Because the museum's displays were so extensive, I got a huge number of wonderful photos. After agonizing over choosing which to use, I decided to do two postings rather than one. The first will focus on the ruling class, religion, the Maya Codex, and artistic representations of the human face. The second will cover day-to-day life, with pottery, tools, objects of personal adornment, and artifacts which artfully use human and animal representations. Woven through both postings will be an italicized account of Pre-Columbian Maya history in Guatemala.
Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología
Archaeologists believe the first humans arrived in what is now Guatemala as early as 18,000 BC. The earliest settlements were by hunter-gatherers known as Paleo-Indians in about 6500 BC. Pollen samples of cultivated maize (corn) have been dated as early as 3500 BC. Ceramic pottery was in use as early as 2500 BC in lowland settlements on the Pacific Coast and the northern area known as Petén. Between 2000 BC and 400 BC, people in the mountain valley around present-day Antigua were using pottery showing that they had trade relations with people on the Pacific Coast.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the young officer under Hernán Cortéz who wrote "The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico" had great respect for the skill, discipline, and bravery of the indigenous warriors he fought. After the Conquest, Diaz del Castillo spent the last part of his life in Guatemala where he wrote his History and where the original is now kept.
Archaeologists have divided the time between these early settlements and the Spanish Conquest into three broad eras. The Preclassic (2000 BC-250 AD), Classic (250 AD-900 AD), and Postclassic (900-1520 AD). It is also worth noting that archaeology is a constantly developing field. New discoveries regularly change our understanding of different periods, and the cultures involved. The Olmecs have long been considered the "mother of Mesoamerican cultures". However, recent discoveries in Monte Alto (Pacific Coast of Guatemala) show a culture distinct from the Olmecs which may even pre-date them as the first complex culture of Mesoamerica. The Olmecs, great traders and travelers, definitely had an impact on the ancient Maya culture in a number of areas, and in Retalhuleu (southwest Guatemala) we find the only ancient city in the Americas with clearly Mayan and Olmec features.
stelae. Such sculpted stone shafts rise as high as 35 feet and weigh as much as 60 tons in sites like Quiriguá, but are smaller at the museum. They were used as historical monuments, and announcements of accessions to the throne and great victories. Stelae were closely associated with the concept of divine kingship.
Recent discoveries at a Preclassic site called El Mirador (600 BC-300 BC), on the northern border between Guatemala and Mexico, show a far greater level of civilization than anyone imagined existed in the Preclassic era. La Danta Pyramid at El Mirador contains a volume of over 2,800,000 cubic meters, making it one of the largest in the entire world. The vast number of structures at the site indicate the population of this city may have been greater than any other in the Americas. Archaeologists working at the site believe the Maya in this area organized the Kan Kingdom in 1500 BC, the first political state in the Americas. The kingdom included 26 cities connected by broad, raised, limestone and stucco highways called sacbeob that cut arrow-straight through the dense jungle.
Maya kingdoms and their rulers and religion
Maya power was dispersed among city-states, each ruled by a divinely-sanctioned dynasty of kings.
Classic era Maya civilization in Guatemala was centered in the Petén area in the northern pan-handle of the country. Petén is a huge, flat or gently-rolling lowland area, with a limestone base and covered by thick jungle. In the approximate center is Lago Petén Itza. Most of the western border with Mexico is set by the winding course of the Usumacinta River. The eastern border with Belize is simply a straight north-south line through the jungle, as is the east-west line of the northern border with Mexico. Of course, none of these borders would have meant anything to the ancient Maya. Numerous rivers cut through the Petén, in addition to the Usumacinta on the west, making it much better watered than the Yucatan Peninsula which is Petén's northern extension. Classic era Maya cities are thickly distributed throughout the Petén. Tikal, perhaps the largest and greatest of all Classic Maya cities is located about a 1 hour drive to the northeast from the modern city of Flores on the shore of Lago Petén Itza.
