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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Mayan Altar

Penn Museum - Joy of Museums - Maya Alter

Mayan Altar

This Mayan Altar was discovered in Caracol which is a large ancient Mayan archaeological site, located in what is now Belize. It rests on a plateau which is 500 meters above sea-level, in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Caracol is recognised as one of the most important regional political centres of the Maya Lowlands during the Classic Mayan Period. Caracol covered about 200 square kilometres, an area larger than present-day Belize City and supported more than twice the modern city’s population. The Caracol site was first documented archaeologically in 1937 with more extensive explorations undertaken from 1950 to 1953.

This Altar monument was discovered in 1951 during excavations at Caracol, near Caana or”sky-palace” which is the largest building at Caracol and remains one of the most significant human-made structures in Belize. The carvings represent two standing figures and a kneeling figure in between them. The figure on the right represents the ruler with his elaborate costumes and posture. The kneeling figure is to be beheaded. The framed text around the figures is shaped as a symbolic portal or way, which connects this world with the supernatural world.

This Mayan Altar was used during the Classic period rule which was centred on the concept of the “divine king”, who acted as a mediator between mortals and the supernatural world. The Maya civilisation developed highly advanced art forms made of materials that included jade, obsidian, ceramics, sculpted stone monuments, stucco, and finely painted murals.

Maya Hieroglyphic Script

The Maya civilisation is noted for its hieroglyphic script which is the only known fully developed writing system of the pre-Columbian Americas. The Maya civilisation is as noted for its art, architecture, mathematics, calendar, and astronomical system which developed in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.

The Maya script or glyphs is the only Mesoamerican writing system that has been substantially deciphered. The earliest inscriptions found are dated to the 3rd century BCE. Maya writing was in continuous use throughout Mesoamerica until the Spanish conquest of the Maya in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Maya writing used logograms which are written characters that represent a word or phrase. These were complemented with a set of syllabic glyphs, somewhat similar in function to modern Japanese writing. Maya writing was called or hieroglyphs by early European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries who did not understand it but found its general appearance reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs, to which the Maya writing system is not related. In archaeology, a glyph is a carved or inscribed symbol. It may be a pictogram or ideogram, or part of a writing system such as a syllable, or a logogram.

Mayan writing consisted of a set of glyphs, which were painted on ceramics, walls and bark-paper codices, carved in wood and stone, and moulded in stucco. Today, the sound of about 80% of Maya writing can be read and the meaning of about 60% could be understood with varying degrees of certainty.

Human Sacrifice

Human sacrifice in Maya culture was the ritual offering of nourishment to the gods. Blood and the sacrifice of a living creature was a compelling offering. The sacrifice of human life was the highest offering to the gods, and important Maya rituals culminated in human sacrifice. Only high-status prisoners of war were sacrificed and with lower status captives being used for labour.

Did you know?

  • About 40 per cent of Guatemala’s 14 million people are of Mayan heritage.
  • There are more than 20 distinct Maya people within Guatemala, each with their own culture and language.
  • The Maya’s calendar relies on the concept of zero. The idea of zero may have originated in Babylonia, but it was also independently conceived by the Maya, in about the fourth century.
  • The Maya were advanced astronomers and calendar makers.
  • As a part of their religion, the Maya practised human sacrifice.

Explore

Reflections

  • Why did some early religions require a human sacrifice to nourishment to the gods?
  • How is advanced astronomy and calendar innovations linked?

Mayan Altar

  • Title:                Mayan Altar
  • Culture:           Lowland Maya
  • Providence:    Belize, Caye District, Caracol (Central America)
  • Culture Area:  Central America
  • Date Made:     830
  • Materials:        Limestone
  • Dimensions:   Thickness: 0.3m; Diameter: 1.21m
  • Museum:        Penn Museum

Explore the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

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“A millennium before Europeans were willing to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions.”
– Carl Sagan

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Photo Credit: 1) GM 2) By Nepenthes (converted to English by Kaldari) (File:Maya region w german names.png) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Pgbk87 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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