Inside the British Museum there is a small space dedicated to Mexico. Within this space, we find artifacts from about 10 pre-Columbian native cultures of what today goes by the name of Mexico. The Maya collection takes up about one fifth of the space.
Maya art was re-discovered in the 19th century, and is often regarded the most accomplished of Amerindian civilizations. Not much is known about the Maya, but with archaeologist taking an increasing interest in the civilization, much more knowledge is expected in the near future.
A great deal of mystery rests in the remains of the Maya sites, which locations stretches within and through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. As far as we know, the Maya came about around the first millennium BC. By early centuries AD, sophisticated agriculture systems developed, leading the Maya into their Classic period in which population expanded and competing cities grew larger.
The Maya civilization was very advanced for their time. By inventing hieroglyphic writing, they were able to record names, birthdates, marriages, coronations, wars and death of their rulers. Text and figural descriptions were inscribed on lintels of stone, and incorporated into architectural structures. These inscriptions are what tells us of the lives of the Maya people, of great events throughout their history, and of their knowledge. The inscriptions place historical events into specific times through an advanced and highly precise calendar.
The Maya believed that the world had been created and destroyed three times over, and that the first date of the last cycle of creating started on August 13th, 3114 BC.
Maya structures discovered are numbered from 1 and up. This model from the British Museum features the main architectural structure of a Maya temple, Structure 23, in a Maya city called Yaxchilan, constructed by successful Maya rulers between AD 400 and AD 800. Lord Shield Jaguar and his son, Lord Bird Jaguar, reigned this city during the seventh and eight centuries AD. Many Maya structures would be aligned on either the summer or winter solstice sunrise, on which days the rays of the rising sun would shine through the doorways and light up sculptures of rulers inside. Similar sculptures once existed as exterior decoration to these structures, but few have survived till present day.
The above panels were mounted as lintels of doorways. They were mounted as lintels in the temple doorways for the ritual of Lord Shield Jaguar’s accession to the throne in AD 681. Participants in the ritual would pass beneath the lintels, as a symbol of being ‘under’ their gods and rulers.
Lintel 1: Stems from Structure 23. Lord Shield Jaguar and wife, Lady Xoc, in a sacred ritual of blood sacrifice to the gods. The Maya believed the sun and the moon, which nourish the Earth, to be their main gods. In return for their gifts, nourishment was expected in return. Blood, to the Maya, was the highest form of life, thus nourishment, to offer their gods. The king holds a up a torch to shine light on the event. Lady Xoc pulls a thorn-lined rope through her tongue, and lets the blood drip into cotton cloth in a basket. This task was not limited to the queen, and would also be performed by the king. The cotton would then be burned. The Maya believed they could see their gods receiving their gifts through the smoke of their burning cloth.
Lintel 2: Stems from Structure 23. The blood sacrifice conjures up a visionary manifestation of Yat-Balam; the founding ancestor of Yaxchilan. His spirit emerges from the gaping front jaws of a massive two-headed serpent rearing above Lady Xoc. She stares up at it , bearing a blood-letting bowl containing instruments of sacrifice, a sting-ray spine and an obsidian lancet.
Lintel 3: Stems from structure 21, also from Yaxchilan. Tells a similar vision, but with Lord Bird Jaguar. Probably stems from a series of lintels.
My visit to the British Museum is most likely the closest I’ll be able to get to original artifacts of the Maya civilization (for now). I found the detailing extravagant, no screen could ever do these patterns justice. The amount of detail in these carvings is outstanding, especially considering the time period in which they were created. They tell the story of an intelligent people, who managed to gather their thoughts and beliefs, as well as history and time, most impressive of all, onto historical records. I wonder if they had historical records of their own, or if they dismissed such things as invalid as the Spanish did theirs. They don’t seem like they would.
The beauty is in the details. My High School Art History teacher had a degree in Archaeology. Her voice was rather dull, so it was hard to keep attention at times, but the way she spoke of her favourite artifacts was like music. She spoke in awareness of, and respect for, not only the period, but the individual who had worked on these art works older than time itself. When the time comes to strap on my critical reflection mask, I try to tune into her way of thinking.
I wonder how it was like to live in a time where visions were more sacred than physics. The Mayans were smart people, their civilization had more advanced calendars than ours does. Their astrological calendar is more accurate than ours. The Maya were driven by visions and belief, where, as it appears to me, their foremost desire was to honour the Earth and its creators. According to my research, this seem to have been more important than power, although power probably was the next big thing.