The Classic Period in Mesoamerica: The Maya


Maya,Temple 1 at Tikal, built c. 700 CE (photo By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada – Guatemala-1593, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Maya Calendar Round

A system of recording time is essential to all higher cultures. Throughout Mesoamerica, there was the 52-year calendar round with the 260 day and 365 day calendars. In the Maya area, the 260 day calendar consisted of 20 named days intermeshed with the numbers 1-13, and every day had its omens and associations. This calendar was a form of predicting events, and still is used in Southern Mexico and the Maya highlands of Guatemala and El Salvador under the care of calendar priests. The actual length of a solar year is 365.25 days, making leap year necessary, but this was ignored by the Maya. The agricultural calendar consisted of 18 months of 20 days and 5 nameless days. The last day of the month had the sign indicating the next month because the Maya believed that the influence of time was felt before it began, and persisted after it ends. Each day that coincides with each calendar cycle returns every 52 years, making the Mayan, and larger Mesoamerican, conception of time cyclical.


longcount_positionsThe Long Count also became important in the Late Pre-Classic, with a tun, or 360-day count, as the basis. The cycles for the Long Count are 20 kins (1 uinal or 20 days), 18 uinals (1 tun or 360 days), 20 tuns (1 katun or 7200 days), and 20 katuns (1 baktun or 144,000 days). These are listed on the monuments in descending order of magnitude, and express the number of days elapsed since the last Great Cycle, a period of 13 baktuns. This cycle began to be used in the lowlands about 250 CE, and was used on monuments that tell the life and times of the royal houses, which was the major preoccupation of the Maya.

At this point, full Maya civilization had begun, although contrary to popular belief, the Maya were not a unified empire, but a collection of city-states. The earth was believed to be flat and four cornered, with a cardinal point and color at each angle. Red was for east, white for north, black for west, and yellow for south with green in the center. The sky was made up of 13 tiers held up by 4 Bacabs, or atlantean gods, and 4 trees of different colors and species with the green ceiba tree at the center. There were 9 layers of the underworld, each with its corresponding god, terminating in Xibalbá, or the place of fright. There were many gods in the Maya cosmos. The underworld was seen as still and swampy at the surface, and was the place or medium for human transitions between the world of death and the world of life. Objects representing this threshold move between the 2- and 3-dimensional, such as ceramics with painted and 3-d elements.


Maya ceremonial vessel representing a turtle with the head of a bird

It was believed that the gods tried many times to colonize the earth, but only succeed when the people were made from masa, as people made from wood and clay did not worship the gods. Blood was believed to be the masa from which humans were shaped. The conflation of blood and masa, or cornmeal, made corn the most sacred substance in the ancient Maya ritual conception.


Maya, Mazie God Statue from the British Museum (photo by BabelStone (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)



The Maize God was often depicted as young and beautiful, and is very prominent in Maya art. He was emulated by the lords in their portraiture. He was often depicted in motion with racks on his back with small creatures shoved into the mat and feather frames, dancing in the company of a dwarf or hunchback. He was attired in a netted hip-cloth or skirt strung with jade beads and a spiny oyster shell concave face outward at the groin, which gives the wearer a symbolic vagina. He then becomes both male and female, and moves through the cycle of life though the growing season. This is the cycle of renewal and regeneration. The lords became the gods in whose costumes they dressed during rituals.


Map of Mesoamerica and the Mayan regions

The Petén and the Mayan lowlands are characterized in the Pre-Classic as having legless pottery in a black or red monochrome with thick glossy slips. There is an abundant supply of limestone and flint for tools in this area, and the people begin to use burnt limestone for plaster. They also begin to use rubble and marl (a loose, earthy deposit containing much calcium carbonate) as the basis of the buildings. By the end of the Pre-Classic, the Maya city-states in this area are using many characteristic techniques, such as arranging temples around plazas, building with limestone and plaster, apron moldings and frontal stairways on temples, tomb building, and frescoes with naturalistic subjects. Ceramics also change to having hollow, breast-shaped supports on bowls, hour-glass-shaped pot stands, and the use of polychrome, which is distinguished by a brilliant range of colors applied over a glossy, translucent orange underslip. Rooms are corbel vaulted, which is constructed by successive courses of stone above the springline of walls set in overlapping rows to summit, which is capped by flat stones, and evolved from tomb building. The inherent structural weakness in this sort of construction is modified by massive walls and rubble-cement fill. Until the close of the Pre-Classic, there were still few monuments with Long Count dates and  writing begins to appear sporadically, and celebrate the doings of great people or culture heroes. Writing was meant to be read in double columns from left to right and top to bottom.


