor for the city’s founders). It is likely that the Spanish conquistadors’ first intimations of the Maya civilization were the siting of Tulum on its lofty perch.

I will have more to say about Tulum later. Today I mention it because Hurricane Dean is about to make landfall, and reports say it will hit just south of the historic city. I hope that the ruins will not be badly damaged and that the good people of the Yucatan will suffer as little as possible as the storm cuts its furious swath through to the Gulf.


Archaeologists have discovered traces of an ancient Maya city in a papaya plantation in the Corozal area of Belize. The find includes three Mayan foundations tentatively dated to the early classic period. Skeletons of a man and a woman were also uncovered, although they seem to be from a little earlier. According to the Belize Reporter, “It is believed that Aventura had seven to ten thousand inhabitants and encompassed an area of two to three square miles.” The Reporter article also alludes to a temple and some “ornate pottery.” I suppose in time exactly what the site comprises will become clearer.

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.

The Hand of Time

handprint at kabah

What better way to begin than with this poignant sign of an unknown Maya reaching out through the centuries to touch our world. (I say to begin because earlier posts below were transfered from my site to this new domain, and this post marks the beginning of as a new domain.)

This is a photo I took in February of a red handprint on the interior of the arch at the Maya ruins of Kabah in the Puuc region of the Yucatan. Most Maya structures were brightly painted, and this handprint was left in red paint. The handprint was originally obscured by a stucco surface, which has peeled away. Similar handprints in blue paint can be seen at Uxmal, about 20 kilometers northeast.

The arch was the opening to a sacbe, a grand road or walkway, seven kilometers wide at the north and ten kilometers wide here, which connected the great cities of Uxmal and Kabah. A similar arch marks the Uxmal end of the sacbe. A photo of the Kabah arch is below.

As it happens, the name “Kabah” includes the Maya word for “hand,” “kab” (pronounced “kah” by Maya today). The combination “kab-ah” has given Mayanists trouble, and its meaning is disputed. Some say it should be translated as “strong hand,” others as “skilled hand,” others as “sculpting hand,” others as “snake hand” or “mole hand.”

Did the ancient Maya painter imagine that the print of his hand would reach out to distant generations? If so, how might he have imagined us?

the arch at kabah

click images for larger views

The Observatory at Chichen Itza

el caracol, the observatory at chichen itza

I’m having some trouble getting my Maya materials online because there are so many of them, and there’s just so little time. So, we’ll do this one building at a time. This is “El Caracol” (“the snail,” so called in Spanish for its winding internal staircase), which is called “The Observatory” in English.

It’s not hard to see how it gets that name, because it looks a lot like a modern observatory. It’s quite unusual for a Maya building, with its round dome placed on a square base. Slits in the dome allowed viewing the sky at the cardinal and subcardinal directions. Certainly the movements of celestial objects were important to the Maya, and their astronomical reckoning was quite advanced (witness their highly accurate calendar). But I’m not sure that we can say definitively how this building was used in its particulars. As with all Maya sites, a great deal of fancy has come to surround the ruins, making it difficult to separate fancy from fact.

The earliest parts of the Observatory were probably constructed in the ninth century. The building underwent several modifications over the succeeding centuries.

Click the small image in the post to see several more images of the Observatory.

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