The great city of El Mirador was overwhelmed by the military power of the newly ascendant Tikal right about this time. The Classic era of Maya civilization ran from about 200 AD to 800 AD. Art, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, and literature flowered. The Classic era's geography centered on Tikal, the largest city, but extended from the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico to northern Honduras and from Guatemala's Pacific Coast to the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Politically, it was not an empire, but was more like ancient Greece, with competing city-states alternately warring and trading with one another.
In the Classic Maya world, Tikal was contemporaneous with Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, and Uxmal in Yucatan, Mexico, among others. The cities of the Classic Maya world would have been in contact with each other through trade and sometimes warfare. In addition, they were in contact with the other great civilizations outside the Maya world such as Monte Alban of the Zapotecs in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Teotihuacan, just north of present-day Mexico City. In fact, Teotihuacan artifacts such as censers (incense burners) found at Tikal were on display at the museum. There is also evidence that a Teotihuacan prince named K'ak'Sih ("Fire-born") became ruler of Tikal during the Classic period, and died there in 402 AD.
Battles were fought twice, once for real, and once as a elaborate ceremony with the live captives paraded before their final act. 13 Rabbit, the king of the northern Honduras city of Copán, lost his life in just this way. His rival, the king of Quiriguá in nearby Guatemala, captured and executed him, a disaster for Copán.
Things began to fall apart in 600 AD, when all the temples and elite palaces in Teotihuacan were torched. The common people stuck around for another 150 years, but by 750 AD, the capital of that great empire stood empty. Monte Alban lasted a bit longer, but by 900 AD, its day was over too. Palenque and the other cities of the Chiapas highlands were ruins after 800 AD. Tikal and the great cities of the Maya heartland of Petén followed suit, and before long stood silent as the jungle enveloped them.
jaguar is the largest and most powerful cat in the Western Hemisphere. In the world, only the African lion and Indian tiger are larger. To the ancient Maya he represented power, agility, hunting skill, bravery, and a connection with another world. Jaguars hunt at night and the Maya believed night and day are two different worlds. The day is the place of the earth and the living, the night is the world of the spirits and the ancestors. By doing his "happy feet" jig above the supine--and obedient--jaguar, the ruler is portraying himself as all powerful. However, in the late Classic era, things were deteriorating, with droughts and failing crops caused in part by deforestation and overpopulation. Wars and uprisings were increasing. The common people were losing faith. As Shakespeare said, the ruler "doth protest too much".
After about 800 AD, Mesoamerica entered a period called the Postclassic which was similar to the Dark Ages in Europe. Warfare between the remnants of great states raged over resources. A militarized state called the Toltec empire arose with a lust for war, barbarity, and human sacrifice that was almost Nazi-like. Maya who had adopted Toltec modes of warfare seized northern Yucatan cities like Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan. Archaeologists call them "Mexicanized Maya." This Postclassic period includes the Aztecs, who were a late part of the waves of Chichimec invaders from the north. The earlier waves had brought down even the Toltecs. The Aztecs, who greatly admired the Toltecs, went on to found a brilliant civilization of their own. The dark side of Aztec civilization was human sacrifice on an industrial scale. And then came the ultimate holocaust, the Spanish Conquest. By the time Hernán Cortés passed through Guatemala in the 1520s, the Classic era Maya cities had been lost deep in the jungle for 7 centuries.
chief god was Hunab Ku, creator of the world. Another incarnation of Hunab Ku was Itzamna, lord of the heavens, and of day and night. He brought rain and was the patron of medicine and writing. Itzamna was worshiped by the priests and was the patron of royal dynasties. Two gods important to common people were Yum Kaax, god of maize (corn) and Chac who was actually four gods in one. Chac was responsible for rain and there was one Chac for each of the 4 cardinal directions. The rainbow god Ix Chel was responsible for healing, childbirth, and weaving, areas of special concern to women. There was even the god Ixtab, who saw to it that suicides went to a special heaven. In addition, each day, month, and year was controlled by special gods. All this was almost as complicated as Christianity, with its Trinity and pantheon of innumerable saints, angels, and Old Testament prophets.
