Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
Much of what your average person knows about ancient cultures comes down to a handful of artifacts.
We know the ancient Egyptians partly through the Bust of Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone. We know the Anglo-Saxons partly through the helmet and treasure left at Sutton Hoo.
But what are some of the most significant treasures from the ancient Maya civilization?
For those who aren’t as familiar with this culture, we’ve enlisted the help of Elizabeth Paris, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary who focuses on the Maya.
Together, we’ve summed up a few 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 something fixed to the ground. That omitted things like murals, elaborate fixed sculptures and temples.)
Read More: The 6 Most Iconic Artifacts From The Ancient World
Most of what we know about pre-Columbian Maya culture comes from a few surviving books: the Madrid, Dresden, Mexico and Paris codices.
The Maya recorded details about their calendar, rituals like human sacrifice and other celebrations, myths, and everyday activities such as beekeeping in these codices.
They were usually inscribed on a kind of paper made from pounded bark, Paris says.
There used to be many more of these manuscripts, but the Spanish priests burned many of them during the Inquisition period, making the few that survived all the more important.
The Madrid Codex is a little longer than the Dresden and Paris codices, and was likely written in the Mayapan region in the Yucatan Peninsula just before or around the time the Spanish arrived.
“It’s a wonderful distillation of ritual thought [from] that moment,” Paris says.
The Madrid Codex, which is full of elaborate artwork as well as Maya hieroglyphs, was actually split into two parts at some point. One part was brought to its namesake city in Spain; the other was delivered to the Vatican.
A French researcher figured out the manuscripts belonged together in the 1880s, and reunited the two parts.
Read More: Unlocking Ancient Texts with the 2,000-Year-Old Rosetta Stone
Chichen Itza is one of the more famous Maya ruins, due in part to the massive cenote that sits behind it.
The freshwater sinkhole — one of the many that appear all around the Yucatan Peninsula — was used by the people at Chichen Itza to sacrifice humans and give offerings to the gods.
Archaeologists dredging the cenote there in the 1930s discovered gold ornaments that form a three-piece mask — essentially two eyes and a mouth. The eyes are adorned with a feathered serpent called Quetzalcoatl in the Nahuatl language, or “Kukulkan” in Yukatek. The creature is one of the main gods of Chichen Itza.
The mask style, including embossed gold, is something more characteristic of the Pacific Coast areas of Costa Rica and Panama than the Yucatan Peninsula. So the artifact likely came from that area, Paris says: “You don’t have a lot of gold working among the [ancient] Maya.”
Notably, 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 (starting around A.D. 900), when the central Mexican version of the rain god began to replace Chaac, the Maya version.
The image of the mask, likely made in the Postclassic period, has become popular enough that you can find it on t-shirts at souvenir stands today. “It has entered the zeitgeist in Mexico,” Paris says.
Aside from the beauty of the piece, the mask is important because it also reveals the extent of a trade network that Chichen Itza was part of, stretching up and down the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
A highly detailed plate depicts the resurrection of the Maize God Hun Hunahpu by his sons Xbalanque and Head-Apu. These are well-known themes that appear in the Popol Vuh — a sacred Maya religious book.
The story involves Hunahpu and his brother being tricked by the lord of the underworld and sacrificed by decapitation after losing a ball game. But Hunahpu’s twin hero sons, Xbalanque and Head-Apu, go down and beat the lords of the underworld at the game.
The twins, who are later resurrected as the sun and moon, are depicted on either side of Hunahpu on the decorated plate, apparently helping to resurrect him. A turtle shell symbolizes the world, and Hunahpu’s decapitated head is also sprouting corn.
“The plate is so rich in symbolism,” Paris says.
Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly where the plate came from as it has no archaeological context. But the style of the depiction is called codex style, a form of pottery very specific to northern Peten area in Guatemala.
The plate was likely produced in the region of Tikal or Calakmul. It’s now housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Marcador, Tikal, Guatemala, limestone, A.D. 416, Maya. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala. (Credit: Megan E. O’Neil)
This object is certainly the largest on the list. Standing between 2.5- and 3-feet-tall, the stone monument was likely displayed on an altar at Tikal, a Maya capital during the classic period spanning A.D. 200 to 900.
The monument is basically a pillar with a stylized banner on top depicting leaves. It’s probably a carved stone version of the type of stick and leaf banners common at the time not in Tikal so much as at Teotihuacan, a major city in central Mexico at the time.
The writing that wraps around the pillar talks about the relationship between Tikal and Teotihuacan. Though, researchers studying the Maya don’t all agree about the exact nature of this relationship — whether Teotihuacan conquered Tikal or whether it was just an alliance.
The disk has two names — Spearthrower Owl, and the Teotihuacan rain god Tlaloc. The hieroglyphs on the cylinder talk about Spearthrower Owl and Sihyaj K’ahk’s arrival in Tikal in the fourth century A.D.
Sihyaj K’ahk’ is important because he goes on to found a new dynasty at Tikal, which may or may not be as a result of a takeover from Teotihuacan. The identify of Spearthrower Owl — this name is one given by archaeologists to describe a hieroglyph — is unclear, but it may have come from Teotihuacan, Paris says.
The cylinder was found buried intact at Tikal.
Read More: Why Was the Pyramid of the Sun Built?
(Credit: Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología/Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes of Guatemala/Registry number 22.214.171.1248a, b)
This rare vessel was found in the tomb of a king of Rio Azul dating to the late fifth century A.D.
Rio Azul was an important Maya city during the classic period, located in northern Guatemala near the borders of Belize and Mexico.
Archaeologists found the residue of chocolate on the inside of the vessel, which includes a unique screw-top cap. Its hieroglyphs also note that the cup was used for chocolate.
When archaeologists first discovered this vessel in 1990, it helped spark a whole movement studying residues and the use of chocolate among the ancient Maya.
This research has revealed that chocolate was mostly enjoyed by the elites, since cacao could only grow in a few select areas in Mesoamerica. Cacao 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 palace culture early in the classic period.
Read More: Where Is Tulum and Why Was It So Important to the Ancient Maya?