Thursday, September 20, 2018

Ancient Maya Markets

The ancient Maya traded all kinds of things -- including
the above. (Image a composite of images from the USGS,
the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the USDA.)

The remnants of the ancient Maya civilization don’t talk a lot about markets. But those who study the Maya have still been able to create ideas about what markets were like in ancient Maya times -- by doing things like looking at current markets, Spanish accounts, and doing soil tests.

What Could Be Traded
There's a view that elites controlled luxury items, which they got as tribute -- then they passed these items on, following social rules. This view also says that commoners traded items that were everyday items. But this might not be completely true.

It may be that the Maya put markets near places where lots of people would be gathered together, and near places where lots of people would pass. Some examples of these possible places are ballcourts, wells, popular roads, and the end of roads.

Moving on to marketplaces, it doesn’t look like there were specific buildings the Maya used for getting together to trade. It may be that they used open spaces like plazas. Examples of sites where it looks like marketplaces may have been include Chunchucmil, Motul de San Jose, and Coba.

As for how the traders were set up, it seems that it depended on the community. In some places though, they may have been lined up in rows.

Who Got To Trade at Markets
Archaeologists don’t know for sure whether it was just women, men or both genders who normally got to trade. Murals at the site of Calakmul -- located in the Chiik Nahb complex, may have a piece of evidence about genders and trading at markets. One-third of the people that can still be recognized are women. There’s a woman who may possibly have even been a kind of manager.

Consideration: "Money" Items
Around the time of contact with the Spanish, the ancient Maya would use certain items as a kind of money. Examples of these items include jade, cotton mantles, and salt. It may even be that the Maya used items as "money" back into the Classic Period.

It seems that markets were important for ancient Maya communities. Why? Because communities had to rely on each other to get items that they needed.


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Dance and the Ancient Maya Civilization

This figurine comes from the Mexican state of
Campeche. It's 7.25 inches tall and dates to around
700 AD to 900 AD. Courtesy LACMA.

There’s evidence the elites of the ancient Maya civilization used dance, just like other civilizations in Mesoamerica. (Curiously, the Spanish involved in colonizing the Maya area didn't talk about dance too much.) Dance was in their politics and religious practices, and they danced them in their temples and in open spaces meant to be used for displays.

Dance Items
Examples of things worn in dances are rattles, shields, different kinds of staffs, axes, drums, belts made of shells meant to make noise (called tinklers), jade celt pendants, jaguar skins, fans, animal headdresses, and god headdresses. Another example is a scepter called a mannikin scepter, which were related to K’awiil, also called god K).

This vessel, from around 600 AD to 900 AD, 
shows dance scene. Courtesy LACMA.
Another example is the backrack, which is a rack that dancers wore with a special strong belt that had lots of padding for the dancers’ backs. Items that had meaning as symbols were put onto backracks. 

What dance items the dancers put on depended on the dance – for instance, a dance called the K’awiil Scepter dance involved the mannikin scepter. Dressing up as gods to impersonate them was a common feature – rulers could then talk as the god to everyone watching the dance.

The ancient Maya elites were known to hold dances for all kinds of occasions, each meant to show off their power. Most often, they had dances as part of other ceremonies. Some examples of occasions where they included dance are: victories in war, dedicating a building, the summer solstice, when there was a new ruler taking the throne, getting tribute items, the end of a k’atun (group of 20 years), and the end of a tun (1 year).

Who Danced
A lot of art only shows men being dancers. But there is art that shows women dancers with men dancers. The Dances were watched by an audience. Dancers tended to be rulers, sometimes with governors who worked for the rulers.

Music was part of Maya elite dances. Several other instruments included ceramic flutes and whistles, like the ocarina. Yet another instrument used in dances was a long trumpet, which you might see called the hom-tah. (The Maya made hom-tahs with wood or paper, gourd (for the end or bell of the hom-tah), clay, and beeswax, which was for the mouthpiece. The beeswax would have helped players keep their mouths pressed firmly against the mouthpiece.)

The ancient Maya elites used drums in their dances. There are three drums that archaeologists have found that the elites used. These are called the turtle drum (with a turtle shell base), the pax (which was small and could have a base of gourd, ceramic, or clay), and the “huehuetl” (which had a wood base and is named after an Aztec type of drum with the same name.)

Deciphering “To Dance”
Nikolai Grube is the discoverer of an ancient Mayan verb that is supposed to mean “to dance.” He deciphered this glyph, which is understood to be said “ahk’ot” in 1992. 

According to "The Hidden Maya", the term also means "to perform ceremonies that manifest divine beings." It also says that the phrase "ti ahk'ot" means "he or she went or goes dancing" but it's not strictly that dancing happened. It means any ceremony used to connect with the gods, either making them manifest or talking with them.


Image Credits: