The classical period of the Maya civilisation was between 300 and 900 AD. During these 600 years the Mayan Indians reached their most artistic and cultural achievements. A complex and hierarchical society was developed that divided the people into classes and professions. They formed centralised governments ruled by a king who governed over well-defined boundaries. For most of the classic period the Maya lived in the central lowlands of Mexico and Belize.
Anthropologists have long contrasted the ‘peaceful’ Maya with the bloodthirsty religio-sacrificial Aztecs. However, archaeological discoveries appear to demonstrate that although the Aztecs placed more importance on human sacrifice, than that of the Maya, blood sacrifice still played a significant role in their religion and in their culture.
The Mayan civilisation shared a common religion, similar artistic styles, and a common cultural background; however, they were not one nation but instead were independent political states. One very unifying factor was their advanced writing.
The Maya writing system was both elaborate and well developed. It consisted of inscriptions recorded on architectural stone or wood building materials. Archaeologists have discovered folding books made from the bark of the fig tree in a royal tomb.
The humidity, at this tropical latitude, means than most of these books have not survived. To add to the archaeologists’ nightmare is the reality that the Spanish invaders regarded the advanced Mayan symbolic writing to be the language of the devil and set about to destroy all they could find.
As with any civilisation, their art is a reflection of their culture. Their colourful and contrasting artworks comprised of paintings upon plaster walls and paper, stone and wood carvings, stucco and clay models of animals, people and objects, and terracotta figurines made in moulds.
Sophisticated Metal Processes
What has surprised archaeologists is the technological development of Mayan metalwork. The technical aspect of processing metals was highly developed. Archaeologists have been astonished at the technical sophistication of Maya metal processing simply because there are few local sources of metal resources and with metal as a scarcity it has always mystified experts as to how they acquired such knowledge with such little to work with.
Because of the shortage of metal resources, artisans crafted metal objects only for ornamental or religious purposes for use by the elite classes. Similarly, the Mayan kings commissioned great works of art and architecture in order to memorialise themselves into history.
The Great Mayan Stairway
At Copan is located one of the greatest expressions of Mayan artistic talent. It is a hieroglyphic stairway composed of figures and statues that portray everyday elements of Mayan society. As well as numerous ramps and the central staircase, is an altar with many pictorial references of their gods and of sacrificial ceremonies including a figurine of a captured slave in the process of a bloodletting ceremony to celebrate the ascension of a king to his throne.
How Big was a Mayan Indian?
Archaeologists locate many bones in excavation sites in the Mexico region. At the sites that are known to be Mayan, palaeontologists are able to recognise human bones and compare them to people living today.
The average height of a Mayan Indian in 600 AD was significantly shorter than people of our generation today. Maya women averaged six inches or 15 cm shorter than women now. Men, on the other hand, were not much different but still a little shorter by two inches or 5 cm.
Being short wasn’t the only unusual thing about the Maya. They also considered it to be highly attractive to file your teeth into sharp points. Wearing hoards of jewellery, copious body piercings, and tattoos would place you in the elite class and you would be considered popular and important.