Mayan writing system

The ball game was also played in the Mayan region, and was associated with the hero-twins of the Popul Vuh, the K’iche’ Maya creation story written down Post-Contact. The game then becomes a metaphor for the creation of the sun and the moon, as well as the creation of the Maya people and their world.

The Classic period in the Mayan area runs from 250-900 CE, and is divided into various periods. The Early Classic runs from 250-600 CE, and the divide between early and late is characterized by massive upheaval in the central Mayan, or Petén, area. This period is characterized by large populations, a flourishing economy and widespread trade. About 400 CE, the influence of Teotihuacán is seen in the area. The site of Kaminaljuyú, now mostly below modern Guatemala City, is taken over by the influence of Teotihuacán, and becomes a miniature version of that city, with what may be interpreted as an elite Mexican class ruling over a captive Maya population, creating a hybrid style.This was probably settled by pochteca, the warrior-merchants from central Mexico. Stepped temple platforms with talud-tablero architecture are built of clay faced with red painted stucco, and have a single stairway in front leading to temple at top. These were also used as high status tombs, with the platforms built to encase the ruler’s tomb, and successive burials and platforms placed above, each with rich tomb offerings. Pottery was imported both from Teotihuacán and from the rest of the Maya area.  Houses were raised on low, rectangular mounds of earth to avoid the summer floods.

Maya, Tripod Vessel from Kaminaljuyú, and reconstruction of an Early Classic Temple at the site (photo By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons and

Cities were not laid out in a grid pattern, and there were few walled cities until the Terminal Classic period. Water was scarce in the Petén area, so artificial reservoirs were constructed, and surrounded by embankments. In the last ½ 6th century, no stelae are erected in the Petén area, and there are signs of widespread and purposeful mutilation of public monuments, leading some to suggest that there was an upheaval in central area, possibly corresponding with the collapse of Teotihuacán in Central Mexico.

The Classic Maya center was a series of stepped platforms topped with masonry superstructures arranged around broad plazas or courtyards in large sites, the complexes are connected by causeways. The temple-platforms, such as the one at the top of the page, are built from limestone blocks over a rubble core, and contain 1 or more rooms at the top that are corbel vaulted and plaster-covered. These rooms are narrow, and have an extension at the top called a roof comb, which was also embellished with stucco and painted reliefs. The bulk of the construction were the so-called palaces, single-storied structures built on similar principles of the temple-pyramids but on lower platforms. They contained several dozen plastered rooms with 1 or 2 interior courtyards, and possibly served as elite residences, priestly quarters, or government buildings. Standing stelae were placed on the floors of plazas in from of the temples and palaces, with certain stelae associated with certain structures. These have flat “altars” in front, and the subject matter generally consists of the ruler carrying emblems of rule or trampling a captive underfoot. Ball courts were present in the central area, but more frequent and better-made in the Southeast. There is a notion of the sacred mountain, the source of maize, which was formed through the shape of temples and pyramids. These buildings then encompass the tombs of noble ancestors who become deified, and serve as intermediaries between the Maya and the regenerative forces of nature. These buildings were oriented to powerful topographic features, channeling the power of nature into human architecture. The exteriors and interiors formed symbolic caves, many dedicated to the earth and conceived as the hearts of mountains, the place of the regeneration of the maize. Many of these structures also had levels corresponding with the number of levels of the Upperworld, Xibalbá, or the Mayan conception of space.

Maya, Stuture 5D-43 at Tikal, and ballcourt marker, Early Classic (photo By David Germain – Own work, CC BY 3.0, and

