“Exploring 5 Essential Artifacts of the Ancient Mayan Civilization”
Much of what the average person knows about ancient cultures comes down to a handful of artifacts.
We know the ancient Egyptians partly through Bust of Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone. We know the Anglo-Saxons partly through helmet and treasure left at Sutton Hoo.
But what are some of the most significant treasures of the ancient Mayan civilization?
For those not so familiar with this culture, we enlisted the help of Elizabeth Parris, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary who focuses on the Maya.
Together we have summarized some of the most culturally and artistically significant artifacts from southern Mexico and Central America during the time of the ancient Maya.
(For the purposes of this article, we defined artifacts as objects—not including a structure or anything fixed to the ground. This left out things like wall paintings, elaborate stationary sculptures, and temples.)
Read more: The 6 most iconic artifacts from the ancient world
1. The Madrid Code
Most of what we know about pre-Columbian Maya culture comes from a few surviving books: Madrid, Dresden, Mexico and Paris codes.
In these codices, the Maya recorded details of their calendar, rituals such as human sacrifice and other celebrations, myths, and daily activities such as beekeeping.
They were usually written on a type of paper made from pounded bark, Paris says.
There used to be many more of these manuscripts, but Spanish priests burned many of them during the Inquisition period, making the few that survived even more important.
The Madrid Codex is slightly longer than the Dresden and Paris Codexes and was probably written in the Mayapan region of the Yucatan Peninsula just before or around the time the Spanish arrived.
“It is a wonderful distillation of ritual thought [from] this moment,” Paris says.
The Madrid Code, which is full of intricate artwork as well as Mayan hieroglyphs, was actually split into two parts at some point. One part was transported to its namesake city in Spain; the other was delivered to the Vatican.
French explorer understood the manuscripts belonged together in 1880 and reunited the two parts.
Read more: Unlock ancient texts with the 2,000-year-old Rosetta Stone
2. The Golden Mask at Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is one of the most famous Mayan ruins, due in part to the massive cenote that lies behind it.
The freshwater sinkhole—one of many that pop up all around the Yucatan Peninsula—was used by the people of Chichen Itza to make human sacrifices and make offerings to the gods.
Archaeologists, dredging the cenote there in the 1930s, discovered gold ornaments that form a three-part mask – essentially two eyes and a mouth. The eyes are decorated with the feathered serpent called Quetzalcoatl in the Nahuatl language or “Kukulkan” in the Yukatek. The creature is one of the main gods of Chichen Itza.
The style of the mask, including embossed gold, is somewhat more characteristic of the Pacific coast regions of Costa Rica and Panama than of the Yucatan Peninsula. So the artifact probably came from that area, Paris says: “You don’t have a lot of gold working in the middle [ancient] Maya.”
It should be noted that the goggle-like appearance of the eyes is emblematic of Tlaloc, the Central Mexican rain god.
This iconography is consistent with Chichen Itza at the end of the Classic period and into the Postclassic period (beginning around 900 AD), when the Central Mexican version of the rain god began to replace Chaac, the Maya version.
The image of the mask, probably made in the Postclassic period, became popular enough that today you can find it on T-shirts at souvenir stands. “It got into the zeitgeist in Mexico,” Paris says.
In addition to the beauty of the work, the mask is important because it also reveals the extent of the trade network that Chichen Itza was part of, stretching up and down the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
3. Resurrection Plate
A very detailed plate depicts the resurrection of the maize god Hun Hunahpu by his sons Shbalanke and Hed-Apu. These are well-known themes that appear in the Popol Vuh, a Mayan sacred religious book.
The story involves Hunahpu and his brother, tricked by the underworld lord and sacrificed by beheading after losing a ball game. But Hunahpu’s twin sons, Xbalanque and Head-Apu, descend and defeat the underworld lords in the game.
The twins, later resurrected as the sun and moon, are depicted on either side of Hunahpu on the decorated plate, apparently helping to resurrect him. A tortoise shell symbolizes the world and the decapitated head of Hunahpu also sprouts corn.
“The plate is so rich in symbolism,” Paris says.
Unfortunately, we do not know exactly where the plaque came from, as there is no archaeological context. But the style of the image is called the codex style, a form of pottery very specific to the northern Peten region of Guatemala.
The plate was probably produced in the Tikal or Kalakmul region. It is now housed in Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
4. Tikal Markador
Markador, Tikal, Guatemala, limestone, AD 416, Maya. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala. (Credit: Megan E. O’Neill)
This object is certainly the largest on the list. Between 2.5 and 3 feet tall, the stone monument it was probably displayed on an altar at Tikal, the Mayan capital during the Classic period spanning AD 200-900.
The monument is basically a pillar with a stylized banner at the top depicting a leaf. It is probably a carved stone version of the type of stick and leaf banners common at the time, not so much in Tikal as in Teotihuacana large city in central Mexico at the time.
The inscription that wraps around the pillar speaks of the connection between Tikal and Teotihuacan. However, scholars who study the Maya do not all agree on the exact nature of this connection – whether Teotihuacan conquered Tikal or whether it was simply an alliance.
The disk has two names, a spear-thrower and the Teotihuacan rain god Tlaloc. The hieroglyphs on the cylinder speak of the arrival of the Javelin and Sihyaj K’ahk in Tikal in the fourth century AD.
Sihyaj K’ahk’ is important because he goes on to found a new dynasty at Tikal, which may or may not be the result of a Teotihuacan takeover. The identity of the Javelin — a name given by archaeologists to describe a hieroglyph — is unclear, but it may come from Teotihuacan, Paris said.
The cylinder was found intact at Tikal.
Read more: Why was the Pyramid of the Sun built?
5. Rio Azul Chocolate Cup
(Courtesy of: Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología/Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes of Guatemala/Registration number 184.108.40.2068a, b)
This rare vessel was discovered in the tomb of a king of Rio Azul dating from the late fifth century AD
Rio Azul was an important Maya city during the Classic period, located in northern Guatemala near the borders of Belize and Mexico.
Archaeologists discovered the remains of chocolate on the inside of the vessel, which includes a unique screw cap. The hieroglyphs also note that the cup was used for chocolate.
When archaeologists first discovered this ship in 1990this helped spark an entire movement to study the remains and use of chocolate among the ancient Maya.
This research reveals that chocolate was mostly enjoyed by the elite, as cacao could only grow in a few select areas in Mesoamerica. Cocoa beans were also used as a form of currency.
“It was an era where you could literally drink your money, and money grew on trees,” Paris says.
Vessels like this are emblematic of elite court culture in the early Classical period.
Read more: Where is Tulum and why was it so important to the ancient Maya?