Dr. Charles F. Urbanowicz/Professor of Anthropology
California State University, Chico/Chico, California 95929-0400
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Originally published in 1967} Posted on the web on

1 October 2002 (1)

[This page printed from]

(1) © [All Rights Reserved.] This paper was originally published in 1967 in Honors Papers, 1967, Volume 6: pages 26-31, Western Washington University (then Western Washington State College), Bellingham, Washington. I received the B.A. in Sociology/Anthropology from Western in 1967 and went on to get my M.A. (1967) and Ph.D. (1972) in Anthropology from the University of Oregon, Eugene. This thirty-five year-old paper was placed on the WWW on 1 October 2002 to illustrate a point for two public lectures at CSU, Chico, in October 2002: one on October 6th for the lecture series entitled "World Explorations" sponsored by The Museum of Anthropology, California State University, Chico ( and one on October 10th for lecture series entitled "Anthropology Forum" sponsored by the Department of Anthropology, CSU, Chico []. For more recent resources, including various web sites, please consult these two additional October 2002 web pages. NOTE: This thirty-five year old paper now includes some "visuals"(at the end of the paper) acquired during a trip to the Yucatán, finally, in 1994.

This paper is a brief attempt to deal with the philosophy of art and art forms in the land of the Maya prior to pre-Columbian contact and Spanish conquest. By analyzing their art forms expressed in various mediums we can understand the cultural continuity that constituted Maya civilization. Social structure, religion, and their philosophy are all reflected in the varied art forms.

The area of the Maya in Mesoamerica consisted of three principal regions with differences in climate, topography, and natural resources. These are (1) the peninsula of Yucatan, more specifically the northern portion with its limestone base and underground rivers, (2) the central valley, including the southern half of the peninsula--a hot, dense, tropical forest area, and (3) the southern plateau area, including the mountainous lands of Guatemala. Depending on how one defines Mayan territory and Mayan influence, the land of the Maya was spread out over approximately 100,000 to 130,000 square miles (Spinden 1957: 2 and Thompson 1954: 17-26).

The people are called the Maya and the peninsula Yucatan, when the truth of the matter is we do not know what they called themselves nor what they called their land. When Columbus first make contact with the Amerindians in 1502 he asked them who they were and where they were from. The Amerindians replied that they were from a province called Maiam and that the land was given to them by Ci uthan (de Landa 1579: 2). (There is also the possibility that the native were telling the Spaniards, "We don't understand you,' and it sounded like Ci-u-than.) (von Hagen 1960: 13). Through time this was corrupted into Maya and Yucatan. The Maya were not part of the lost tribes of Israel nor survivors of the ill-fated continent of Atlantis. Point of fact, the contemporary Maya have two somewhat distinctive Asiatic characteristics: (1) the epicanthetic fold is common among the modern Maya of Yucatan and (2) the Tungusic spot is commonly found on Maya babies born today in Northern Yucatan (Morley and Brainerd 1956: 24).

The Maya have been called "the most intellectual of all the American Indian tribes and nations," surpassing even the Old World people of antiquity (Driver 1964: 134). From approximately 1500 B.C. until 1450 A.D. Maya civilization flourished and fell. The commentary in this paper will deal with the "Classical Maya" civilization, from approximately 300 A.D. until the peak years around 900 A.D.

The art of the classical Maya came about for several reasons, one of them being the ecological nature of their land and the heavy population that was supported by it. It has been estimated that a Maya farmer could raise enough food for himself and his family for an entire year in only 48 days (76 days is the high estimate) (Morely and Brainerd, 1956: 140). Whether this means that one Maya family could support 6.7 other Maya families in one year or that individual families themselves had anywhere from 9 to 10 months of free time every year to work for the priests is still to be decided. Needless to say, the land was rich and allowed the people a great deal of leisure time.

The architectural achievements and sculptural quality of the Maya artists was inextricably interwoven into the religious fabric of the society. When Classical Maya society disintegrated, so did the quality of their art. The order of Maya civilization is reflected and recorded in their architectural achievements and we can interpret Maya history through the fantastic building projects that they undertook.

If only one thing could be said about the Maya of pre-Columbian America, it would have to deal with their interests in "time" and their ramifications on that abstract concept. The Maya were fascinated, enchanted, and even verging on the obsessed with the concept of time (Spencer, 1965: 461). Their expertise was such, that their error was approximately one day in 6,000 years for the calculation of the planet Venus's revolutions. Inscriptions have been found that carry calculations 90,000,000 and 400,000,000 years into the past. (Thompson, 1954:146). Mayan astrologers might be considered to be synonymous with the Mayan priesthood in my opinion. In the year 752 B.C., on November 10, there was a tremendous solar eclipse across the northern part of Central America. This was followed 177 days later by a second eclipse. This first eclipse is often taken as the beginning of Maya astrology, "For then and there the Maya shamans began to keep a careful account of suns and moons to learn the why and wherefore of eclipses." (Spinden, 1948: 393).

It would be incorrect to provide the Maya with the addition sobriquet "empire." There was no centralized concept of power that we assume to be concomitant with the term empire (as was the case in pre-Spanish Peru). Each Maya city was an independent autonomous-theocratic city state, with the power to form confederations with other city states (Rivet, 1954: 47). Yet one should not look upon the Classical Maya city-states as being similar to Greek city-states. The Maya city-states served as centers of worship and the only people who lived in these cities in Classical times were the priests. The people lived in the surrounding area and tended the soil and only came to the temples to worship and performs labor for the priests (Termer, 1951: 105).

Maya society was stratified along four distinct class lines: the nobles or rulers, the priests, the common people (from whence came the skilled laborers and artisans to work for the priests), and the slaves (Rivet, 1954: 48). There was apparently division of labor in Maya society so that the farmers worked the soil and the skilled craftsmen and sculptors worked for the priests.

The religious facet of Maya life played an important part in the development of art forms. Their religious philosophy involved the deification of art forms. Their religious philosophy involved the deification of the heavenly bodies and a worship of time. The gods of the Classical maya were not totally benign gods, for they did require some sort of blood worship: but it was human blood cut from the tongue. Very fine reliefs have been found showing "devotees pulling knotted cords through holes cut in their tongues." (Disselhoff and Linne, 1960: 118). The religion was esoteric in nature, interpreted by a highly organized priesthood of prophets, mathematicians, astronomers, and statesmen. The role that religion played in Maya life is reflected in their extant art forms. Very seldom was the peasant, or bulk of the population, portrayed on the pottery or sculptured carvings. The subject matter of Classical Maya art was the representation of priestly ideas coupled with the glorification of the priestly class (Spencer, 1965: 456). When peasant women have been found on terra cotta figurines they are interpreted as being representations of the fertility goddess (Kimball, 1960: IX). As a general rule it appears that most, if not all, art forms of pre-Columbian Central America served a religious function of some sort.

Maya art was expressed through various mediums. There was architecture in general, mural paintings, fine carved jade, bone and shell art work, carved door beams, and wooden lintels, ceramics, stucco, stone carvings, and pottery.

Maya jade was exceptionally hard and cutting it without the use of metal tools was no easy task. One account of jade carving is given by Rivet:

It was done with the help of an instruments made of obsidian, a substance which can score jade; this was worn away by rubbing with gravel from the same rock, with quartz or other hard rocks. The block of jade was cut up by the movement, to and fro, of a vegetable fibre which acted as a saw, thanks to this hard gravel humidified by water. The perforations were made by twisting drills made of hard wood or bone, again with the help of gravel and water. (Rivet, 1954: 201).

One of the chief mediums of Maya artistic work was limestone. The limestone of the Maya area was easy to quarry and carve, hardening only after exposure. The durability of Maya buildings and sculpture is a result of their lavish use of limestone (Peterson, 1959: 282). Yet the stone mason and sculptor had to be content with wooden wedges to crack the stone, and stone celts, mauls, and chisels to shape it. The chisels were made of basalt or diorite and there is also the possibility that flaked flint chisels were used in some areas.

Three means of expression are found in the sculpture of the Classical Maya: (1) low relief, (2) high relief, and (3) full-round (Spinden, 1957: 16). This type of relief carving was well-suited for the Maya since the sun was almost directly overhead most of the year and even the shallowest of bas-reliefs stood out with brilliant clarity (Emmerich, 1963: 12-13). The representation of three dimensional objects on a two dimensional surface came about by the judicious juxtapositioning of these three types of relief. The Classical Maya were masters of perspective and foreshortening.

The person or persons on Classical Maya carvings were highly conventionalized. There were usually only three representations of the human body: (1) the entire figure placed in profile, (2) the head in profile with the body full face, and (3) the complete full face (Thompson, 1954: 173). The earliest stone sculpture from Uaxactun, dated at the fourth century A.D., shows the human figure in full profile. As the classical stage continued the human figure became more lifelike and less wooden. The proportions improved and the body position was more natural. However, by late Classic times Maya sculpture began to take on a careless appearance. Figures became poorly proportioned and too much detail began to obscure the design (Morley and Brainerd, 1956: 333-347). The Maya had developed a sense of what is called horror vacuii. They had to fill up every conceivable space with some sort of design (von Hagen, 1960: 113).

Perhaps the most conspicuous and representative of Maya sculpture are the massive stone obelisk-like monoliths that are scattered throughout Maya cities. These were erected approximately between the years 328 A.D. and 889 A.D. Sandstone, limestone, and andesite were used for carving stelae. The largest discovered one is 35 feet tall and has an estimated weight of 65 tons. The actual purposes of the stelae are unknown, but they were probably connected with religious events. They were usually erected at certain fixed intervals, the oldest one being dated at 292 A.D. Stelae are found in almost all of the ruins on the land of the southern and western Maya. Those that are found in the north are of poor quality. When the age of the Classical Maya passed the erection of stelae was discontinued (Spinden, 1957: 129-132). The rise and fall of the Classical Maya civilization can be traced by the stylistic changes in their sculpture and by astronomical checks on the dates inscribed on their sculpture. When the stelae were finished and erected they were painted, "usually a dark red." (Morley and Brainerd, 1956: 332).

The world of the Maya was a colorful one, for they painted everything! They painted their carvings, buildings, ceramics, and even their dead (Kimball, 1960: IX). Often entire temples and monuments were painted over in a single tint, with murals being painted on the inner chambers. Maya murals display an amount of animation which is not present in the stelae carvings. The figures were not as stylized as they were on the stelae and they portray much more narrative information.

The oldest fresco dates from at least 593 A.D. but the most distinctive one that has survived, because of the amount of information that it portrays, is dated at approximately 790 A.D. from Bonampak. There, three muraled rooms combine to show the events leading up to a bloodletting ceremony performed by a high priest and his family. The discovery of this mural in 1946 gave a great deal of information hitherto unknown about the Maya priest class. Prior to 1946 it had been assumed that only men took part in religious ceremonies: the Bonampak murals show that the wife and children of the priest participated in the ceremonies. It is also apparent from this mural that human sacrifice was not entirely limited to the post-Classic stage of Maya civilization for "it obviously took place on considerable scale at Bonampak" (Morley and Brainerd, 1956: 393). These wall frescoes were apparently done by a master and his assistants.

The fact may well be debated as to which is the more important or most prominent medium in analyzing Maya art: stone sculpting or ceramics. Stratified pottery deposits have provided archaeologists with an excellent "fossil index" of Maya life. Pottery was made by hand and not by the potter's wheel. The clay was molded into long coils and was then laid down on top of one another in successive rings. It was then worked and pressed into a single form with the hands. the clay form was then smoothed with a shard. if the vase was large--and some were gigantic--the pottery maker walked around the vase, becoming himself the potter's wheel. (von Hagen, 1960: 79).

It has been said that the Maya "brought to their ceramics their habits as sculptors" for they engraved their vases after baking (at 450 degrees), by means of a raised field process. this consisted of incising the baked earth on the pottery with the design of the subject desired to stand out then "lowering" the surrounding background by cutting it away in small strokes with an awl (Harcourt, 1950: 62). The state of Classical Maya pottery eventually led into a modified "Maya-Toltec" stage and eventual elaboration of Toltec motifs: the military orders and variations on the theme of the plumed serpent. During this time "plumbate" or glazed pottery was introduced to the Maya, the only appearance of glazed ware in all of Middle America (Thompson, 1954: 178-179).

The statement has been made that in order to successfully understand the Classical Maya of pre-Columbian America it is necessary to understand their art forms, for art was the chief way in which they transmitted the patterns of their way of life (Spencer, 1965: 456). I would also like to add another reason for using art forms to interpret Classical Maya civilization: very few written records survived the zealous efforts of the friars to obliterate all Maya references to the "pagan gods." There is little that we can to reconstruct classical Mayan civilization other than analyzing the extant art forms and endeavoring to interpret the yet undecipherable Maya glyphs.

There was an underlying homogeneity to all of Mayan art, a credit to the intricate system of causeways that connected the various city-states. We can then hypothesize that there was an underlying homogeneity to all of the people, particularly the Maya of the Classical period: approximately 300 A.D. to 900 A.D. Yet for reasons still unknown the Classical Period of Maya history began its decline in the ninth century and the art began to reflect this deterioration.

The facts are still debated as to the cause of the decline of the Classical Maya. It is known that tremendous deforestation programs had to be put into effect for the building projects (Calder, 1961: 141). An outbreak of yellow fever has been suggested for the collapse of the classical era (Spinden, 1957: 324). A sudden flourishing of the jungle vegetation overgrowing the land has also been suggested (Disselhoff and Linne, 1960: 115). Perhaps the reason that carries the most credence is the one that suggests that the people were just tired of all the priestly-inspired building projects and simply revolted against the priests (Thompson, 1954: 88). Whatever the real reason for the decline it suffices to say that the Classical Period of Maya civilization eventually broke apart. The people moved from the central part of their land and into the highlands of Guatemala and the northern part of the peninsula of Yucatan. The Classical Period really came to an end with the invasion of the land of the Maya by Amerindians from Central Mexico.

Quetzalcoatl, the Toltec culture hero, led his people out of Tula 9their chief city in Mexico) and sailed to Yucatan approximately 1000 A.D. Once on the peninsula Quetzalcoatl and his people re-established themselves in the city of Chichen itza. The Toltecs introduced to Chichen itza the architecture of distant tula (some 700 miles away). Included were rounded temples which occurred from early times on the mainland of Mexico but which only now made their appearance in the Maya area, use of the feathered serpent as a general ornament, the warrior motif in paintings and carvings, and a new religious element: one that called for human sacrifice (Morley and Brainerd, 1956: 83-86).

Chichen Itza fell out of political power in approximately 1200 A.D. and Mayapan became the one ruling city over all of Yucatan. It was then, and only then, that the Maya had one halach uinich or "highman" over all of them. The highman was in charge of the sacred well as secular functions of the city for halach uinich may be defined as both bishop and governor (Thompson, 1954: 81). With Mayapan as the chief city all of the other Maya cities had to pay an annual tax to the Mayapan halach uinich.

Archaeological excavations of Mayapan have revealed some interesting facts. instead of the tremendous stone work that was found in the land of the classical Maya, archaeologists have found stone work that was poor and shoddy. There was little decorated pottery to be found in Mayapan and the evidence suggests that art items were mass-produced. The best buildings were not the religious temples, as in Classical times, but the personal houses of the chiefs (Bushnell, 1965: 126). A sad commentary on what had once been a great civilization. (The Maya have been refereed to as the Greeks of pre-Columbian America and the Aztecs as the Romans of pre-Columbian America. Disselhoff and Linne, 1960: 79.) 

Mayapan eventually fell in 1450 A.D. and total anarchy reigned on the peninsula. The civilization of the Maya was on the wane and it was only a matter of time until what was left of the Maya were totally inundated by the wave of the Spanish aggression. 



Bushnell, G.H.S., 1965, Ancient Arts of the Americas (Praeger).

Calder, Ritchie, 1961, After the Seventh Day (1962 Mentor Edition).

de Landa, Diego, 1579, Yucatan: Before And After the Conquest (Translated with notes by William Gates, The Maya Society: Baltimore, 1937 edition).

Disselhoff, H.D. and S. Linne. 1960, The Art of Ancient America (Crown publishers).

Driver, Harold E. (Ed.), 1964, The Americas on the Eve of the Discovery (Prentice-Hall, Inc.).

Emmerich, Andre, 1963, Art before Columbus (Simon and Schuster).

Harcourt, Raoul, 1950, Primitive Art of the Americas (Tudor publishing Co.).

Kimball, Irmgard Groth, 1960, Mayan Terracottas (1961 Praeger Edition).

Morley, Sylvanus G. and George W. Brainerd (Reviser), 1956, The Ancient Maya (Stanford University Press).

Peterson, Frederick, 1959, Ancient Mexico (Putnam).

Rivet, paul, 1954, Maya Cities (Putnam, 1962 Edition).

Spencer, Robert F. et al., 1965, The Native Americans (Harper and Row).

Spinden, Herbert J., 1940, "Diffusion of Maya Astronomy." The Maya and Their Neighbors (Edited by Hays et al., D. Appleton-Century), pp. 162-178.

_______________, 1948, "Mexican Calendars and the Solar year. Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1948, pp. 393-406.

_______________, 1957, Maya Art and Civilization (The Falcon's Wing Press).

Termer, franz, 1951, "The Density of Population in the Southern and Northern maya Empires as an Archaeological and Geographical Problem." The Civilizations of Ancient America (Edited by Sol Tax, University of Chicago Press0, pp. 101-107.

Thompson, J. Eric, 1954, The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization (University of oklahoma Press).

von hagen, Victor W., 1960, World of the Maya (Mentor Edition).

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from: Friar Diego de Landa (1579), Yucatan Before And After The Conquest, Translated With notes by William Gates [Mexico: 1993 edition], page 22: Map of the Yucatán.

Urbanowicz 1994 Trip through the Yucatán.

Two important publications: 1542 (De Las Casas) and 1566 (de Landa)
John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1850).

Friar Diego de Landa (1524-1579)
From the Museum in the convent at Mani.

The convent at Mani where the auto-da-fé took place in July 1562.

from: Gerardo Bustos, 1992, Yucatan And Its Archaeological Sites (D.F. México: Monclem Ediciones, S.A. de C.V.).

El Castillo, Chichen-Itzá.

The largest "ball court" in all of the Americas, measuring 272 feet in length (83 meters). (See: Joyce Kelly, 1993, An Archaeological Guide To Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, Norman: University of Oklahoma, page 55.)
"The Caracol ("snail"). This is the only circular edifice in all of northern Mayan territory. Its tower was used as an astronomical observatory." Pierre Ivanoff, 1973, Monuments of Civilization: Maya (NY: Grosset & Dunlop)., page 114.

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(1) © [All Rights Reserved.] This paper was originally published in 1967 in Honors Papers, 1967, Volume 6: pages 26-31, Western Washington University (then Western Washington State College), Bellingham, Washington. I received the B.A. in Sociology/Anthropology from Western in 1967 and went on to get my M.A. (1967) and Ph.D. (1972) in Anthropology from the University of Oregon, Eugene. This thirty-five year-old paper was placed on the WWW on 4 October 2002 to illustrate a point for two public lectures at CSU, Chico, in October 2002: one on October 6th for the lecture series entitled "World Explorations" sponsored by The Museum of Anthropology, California State University, Chico ( and one on October 10th for lecture series entitled "Anthropology Forum" sponsored by the Department of Anthropology, CSU, Chico []. For more recent resources, including various web sites, please consult these two additional October 2002 web pages. To return to the beginning of this paper, please click here.

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