Dynastic rule has its deepest roots at Tikal and Uaxactún, which are closely related cities. Uaxactún was conquered by Tikal in 378 CE. Tikal also has a Teotihuacán-style monument consisting of an altar platform with talud-tablero architecture with Teotihuacán-style ballcourt marker at top, a thin cylinder surmounted by a doughnut shaped stone topped by an upright ring. Maya inscriptions around the cylinder celebrate the fall of Uaxactún. Stela 4 in Tikal commemorates the ruler Curl Snout, who seems to have been either from Teotihuacán or affiliated with that city due to the way in which he was depicted. The early 5th century ruler of Tikal, Stormy Sky, erected Stela 31 in his own honor in 415. The main text is concerned with historical annals before the time of accession up to the first Katun of power for Stormy Sky, who may have been the son of Curl Snout. He is shown as a great Maya ahau holding the royal headdress aloft and, in the crook of his left arm, carrying the head of a god wearing in its headdress the Tikal emblem glyph. There is a figure garbed as a warrior from Teotihuacan on either side of him with the war-serpent headdress on, holding a feathered atlatl and a rectangular shield with the face of Tlaloc (patron of rain and war) on it. This represents 2 views of Curl Nose, the father of Stormy Sky, whose presence gives legitimacy to the rule of his son, and is still a force through his identification as part of the Teotihuacáno war cult. Rich burials are found beneath the temples of the city, with Burial 48 believed to be that of Stormy Sky. The tomb was cut from the surrounding bedrock, and the body of the king was interred with 2 adolescent sacrafices. The white, stuccoed walls are covered in glyphs applied in black paint, including a Long Count date of 21 March 457. Tikal is one of the largest Classic sites in the Maya area with 6 temple pyramids and 10 reservoirs for drinking water.


Maya, Stela 4, Tikal, Early Classic (photo by By HJPD – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Maya, Stela 31, Tikal,  415 (photo By HJPD – Own work, CC BY 3.0, and By HJPD – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Tikal is the one of the largest of the Classic Maya sites, even though there was a decline at the site after it’s defeat by the city-state of Calakmul in 562, but underwent a revival around 700 CE. Population estimates range from 10,000 to 90,000 at its height, which is a very large population for a city in the jungle to support, pointing to elaborate farming techniques. After 700, some of the largest buildings in the acropolis, such as Temples 1, shown at the top of the page, and 2, shown below, were built.These were built for Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, the king who led the revival of Tikal, and his wife.


Tikal, Temple II, built c. 700 (photo By yogi – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Maya, Palace, Palenque, 200-900 CE (photo By tato grasso – Own work (personal work), CC BY-SA 2.5, and By AlejandroLinaresGarcia – Own work, GFDL,

Maya, Palace, Patio of the Captives, Palenque, 200-900 CE (photo By Ovedc – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, and By AlejandroLinaresGarcia – Own work, GFDL,


Site map of Palenque

Palenque, which is located in the contemporary Mexican state of Chiapas, has a small stream that runs through the site, and is carried underneath the principal complex, the Palace, by a corbel vaulted aqueduct. The Palace is 300’ long and 240’ wide, and is made up of a series of vaulted rooms and galleries arranged around interior courtyards or patios, and dominated by a 4-story tower with an interior stairway, which could be either an observatory or watch tower. 2 sides of the Patio of the Captives have reliefs showing prisoners in submission, which probably represents exposed skin of humans, as it is painted red, while the skin of gods is always painted blue.


Maya, Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, completed c. 695 CE (photo By Jan Harenburg (own fotography) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and

Maya, Sarcophagus lid of K’inch Jabaab’ Pakal, c. 695 (photo By Gumr51 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Madman2001 – File:Pacal_the_Great_tomb_lid.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Temple of the Inscriptions rests on a 65’ high pyramid with a frontal stairway. The floor has stone slabs, which lift up to reveal a stone stairway leading into the interior of the pyramid, originally intentionally chocked with rubble. These stairs change direction ½ way down, and lead to a chamber which is on the same level as the base of the pyramid. Inner chamber blocked by a huge triangular stone. This is a Funerary crypt with 9 figures in stucco relief around the walls, representing either the 9 Lords of the Underworld or ancestors. The stone slab over sarcophagus reveals that this is the burial of K’inch Janaab’ Pakal, and the sarcophagus is filled with extensive funerary goods. The lid depicts Pakal as the maize god in a reclining posture of rapture and sacrifice, meaning his death was an act of self-sacrifice. He is on a cache vessel or small canoe borne on the head of the Celestial Monster with the world tree shooting up from his body. He is therefore regenerated in death when he entered the womb of the earth as a kernel of regeneration and spawned the world tree. He also wears a green mosaic mask inside the sarcophagus, transitioning his face from that of an old man to that of youthful maize. This crypt and the temple above were built in the king’s life time.

Late Classic Maya art is painterly, narrative and baroque, with the uniqueness of individual characteristics rendered through portraiture. There is an excellence of low-relief carving. Some pottery is mold-made, with low temperature firing sacrificing durability for aesthetic effect. These are polychromed, and are deep bowls or footed dishes painted with narrative scenes. These vessels were also often carved when leather hard before firing. Painted ceramics were most often used as grave goods, as food and water containers. Jade was the most precious substance, and was traded over long distances. Most of the carvings were thin jade plaques with low relief. Jade was sacred since it is the color of both water and the sacred quetzal feathers, and embodied a sense of permanence in this world and the hereafter.

Yaxchilán, and its subordinate city Bonampak, were also wealthy sites that declined suddenly at the end of the Classic period, c. 800 CE. Yaxchilán was famous for its stone lintels carved in relief with scenes of ceremony and conquest.


Yaxchilán, Lintel 24 from Structure 33, 709 (photo BY BabelStone (Own Work), CCo,

Bonampak still has one structure with murals dating to 800 CE that relate a narrative story of battle, its aftermath, and the victory celebrations and show the pageant of rulership. These show the importance of ritual bloodletting. The real theme of the murals is the presentation and consecration of the male heir of Yaxchilán. His father took troops into battle to secure captives for the celebration. The occasion is solemnized by torture and decapitation of captives, and the ritual shedding of blood by the great lords and ladies. The site was abandoned before the murals were finished. Most sacrificial victims were beheaded until the Post Classic, since the heads were seen as analogous to the harvest of maize. These heads were sometimes retained as trophies to prevent the regeneration of this symbolic maize.

Maya, Murals from Bonampak, c. 800 (photo By Inakiherrasti – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Inakiherrasti – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Terminal Classic runs from 800-925 CE. The Classic collapse in the southern lowlands was probably caused by population growth which led to food shortages and inter-group warfare. Agricultural intensification stressed the soils and a labor shortage caused by people being pulled to work on the large building campaigns aided the collapse with erosion from deforestation. Elite cultural behavior fails to reemerge in the Terminal Classic in the central Mayan area, and focus of Mayan art shifts to the Yucatán.

The Puuc Maya are from the southwestern Yucatán, an area characterized by deep fertile soils. The buildings are made up of thin squares of limestone veneer over a cement and rubble core; boot-shaped vault stones; decorated cornices (any crowning projection); round columns in doorways; engaged columns repeated in long rows; and the exuberant use of stone mosaics on upper facades, these often form chac masks. Chac was the Puuc Maya version of the Mesoamerican rain god, who seems to have become extremely important in the Terminal Classic.

Maya, Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal, and the Great Pyramid c. 1000 (photo By Régis Lachaume –, Public Domain, and By Keith Pomakis – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,


Maya, Nunnery Quadrangle, Uxmal, c. 1000 (photo By The original uploader was Koyaanis Qatsi at English Wikipedia – Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here., Public Domain,

At the site of Uxmal, the Puuc phase goes from 850-925 CE, and is characterized by 2 main temple pyramids. These are the Great Pyramid and the House of the Magician. The so-called Nunnery also dates from this period, and is a place group of 4 separate rectangular buildings arranged around an interior court. Mosaics of geometrics and representations of thatched roofed huts are on the facades. The north building had 13 doorways, and motifs that link it to the 13 layers of the Upper World. The west building has 7 doorways, and motifs, including Pauatitn, the earth god as a turtle, that link it to the earth’s surface. The east building has mosaics of the old war cult of Teotihuacán, where the sun was believed to be born, linking it to the middleworld or the place of the rising sun. The south building has 9 doorways, and is placed lowest in the quadrangle, linking it to the Under World.

Maya, Caracol, Chichén Itzá, before 800 and laser scan (photo By HJPD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By CyArk – CyArk, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The site of Chichén Itzá was possibly founded by the Putún Maya, but was conquered in the Post Classic by the Toltecs of central Mexico. The Putún Maya from Tabasco and southern Campeche took over some Petén sites. These are Mexicanized people who reached the central highlands of Mexico in the power vacuum created by the fall of Teotihuacán, who were traders with contacts over a large area. The Caracol was built, probably as an observatory, during the Terminal Classic. This is the most unusual building in the Mayan area, and seems to have been built in the form of a conch shell, leading to the belief that it was dedicated to the study of Venus as the Morning Star, one of the aspects of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, in his guise as the god of the winds.

Metal appears in the Post Classic, and was probably traded up into the area. The last Maya fell to the Spanish in 1697. They were harder to conquer since the Maya area was a collection of city states rather than a large empire.



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