Terracotta figure fragment "Maya"


Pre-Columbian era, Maya culture, Mexico, c. 250AD - 950AD, private collection from Netherlands.

The Maya civilization was a Mesoamerican civilization developed by the Maya peoples, and noted for its logosyllabic script, the most sophisticated and highly developed writing system in pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, calender,  mathematics, and astronomical system. The Maya civilization developed in the area that today comprises southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. It includes the northern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands of the Sierra Madre, the Mexican state of Chiapas, southern Guatemala, El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain. "Maya" i. A very large proportion of pre-Columbian art is of terracottas a modern term used to refer collectively to the various peoples that inhabited this area. They did not call themselves "Maya" and did not have a sense of common identity or political unity.

The Archaic period, before 2000 BC, saw the first developments in agriculture and the earliest villages. The earliest Maya were agricultural, growing crops such as maize, beans, chili peppers, squash and cassava. Maize cultivation dramatically changed the Maya’s trajectory, literally fueling the explosion of their society and culture. The Preclassic period (c. 2000 BC to 250 AD) saw the establishment of the first complex societies in the region, and the Maya farmers began to expand their presence both in the highland and lowland regions. The first Maya cities developed around 750 BC, and by 500 BC these cities possessed monumental architecture, including large temples with elaborate stucco facades. Around 300 B.C., the Maya adopted a hierarchical system of government with rule by nobles and kings. As the Maya built out their society even further, they laid the foundations for complex trade networks, advanced irrigation, water purification and farming techniques, warfare, sports, writing, and a complex calendar. The intricate calendar included three dating systems - one for the gods, one for civil life, and a third astronomical calendar known as the Long Count.

Civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic period (c. 200 AD - 900 AD). Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centres, and by c. 200 AD these had developed into cities containing temples, pyramids, palaces, courts for playing ball, and plazas. The ancient Maya quarried immense quantities of building limestone, which they cut by using harder stones such as chert. Classic Maya civilization grew to some 40 cities, including Tikal, Uaxactún, Copán, Bonampak, Dos Pilas, Calakmul, Palenque and Río Bec, each city held a population of between 5,000 and 50,000 people.

In common with the rest of Mesoamerica, the Maya believed in a supernatural realm inhabited by an array of powerful deities who needed to be placated with ceremonial offerings and ritual practices. At the core of Maya religious practice was the worship of deceased ancestors, who would intercede for their living descendants in dealings with the supernatural realm. Maya ritual included the use of hallucinogens for chilan, oracular priests. Visions for the chilan were likely facilitated by consumption of water lilies, which are hallucinogenic in high doses. The earliest intermediaries between humans and the supernatural were shamans. Maya architecture and art reflected deep-seated religious beliefs. The Maya embraced the belief of K’uh and k’uhul - that divinity could be found in all things, even inanimate objects. Kʼinich Ahau, the day sun, was one of his aspects. Itzamna was the creator god, but he also embodied the cosmos, and was simultaneously a sun god. His wife was Ix Chel, the goddess of weaving, medicine and childbirth; she was also the ancient goddess of the Moon. Once again, corn was vital to those beliefs: One of the most important Maya gods was the maize god (Hun Hunahpu), and Maya tradition held that the deities created humans first out of mud, then wood, then corn. The Maya worshiped their gods with a variety of rituals.

The priests performed public ceremonies that incorporated feasting, bloodletting, incense burning, music, ritual dance, and, on certain occasions, human sacrifice. Blood was viewed as a potent source of nourishment for the Maya deities, and the sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful blood offering. By extension, the sacrifice of a human life was the ultimate offering of blood to the gods, and the most important Maya rituals culminated in human sacrifice. Generally only high status prisoners of war were sacrificed, with lower status captives being used for labour. During the Postclassic period, the most common form of human sacrifice was heart extraction, influenced by the rites of the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico; this usually took place in the courtyard of a temple, or upon the summit of the pyramid. In one ritual, the corpse would be skinned by assistant priests, except for the hands and feet, and the officiating priest would then dress himself in the skin of the sacrificial victim and perform a ritual dance symbolizing the rebirth of life. Archaeological investigations indicate that heart sacrifice was practised as early as the Classic period. The Maya sport of pitz, a forerunner of soccer, had its own ritual implications: Researchers think losers of the game were sometimes sacrificed in recognition of the Maya sun and moon gods, who were said to have played the same game in the Maya creation myth, the Popol Vuh.

Maya cosmology is not easy to reconstruct from our current knowledge of their civilization. There were thirteen levels in the heavens and nine in the underworld, with the mortal world in between. It seems apparent, however, that the Maya believed Earth to be flat and four-cornered. Each corner was located at a cardinal point and had a colour value: red for east, white for north, black for west, and yellow for south. At the centre was the colour green. Some Maya also believed that the sky was multi-layered and that it was supported at the corners by four gods of immense physical strength (called Bacabs). Other Maya believed that the sky was supported by four trees of different colours and species, with the green ceiba, or silk-cotton tree, at the centre. The tree plays an important part in the mythologies of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures. The Ceiba, or ya’axché (in the Mopan Mayan language), symbolised to the Maya civilization an axis mundi which connects the planes of the Underworld (Xibalba) and the sky with that of the terrestrial realm. This concept of a central world tree is often depicted as a Ceiba trunk. The unmistakable thick conical thorns in clusters on the trunk were reproduced by the southern lowland Maya of the Classical Period on cylindrical ceramic burial urns or incense holders.

The peak Mayan population may have reached two million people, most of whom were settled in the lowlands of what is now Guatemala. After 900 AD, however, the Classic Maya civilization declined precipitously, for reasons which are still largely a mystery, leaving the great cities and ceremonial centres vacant and overgrown with jungle vegetation. When the northern Maya were integrated into the Toltec society by c. 1200 AD, the Maya dynasty finally came to a close, although some peripheral centres continued to thrive until the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century.

Pre-Columbian art encompasses the artefacts created by the indigenous peoples from the second millennium BC to the time of arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, when the existing culture were conquered by the Europeans. Beyond the more familiar civilisations such as the Incas and the Maya, smaller ethnic groups were able to develop their own distinctive cultures and artistic style. Many of these civilizations had long faded by the time of the first permanent European colonies and are known only through archaeological investigations and oral history.

Fascinating, unpolished grayish earthenware head fragment of a deity or warrior figurine. He or she wears a huge pectoral/necklace, elaborate headdress and large ear spools. Most likely the top of a much larger ceremonial or votive statuette or rattle and most probably was once brightly painted with coloured pigments, all colouration now lost however. Good condition. Age-related wear and minor defects, including cracks and miniscule fractures. Dirt, dust and soil. Size approx. 7,8cm x 7,0cm x 3,0cm. Weight c. 102g.

Citations, references and sources:

Maya Civilization, Joshua J. Mark, World History Encyclopedia, Last modified July 06, 2012. (https://www.worldhistory.org/Maya_Civilization/.)

South America, Cambridge history of the native peoples of the Americas 3,  Frank Salomon & Stuart B. Schwartz, Cambridge University Press, pp 685, 1999.

Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, Lynn V. Foster, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 21

Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Forest Civilization, Arthur Demarest,  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Maya civilization, Canadian Museum of History.(https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/maya/mmc01eng.html)

Who were the Maya? Decoding the ancient civilization's secrets, Erin Blakemore, National Geographic, Published September 7, 2022.(https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/who-were-the-maya)

The Ancient Maya (6th, fully revised ed.), Robert J. Sharer with Loa P. Traxler, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, US, 2006, pp. 182, 197.

Invading Guatemala: Spanish, Nahua, and Maya Accounts of the Conquest Wars, Matthew Restall & Florine Asselbergs, University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.

Procedures in Human Heart Extraction and Ritual Meaning: A Taphonomic Assessment of Anthropogenic Marks in Classic Maya Skeletons, Vera Tiesler & Andrea Cucina,  Latin American Antiquity. 17 (4) pp. 493–510, December 2006. (https://doi.org/10.2307/25063069.)

Atlas of Ancient America, Michael Coe Dean Snow and Elizabeth Benson, An Equinoix Book, Oxford 1986, Facts on File 1986, : Cultural Atlas Series.

Things Fall Apart: The First Maya Collapse,  Stephen Houston, April 2007, Brown University.

Mesoamerica: Maya, Bruce Owen. (http://bruceowen.com/worldprehist/3250s18.htm).