copal incense in devices called censers. Some were small and relatively simple like the hand-held one above. Others were large and incredibly elaborate. They have been found everywhere from temple steps, to caves, to the insides of pyramids. Censers were often associated with rulers and rulership. Copal, or pom as the Maya call it, is a very aromatic tree resin that has been used from Olmec times until today. While visiting churches in remote Guatemalan villages, we found Maya women burning copal on the front steps. Other expressions of worship included feathered banners hung from doorways, and dances by men and women in the plaza wearing feathers and bells and accompanied by drums, whistles, rattles, flutes, and wood trumpets like that in the temple scene shown earlier in this posting. Participants often took hallucinogenic mushrooms, or smoked strong tobacco to produce similar effects. Such experiences were also produced through pain, by self-piercing the tongue or genitals with sharp spines. Myself, I'd go with the mushrooms.
The ball game had a religious significance throughout Mesoamerica. At least in some areas, the game was considered a re-enactment of the victory of the Hero Twins over the Lords of the Underworld, part of the Maya creation myth. The ball game was also associated with human sacrifice, but it is not clear whether the losers or the winners were sacrificed, nor what the actual rules of the game were. It is known that the players used a hard rubber ball, ranging in size from a grapefruit to smaller than a soccer ball. In some courts, there were stone rings set in the walls through which the ball must pass to score. Players wore helmets and leather padding around their waists and hips. Relief carvings at ball courts indicate that the use of hands or feet to move the ball was forbidden. Nearly every ancient Mesoamerican city we have visited, whether Maya or not, has possessed at least one ball court, and sometimes several.
The Maya deeply respected death and thought that certain forms of death were more noble, such as that occurring in battle, suicide, or childbirth. Such people would immediately be transported to heaven. Evil and guilty people suffered during their stay in Xibalba, the Underworld. The body in tombs often had maize in its mouth, both as food for the journey and because maize represents rebirth. Other favorites for placement in the mouth were jade or stone beads to be used as currency in the passage through Xilbalba. Often graves were located in or near caves, which were considered entrances to Xilbalba. Red was considered the color of death and the bodies were often covered by cinnabar, a reddish mineral.
The famous Maya Codex
codex is a folding book made from the bark of a wild fig or Amate tree. The Maya called the paper from the bark huun. The brown lines separating panels in the photo above are crease marks from the folds in the ancient and very fragile document. Huun was developed around the 5th Century AD, and was superior to the papyrus paper used by the Romans of the same era. The codices were written by special scribes under the sponsorship of the Tonsured Maize God and the Howler Monkey God. Their subjects included religion, astronomy, and Maya histories reaching back 800 years or more.
baffled European explorers and later archaeologists for hundreds of years. Some thought they were simply decorative elements. Others thought they were picture-writing like Egyptian hieroglyphs, and still others thought they might be purely phonetic. Many thought they could never be decyphered. Finally, beginning in the 1970s, the code was cracked by a team led by an archaeological artist named Linda Schele. They realized that the script was a combination of picture-writing and phonetics, and that there was still a connection with modern Maya languages. Suddenly a window swung open on the ancient world of the Maya. Many beliefs about them underwent drastic changes, including the one that they were non-violent mystics chiefly engaged in stargazing.
Maya wore masks during important events, including everything from births to battle. The most elaborate masks tended to be used to cover the faces of the dead, such as the famous jade mask of Palenque ruler Pakal. Sometimes they showed the faces of ordinary people, such as the one above, in weddings and to commemorate births and deaths.
This concludes the first of two parts on Guatemala's National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. I hope you have enjoyed this tour of the museum and of Guatemala's ancient Maya history. I always appreciate feedback, and if you'd like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.
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Hasta luego, Jim