The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in a Museum

Mayan Altar

Penn Museum - Joy of Museums - Maya Alter

This Mayan Altar was discovered in Caracol which is a large ancient Mayan archaeological site, located in what is now the Cayo District of Belize. It rests on a plateau which is 500 meters above sea-level, in the foothills of the Maya Mountains.

Caracol is now recognised as one of the most important regional political centers of the Maya Lowlands during the Classic Mayan Period. Caracol covered approximately 200 square kilometers, an area much larger than present-day Belize City and supported more than twice the modern city’s population.

Panorama atop Caracol

View from of Caracol

This Altar monument was discovered in 1951 during excavations at Caracol. 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.

The Maya civilization was a Mesoamerican civilization noted for its hieroglyphic script, art, architecture, mathematics, calendar and astronomical system. The Mayan civilization map below compares its historic presence across five current-day Central American countries.

Maya region w english names

Maya civilization compared with present states

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 civilization developed highly sophisticated art forms made of materials that included jade, obsidian, ceramics, sculpted stone monuments, stucco, and finely painted murals.

The Caracol site was first documented archaeologically in 1937 with more extensive explorations undertaken from 1950 to 1953. Caana or”sky-palace” is the largest building at Caracol and remains one of the largest man-made structures in Belize.

Essential Facts:

  • Title:                Mayan Altar
  • Culture:           Lowland Maya
  • Provenience:  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

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“The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you have given away.”      Marcus Aurelius

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Photo Credit: By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons 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)%5D, 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)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons