Sunday, April 24, 2011

Guatemala Part 2b: Ancient Maya Lifestyle

Sleeping dog pot displays artistic skill, an understanding of anatomy, and sly humor. I love the way ancient Maya artists portray animals in their work. Here, the Early Classic potter (250 AD - 600 AD) shows that s/he truly understands the anatomy and behavior of a dog. The curled-up sleeping posture is perfect. I couldn't help but smile as I instantly remembered every dog I had ever owned that slept in the exact same position. The pot was found at Kaminaljuyu within the limits of modern Guatemala City in the southern highlands. Kaminaljuyu was occupied for almost 2700 years (1500 BC -1200 AD), spanning the period from the early Olmecs to the Aztecs. While one learns about kingdoms and dynasties through the  remains of great monuments and buildings, the lives of the people of ancient times are best accessed through the day-to-day items they used to prepare food, carry out work, and with which they sometimes just amused themselves. In the previous posting on the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City, I focused on Maya rulers and nobility. In this one, I will show you a small sampling of the museum's wonderful collection of ordinary objects from Guatemala's ancient past.

Household containers

A family compound set in the forests of the Petén jungle. This extended family lives in thatched huts called nah in the Maya language. Structures of this same design are still used in parts of Guatemala and in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Gulf Coast. The roof is thatched and the walls are constructed from upright poles plastered with mud. Both houses sit on low limestone platforms to keep them dry during the rainy season. At the lower right, a hunter returns with a deer over his shoulder. Children play in the patio area, while other adults work on various crafts or prepare food. On the roof of the nah to the right, a man repairs the thatching. In recent years, archaeologists have paid much more attention to such family compounds in order to get a more complete picture of Maya life at that time. Dynasties come and go, political alliances with other city-states are made or unmade, and wars rage and result sometimes in the sacrifice of a king. Over many centuries, the Maya farmer's life continued pretty much the same through it all.

Gorgeously decorated cuenca. This intricately painted cuenca (bowl) may have belonged to an artisan or merchant or some other member of one of the more well-to-do classes. In the base of the cuenca is the profile of a monster of some sort, or possibly the Rain God Chac. A long, thin tongue protrudes out of his fanged jaws. Underneath the head is a snake. Around the inside of the walls of the dish are Maya pictographs which probably recount the myth. A meal served in such a bowl might have included maize (corn), beans, squash, avocados, chili peppers, pineapples, and papayas. Of all of these, maize was undoubtedly the most important. Maize had its own god and various mythologies associated with it. In addition, being a farming people, gods of rain were very important to Maya farmers.

Small, beautifully sculpted bottles probably held valuable substances. These may have contained perfumes, oils, or unguents. Even small objects like these were crafted with marvelous skill. Clearly, the Maya civilization must have produced enough leisure time for a class of artisans to form who could create small, everyday containers such as these.

A face only a mother could love. Found at Kaminaljuyu, this pot was made during the late Preclassic period (250 BC - 250 AD). The pouting baby face again shows the humor of a Maya artist. A pot like this may have contained chocolate, made from the cacao bean, hot chiles, and water. Archaeologists found an ancient Maya pot 2600 years old with chocolate residue, the oldest on record. Another possibility is atole, a drink made from ground maize and water. Women were often the potters, making objects like this from coiled strands of clay.

Weapons and Tools:

Tools and weapons were nearly all a combination of stone and wood. Blades were generally of obsidian, an easily worked volcanic glass. See above are arrowheads, knife blades, spear points, and at the bottom are an axe and an adze. An obsidian blade can be extremely sharp and can hold that sharpness through heavy use. Obsidian deposits were a source of great economic power for those societies lucky enough to control them, much as oil is today. Trade in raw obsidian as well as finished products was extensive throughout Mesoamerica. Some of the tools seen above were used for hunting rabbits, deer, wild turkeys, or catching fish in the local rivers or on the Pacific or Carribean coasts. In addition, the Maya kept domesticated turkeys, ducks, and dogs for food. The blades were used not only to kill the animals, but to clean and prepare the meat, and process the skins. Some of the weapons above may also have been used for warfare.

Tool of an unknown use. This finely crafted stone tool is about 1m (3 ft) long, and is probably made from obsidian. There was no identifying sign in the museum. It looks oddly like a wrench of some sort, but that is clearly anachronistic. If any of my viewers have an idea of its purpose, I would be glad to hear about it. Some long-ago craftsman took a lot of time and energy to make it.

Sellos from the Classic period (250 AD - 925 AD). Sellos (stamps or seals) were used to decorate the surface of pottery, cloth, and to make temporary tattoos. Using a sello, the craftsman (or woman) could create a repeating design around a pot rim, for example. The museum contained many examples of sellos, some representing animals, or humans, and some abstract. The Maya never made the jump from sellos as tools for decoration to using them as moveable type to create books. That leap didn't occur in human history until Johannes Gutenberg created moveable type and the printing press in 1439 AD, not long before Columbus discovered the New World.

Sello rollers. These were apparently used by rolling them over the surface to be imprinted.

Personal adornment

Jade buckles. Even the most primitive societies favor personal adornment of some sort. In a society like the Maya, such adornment reached very sophisticated levels. The finely carved jade buckles above probably decorated the cotton and feather cloak of some wealthy merchant or noble. Notice the holes for thread to sew them onto the garment. The Maya valued jade above gold. Harder than steel, it is very difficult to carve without metal tools, of which the Maya possessed none. Nevertheless, they were able to create graceful pieces like those shown above. Some of the uses they found for jade, in addition to personal adornment, were for currency, tomb offerings, and treatment for kidney problems.

Shell buttons of various sizes. These buttons are from the late Classic period (600 AD - 925 AD). They were found at La Joyanca in the lowland area of Petén. La Joyanca was only recently discovered by archaeologists in 1994 and was immediately recognized as an important site. It is now believed that La Joyanca was occupied for over 1000 years, spanning the late Preclassic to the Postclassic eras. I found these buttons strangely modern in appearance. The shells to make the buttons probably came from the nearby Caribbean Coast, but given the existing trade routes, they could have come from much farther away.

Shell necklace. Shell jewelry has been found throughout the Maya world, even long distances from either coast. This indicates that trade networks were important from early Preclassic times through the late Postclassic. Trade even extended to the non-Maya metropolis of Teotihuacan in Central Mexico, north of present-day Mexico City, and to the Zapotec's capital of Monte Alban in present-day Oaxaca. The networks extended southward as well, into Honduras and El Salvador and possibly even to Peru. Maya merchants were an elite group and their activity enabled the development of the artisan classes and the Maya middle classes in general. Shells may have been among the earliest currencies of the Maya world. In later centuries cacao beans functioned as currency.

Filed teeth were an expression of personal beauty among noble Maya women. Modern people might find it strange, even repugnant, that Maya women would undergo such a painful process to "beautify" themselves. However, present day women (and some men) undergo nose-jobs, liposuction, and other forms of plastic surgery. These are at least as painful and as dubious in benefit as filed teeth.

Maya men often had their teeth drilled and set with jade. This was, doubtless, another painful procedure. Jade was extremely valuable at the time, and this practice was probably confined to the elites. Another form of beautification used by both men and women was the deformation of the skull. Practiced exclusively by the ruling class and nobility, the parents strapped the heads of their children while still soft so that they grew into an elongated form with a flat forehead.

Human and animal representations

Market day in the plaza. There is little difference between this ancient scene and similar ones occurring  on market days in modern Maya villages. Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote of the Spaniards' astonishment at the rich variety of products available in indigenous markets. The fresh foods were probably produced locally, but others may have been brought from as far away as Central Mexico or Oaxaca. Markets were not only places of commerce, but were also used to socialize and gather news of the wider world.

"Don't happy!" When I happened upon this jolly and rather self-satisfied fellow, I immediately thought of the song popular in the late 1980s. Many times I have come across Maya art and sculpture that brought a smile to my face. It amazes me that an artist from such a different culture who lived perhaps 1500 years ago can still tickle the funny bone of a modern person like me.

Mushroom man. The mushroom cap on the head of this little fellow was intended to portray just that. Psychotropic mushrooms were used to produce visions as part of the Maya religious experience. Although there was no identifying sign with this little statue, many like it have been found at Kaminaljuyu in the southern highlands. Most were created in the early Preclassic era (1000 BC - 500 BC). They are absent from the Classic era, but came back into vogue during the Postclassic.

Pregnant woman in contemplative position. This figure is of medium size (approx. 1/3m or 12in) and was found at Kaminaljuyu. The artisan created her some time in the early Classic period (250 AD -600 AD). Her ears are pierced and she wears a necklace, as well as some kind of skull cap with a ridge down the center. She looks just about ready to "pop".

