Friday, March 30, 2012

Ancient Maya Featherwork

Like other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztecs the ancient Maya made use of feathers as a source of artistry and personal adornment. Though the feathers of Maya feather work have long since rotted away, there is some information on the subject.

Kinds of feathers
The Maya used different kinds of birds as their sources of feathers. Of the different feathers, tail feathers of the male quetzal -- which are a shade of iridescent green and can grow up to a meter long -- were seen as the most beautiful. They were traded from the Maya highlands to the rest of the Maya world and beyond. It is understood that commoners were not allowed to use quetzal feathers, only the royalty.

Obtaining Feathers
Often, the Maya would pluck the feathers off the bird and then let the bird go. The Quiche Maya even had aviaries (enclosures for birds) in order to have a supply of feathers for their creative endeavors.

The ancient Maya incorporated feathers into clothing. They also used them to make decorations for spears and scepters, and in the making of fans, canopies, body ornaments, capes and shields.

Another use of feathers was in the making of headdresses. The ancient Maya made the headdresses by working feathers into wicker frames.


“The Ancient Maya”; Robert J. Sharer, Loa. P. Traxler; 2006

“The Ancient Maya”; Robert J. Sharer, Sylvanus Griswold Morley; 1994

"Animals and Plants of the Ancient Maya: A Guide"; Victoria Schlesinger; 2001

"Mayas, Aztecs, Incas: Cooperative Learning Activities"; Mary Strohl, Susan Schneck; 1995

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Maya Numbers

Our number system is based on 10. Ancient Mayans, like the Welsh, had a number system based on 20 (known as the vigesimal system). Here’s a look at the difference between the two systems:

Where we have 10, the ancient Maya had 20.
Where we have 100 (10 times 10) the ancient Maya had 400 (20 times 20).
Where we have 1,000 (100 times 10), the ancient Maya had 8,000 (400 times 20).
Where we have 10,000 (1,000 times 10), the ancient Maya had 160,000 (8,000 times 20).

This continues on for as long as there are numbers that can be counted to.

Number Glyphs

The Glyph for Zero
Different kinds of glyphs were used for 0 during the Classic period. This changed to the stylized shell in the Postclassic period.

Glyphs for Numbers One through Four
The glyph for number 1 is a dot, the glyph for 2 is represented by 2 dots, 3 is written with 3 dots and 4 dots represents the number 4.

The Glyph for Number Five
The glyph for number 5 is a bar. 10 is represented through a pair of bars, and 15 is a group of 3 bars.

Combining Dots and Bars
Dots and bars can be used to represent numbers 1 through 19. For example, 6 is represented by a bar and a dot. For larger numbers, the ancient Maya used a place notation system.

Ancient Mayan Place Notation System
Imagine a column divided horizontally at regular intervals. The lowest section is the 1s space, the second place is the 20s space, the third place is the 400s space, the fourth place is the 8,000s place, the fifth one is the 160,000s place. This is how the Maya wrote large numbers, instead of horizontally like we do.

Here is an example of how it works: envision the 8,000s space having a horizontal bar. That placement makes 40,000 because 8,000 times 5 equals 40,000.

For another example, envision the 1s space has a bar and the 20s space has a dot. That makes the number 25 because 1 x 5 + 20 x 1 = 25.

A third example: imagine the 1s space has 4 dots, the 20s space has two bars and a dot and the 400s space has 4 dots. This makes 1,824 because

400 x 4 = 1,600
20 x 11 = 220
1 x 4 = 4

Add these numbers together and you get 1,824.


"The Ancient Maya"; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Marjorie Barrick Museum: Mayan Math

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


In the Mexican state of Yucatan, in the Santa Elena Valley, is the site of the ancient city of Uxmal. This site is thought to have once been a significant capital city -- controlling an area of approximately 15.5 miles -- and had three economically/politically related towns: Kabáh, Sayil and Labná. Today it is a tourist site famous for its buildings, such as the Great Pyramid, the Nunnery Quadrangle, the Pyramid of the Magician, the House of the Governor and the House of Turtles. The site now even sports a light show.

Rise and Fall of Uxmal
Archaeologists have used radiocarbon dating and observed the architectural styles of Uxmal to figure out the site’s history. So far, it is thought that around 800 BC --during the Preclassic period --, people began to live in the area Uxmal was built. Time passed and the city of Uxmal came to be, with its height beginning around 650 AD and ending 1000 AD. Archaeologists think this in part because Uxmal’s main buildings were constructed in the Puuc style, which was common from around 770 AD until 1000 AD.

During its height it is thought that Uxmal’s population reached around 25,000. Eventually though, Uxmal was abandoned, around the time of 1200 AD.

After its abandonment, a Mexican lineage known as the Yiu started living at Uxmal (the Books of Chilam Balam state that the Yiu are the founders of Uxmal). The Yiu created an alliance with the cities of Mayapan and Chichen Itza known as the Mayapan League. These three cities eventually waged a war that lasted about 100 years, from 1441 until 1541, and Uxmal was abandoned again. Then the Spanish found it.

Uxmal’s Kings
The chronology of rulers of Uxmal -- like the history of the city’s occupation -- is not well known. In fact there is only information on one of its rulers -- a possibly Terminal Classic ruler called Chan Chac Kaknal Ahau -- along with some information on his parents. Archaeologists have restored some capstones, and dates correlated by J. Eric Thompson match with 907 AD and 906 AD.

Uxmal’s Layout
Surrounded by the remains of a wall, Uxmal’s layout includes groups of structures as well as standalone structures, some of which are located on the top of several terraces. These structures are all aligned the same way except for one, the House of the Governor.
Running through Uxmal, is an approximately 11.2 mile sacbe (road) that goes through the site of Nohpat to the site of Kabáh. There are also water reservoirs.


“The Ancient Maya”; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

"The Maya" 5th Ed.; Michael D. Coe; 1993

UNESCO: Pre-Hispanic Town of Uxmal

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Codices: The Books of the Maya

The Maya crafted accordion-style books on what is called copo (or amatl in the Nahuatl language) -- paper created from the inside bark of fig trees -- whose pages they thinly coated with lime plaster. Instead of printing, Maya scribes would draw information and pictures of activities ranging from religious duties of the priests to crop production. Today, these books are called codices.

There are not many codices around now however. Due to the tropical climate of some areas of the Maya world, codices tended to rot away after a time -- though fragments of codices have been found in tombs. Also, after the Conquest, Franciscan “missionaries” such as Bishop Diego de Landa ordered Maya codices to be burned. Despite the climate
and the burn order, so far four codices have been brought to light.

These four codices are the Dresden Codex, the Paris Codex, the Madrid Codex and the Grolier Codex. This last codex was discovered fairly recently, in 1971. These surviving codices contain information on Maya rituals, divination and astronomy but do not contain much historical information.

University of Arizona Libraries: Mayan Codex Facsimiles

“The Ancient Maya”; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

Palomar College: Wayne's Word: Stranglers and Banyans

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Puuc Architecture

Puuc is a term used for one of the various styles of architecture that Maya developed before the arrival of the Spanish. Puuc -- or “low range of hills” -- was in vogue in the Yucatan Peninsula from around 770 to 1000 AD, (as around 1000 AD the Maya had abandoned the Puuc style sites.) Sites known for their Puuc style architecture include the cities of Sayil, Kabah, Uxmal and Labna.

Basic Setup
The Puuc style takes a building made from stones held together by a lime-based concrete and uses it as a “core” for the building. Over this core, thin pieces of cut stone are set to form a decorative veneer. Usually, only the top half of Puuc style buildings are decorated with the veneer, leaving the bottom half un-embellished.

Veneer Features
Veneer designs used for Puuc buildings include lattices made of “x” shaped stones and stepped frets -- a series of connected blocky spirals -- and also Chac masks -- which themselves are made of several pieces. Another mosaic piece this style makes use of is the engaged column, which isn’t a real column, but has a flat back that is attached to the wall. These designs would be combined in various ways to form the ultimate veneer.

Corbel Arch
The corbel arch is another part of Puuc architecture. It is made with “boot-shaped” stones to create an arch with a stepped appearance. Not to be confused with a “true” arch, the stones of the corbel arch do not use each other to hold each other up (and therefore, the corbel arch does not need a keystone.)

Alignment Features
Puuc style buildings tend to be aligned so that they all face the central plaza that was used for ritual purposes. The ceremonial centers in Puuc style sites are aligned to be 14 degrees to the right (east) of north.

The Puuc style wasn’t always used by itself. Sites exist that are a blend of Puuc style and a style that could be a northern Mexican style. One example is Chichen Itza, which was controlled by the Toltec people for a time. Chichen Itza contains both older buildings of purely Puuc (“Classic Puuc”) architecture and newer buildings of Puuc hybrid architecture. The Classic Puuc architecture is found in the southern area of the city, while the newer, hybrid buildings are found in the northern area of the city. However, it is possible that some of what looks like it came from northern Mexico could have just been invented in Chichen Itza.

University of Idaho: Non-Western Architecture: Puuc Style

University of Idaho: Non-Western Architecture: Puuc Style Facades

University of Idaho: Non-Western Architecture: Puuc Style Facades II

University of Idaho: Non-Western Architecture: Puuc Style Vaults

University of Idaho: Non-Western Architecture: Puuc/Mexican Style

"The Ancient Maya"; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

Monday, March 5, 2012

Calendar Series 6 of 6 -- Other Calendars

Other than the Calendar Round and Long Count, the ancient Maya used other systems for guiding their culture, which archaeologists understand to varying degrees. These “calendars” include the cycle of Venus, the Lords of the Night sequence, the 819-day count, the cycle of the moon and possibly the cycle of Mars.

Ancient Maya astronomers appear to have calculated Venus’s cycle this way: it rose as the Morning Star for 236 days, disappeared after this for 90 days, rose as the Evening Star for 250 days and disappeared for 8 days before becoming the Morning Star again. This makes a total of 576 days.

However the way the ancient Maya calculated Venus’s cycle does not accurately reflect what happens. Venus actually goes through a cycle that varies from 580, 587, 583, 583 and 587 days for an average of 583.92 days per cycle. It is the Morning Star for around 240 days, disappears for about 90 days, is the Evening Star for around 240 days, disappears again for 14 days and finally is the Morning Star again.

The ancient Maya kept track of the moon, calculating lunar months. As the lunar month equals about 29.53059 days, the ancient Maya tried to figure out a way to calculate the lunar month in terms of whole numbers and succeeded. They found that 4,400 days is very close to 149 lunar months (4,440/149 = about 29.53020). Seven pages of the Dresden Codex talk about lunar months. You can see records of the moon in inscriptions of the Long Count.

K’awiil 819-Day Cycle
Mayan gods could have multiple forms or “aspects”. K’awiil (also known as God K to archaeologists) is a god believed to be a lightning god and possibly a patron god of kings. It is also understood that he had four aspects, each connected to a color and direction: red is paired with west, white with north, black with west and yellow with south.

The 819-day cycle -- which may have begun at Palenque -- associated with these four aspects. When expressed, the 819-day count goes like this: a glyph could be a verb comes first, then a number in the 819-day cycle, followed by a reference to K’awiil, then a cardinal direction and then a color. The purpose of this “calendar” is not fully understood, It is possible that it was used for rituals.

Nine Lords of the Night
This “calendar” is understood to be nine-day cycle of the Nine Lords of the Night -- the gods of Xibalba, the Maya underworld. Each of the nine gods took his turn being connected to a day. Though not entirely clear, in Long Count inscriptions there are two glyphs that they think are connected to the sequence of the Lords of the Night. The Lords of the Night glyphs are numbered G1 through G9.

In the Dresden Codex there is a table that talks about numbers that are multiples of 78. Mars has a synodical period of approximately 780 days, so it is possible that the ancient Maya kept track of Mars cycle in the sky.


“The Ancient Maya”; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

“Understanding Maya Inscriptions”; John Ferguson Harris, Stephen K. Stearns; 1997

"Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World"; Lynn V. Foster, Peter Mathews; 2005

"Yaxchilan: The Design of a Ceremonial City";Caroline Elaine Tate; 1992