Ancient Maya Art-The Central Area

Central Area

The Tikal Temple I in Tikal (Petén Basin region, northern Guatemala), whose base is a stepped pyramid formed by several levels, it is also known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar because in one of its lintels there’s a king sitting on a jaguar throne. The structure was built in limestone around 732 AD. This temple housed the burial of ruler Ah Cacao.

The properly Maya culture consolidated in the central area, region with great rivers, strong precipitation, very hot climate, a lush jungle vegetation… This area corresponds to the lowlands of Guatemala, Belize, the far west portion of Honduras, part of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche and Quintana Roo. With influences from cultural elements of older civilizations (Olmec, Monte Albán I), either directly or through the Pacific coast and the Guatemalan highlands, the Mayas from Petén, the Motagua valley and the Usumacinta basin developed a more advanced civilization than those cultures. From them they inherited the knowledge of the ritual calendar of 260 days, the 365-day calendar based on the solar cycle, probably also the so-called “long count*” system, point and bar numerals*, the vigesimal numbering system, the positional value of numbers, and perhaps even (though not proved) the idea of the ​​zero, whose use is indispensable in the vigesimal system. Also from those cultures they took the custom of erecting steles glorifying important people. The Maya of the central area perfected all this knowledge and managed to elaborate a more complex and precise calendar, as well as a hieroglyphic writing much more developed than the incipient writing found in the oldest monuments of the cultures from the Olmec region, Monte Albán and the Pacific Coast. With the invention of the angular vault*, these Mayan groups were able to erect buildings of great solidity and duration. Their astronomical observations were extraordinarily astounding, even though they lacked precision instruments. In this way, during the six centuries of the Classical period, a brilliant civilization flourished in the central area based primarily on maize agriculture, and from there various social classes were differentiated when aristocracy took over the peasant masses and therefore came to monopolize the political power, religious organization, scientific knowledge and the usufruct of art and other goods created by the vast working population.

A view of the outer wall of the archaeological remains of Group B of Mixco Viejo archaeological site (Motagua valley, north east of the Chimaltenango department, Guatemala). The ruins at Mixco Viejo date from the Post-Classic Maya civilization.

In the course of the 9th century AD, foreign groups probably of a hybrid culture (Maya-Nahua), bearers of new ideas and beliefs, infiltrated and even appeared to have prevailed in some centers of Peten. It is also assumed that true popular uprisings took place against the Mayan lords themselves or against the invaders, with the outcome that in less than a century, the cultural life was fading in all the ceremonial centers of the central area. Temples and palaces were no longer built, the erection of steles ceased, and no date was recorded, such a period is known as the “Mayan collapse”. The cessation of the cultural activities that used to be monopolized by the priesthood must have implied its disappearance, but the peasant population continued to live in the region and later occupied the buildings previously dedicated to the worship and the royal and aristocratic residences. Several groups of these peasant population still lived in the jungle at the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque (state of Chiapas, Mexico). Inside this temple in 1952 was discovered the only pre-Columbian funerary crypt linked to a temple, in this case by a long staircase that starts at the level of the base of the pyramid. The crypt contained a monolithic sarcophagus, with a human skeleton covered with jade jewels. The staircase had been carefully filled with stones and soil to make it impenetrable. The tomb corresponded to the royal burial of the monarch K’inich Janaab Pakal I.


Corbel Vault: A corbel vault based on the corbel arch is a construction method that uses the architectural technique of corbeling to span a space or void in a structure. A corbel vault uses this technique to support the superstructure of a building’s roof. A corbel arch is constructed by offsetting successive courses of stone (or brick) at the springline of the walls so that they project towards the archway’s center from each supporting side, until the courses meet at the apex of the archway (often, the last gap is bridged with a flat stone).

Maya Numerals: (or Point and Bar Numerals). The Maya numeral system was a vigesimal (base-20) positional notation used in the Maya civilization to represent numbers. The numerals were made up of three symbols; zero (shell shape, with the plastron uppermost), one (a dot) and five (a bar). For example, thirteen is written as three dots in a horizontal row above two horizontal lines stacked above each other. Numbers after 19 were written vertically in powers of twenty. Other than the bar and dot notation, Maya numerals can be illustrated by face type glyphs or pictures. The face glyph for a number represents the deity associated with the number.

Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar: (or Long Count System). The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar was a non-repeating, vigesimal (base-20) and base-18 calendar used by several pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, especially the Maya. The Long Count calendar identifies a day by counting the number of days passed since a mythical creation date that corresponded to August 11, 3114 BC. The Long Count calendar was widely used on monuments. Long Count dates are written with Mesoamerican numerals. The Long Count calendar required the use of zero as a place-holder, and presents one of the earliest uses of the zero concept in history.