Early Classic warrior figure from the Pacific Coast area. This tapadera (lid for a pot or jug) was created sometime between 250 AD and 600 AD. The face of the warrior peeps out from within the gaping beak of an eagle's head. The warrior's body is covered by a variety of disks which may represent shields or armor. The rope-like spiral of a handle can be seen on the lower right side of the tapadera. Like the jaguar and the snake, the eagle was a powerful symbol among the Maya. In the Maya calendar, the eagle symbol is called Men. The Maya believed that the sun, which soared across the sky every day, was actually an eagle. An eagle warrior was a spiritual person, with a pure heart and full of quiet, humble wisdom.

Snarling dog was actually a whistle. According to its museum sign, this fierce-looking little fellow apparently functioned as a whistle. It was created in the southern highlands area sometime during the Classic era (250 AD -925 AD). Notice how the artist has curled back the dog's upper lips to show its snarl, a very realistic touch.

The coatimundi pot. One of my favorite pieces in the museum was this double pot, with a spout at one end and a coatimundi holding its snout at the other. The late Preclassic Kaminaljuyu (250 BC - 250 AD) artist must have had a lot of fun making this one. The coatimundi is a relative of the racoon, but with a much longer snout. They are charming little animals that swarm in packs along the jungle floors of southern Mexico and Guatemala. This one seems to be saying to himself "what have I done!?" In the mid-16th Century, Bishop Landa noted that Maya women raised an animal called chic (coatimundi) as a pet and that "they leave nothing which they do not root over and turn upside down." That sounds just like the coatimundi I have seen in action.

This completes my posting on the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. I hope I have given you a feel for the art and artistry of Guatemala's ancient Maya. In my next posting, I will show you the modern market town of Chichicastenango where you will see beautiful examples of present day Maya art and artistry. I always welcome feedback, and if you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hi Jim - I loved these photos and the items! No implements of weaving? Looms, maybe loom weights, fabric, fiber?

  2. Lucy- Not much remains of the textiles of the ancient Maya, given the climate. However, my next post on Guatemala will cover Chichicastenago and some of the gorgeous Maya textiles and clothing, and a little about the foot-loom weaving that can be seen there. Stay tuned!

  3. Hi Jim- The mushroom stone you photographed is the original mushroom stone from which my father used to make a couple of replica mushroom stones, one he kept by the family fire place, and the other he gave as a gift to the late great ethno-mycologist R. Gordon Wasson.
    My study of mushroom stones was inspired by a theory first proposed by my father, the late Maya archaeologist Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi, that hallucinogenic mushroom rituals were a central aspect of Maya religion. He based this theory on his identification of a mushroom stone cult that came into existence in the Guatemala Highlands and Pacific coastal area around 1000 B.C. along with a trophy head cult associated with the Mesoamerican ballgame.
    My research at presents archaeological and visual evidence supporting a theory that Mesoamerica and the high cultures of the Andean area of South America, shared elements of a Pan American belief system so ancient that many of the ideas may have come from Asia to the New World with the first human settlers. Elements of this theory were first put forth by ethno-mycologist R. Gordon Wasson. He proposed that the origin or genesis of this belief system was early man’s discovery of the mind-altering effects of various hallucinatory substances, most notably the Amanita and Psilocybin mushroom.
    Carl de Borhegyi

  4. Carl, thank you for your astute observations. I was pleased to find your website when I Googled for information about the mushroom cap statue, and happy to create a link to it in my posting. I especially appreciate the comments of people who are knowledgeable in an area like this.

    Best regards, Jim

  5. Jim i really enjoyed your adventure`!
    could you please email me at
    i have a question on some artifacts
    maybe you can help me with ,

    thank you

  6. Hi Jim

    Could not find your email address in your profile. Would you email me at

    I live in Uruapan. Thanks for your great photos. If you ever get back into this town, my family and I would love to take you out for a meal.

    Tommy Beard

  7. Hello Jim,
    I am researching a particular sello that is depicted in a book by Jorge Enciso. This book, which was published in the 40s, contains many different sello images. I am looking to you for guidance because of your travels and experience. Have you seen the following design in any of your travels? In Oaxaca or Veracruz perhaps? ( (I know it looks like a stylized version of the Calendar Stone, but I'm trying to dig deeper than that). I would like to know what the symbol means to the people who makes it. I would also like to know if it exists at any museums. My e-mail address is Thank you for your time!

  8. Dear Jim:
    Congratulations for your work!
    I'm a Mexican researcher deeply interested in using one of the images published here to ilustrate inner pages of a book of my authorship dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe which is going to appear next December.
    Could you tell me how to obtain it and if there's any fee involved in this request?
    I look forward to receiving your answer.
    Best regards.
    Arturo Rocha


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim