Death and the Classic Maya Kings

Death and the Classic Maya Kings

Death and the Classic Maya Kings

Death and the Classic Maya Kings


Like their regal counterparts in societies around the globe, ancient Maya rulers departed this world with elaborate burial ceremonies and lavish grave goods, which often included ceramics, red pigments, earflares, stingray spines, jades, pearls, obsidian blades, and mosaics. Archaeological investigation of these burials, as well as the decipherment of inscriptions that record Maya rulers' funerary rites, have opened a fascinating window on how the ancient Maya envisaged the ruler's passage from the world of the living to the realm of the ancestors.

Focusing on the Classic Period (AD 250-900), James Fitzsimmons examines and compares textual and archaeological evidence for rites of death and burial in the Maya lowlands, from which he creates models of royal Maya funerary behavior. Exploring ancient Maya attitudes toward death expressed at well-known sites such as Tikal, Guatemala, and Copan, Honduras, as well as less-explored archaeological locations, Fitzsimmons reconstructs royal mortuary rites and expands our understanding of key Maya concepts including the afterlife and ancestor veneration.


Rituals surrounding death are informed not only by biological concerns but also by social and religious norms of behavior. As a primary focus in sociocultural anthropology, the study of death witnessed an explosion in theoretical refinement and scope over the last few decades of the twentieth century, expanding far beyond its modest nineteenth-century origins in the study of social organization to address broad philosophical and anthropological issues. Archaeology has followed a similar path, with speculative, chronological, and cultural approaches to burials supplanted by the concerns of processual and postprocessual theory. Yet most analytical approaches to death have at their theoretical roots the work of early-twentieth-century sociologists such as Robert Hertz and Arnold van Gennep, themselves the by-products of a larger, late-nineteenth-century tradition initiated by Émile Durkheim and published in L’Année sociologique. Through their work, we see death reflecting and shaping social values, ideas that find resonance even among the tombs and temples of Classic Period Mesoamerica.

The crux of van Gennep’s thesis, originally formulated for societies in Madagascar and Indonesia, is that death rituals—part of a class of rituals concerned with the transition from one status to another, such as initiation or marriage— consist of a tripartite structure. These involve a separation from the original status, a liminal period, and a reincorporation of the individual into a new social status; a “death” and subsequent “rebirth” into a new identity are characteristic of each of the three stages.

Hertz dealt with a similar situation in Borneo: his fieldwork revealed a number of societies that did not see death as instantaneous. One notable example from his research involves a period when the body is neither alive nor fully dead. Set rituals are undertaken, including secondary burial and feasting, to bring the dead out of the liminal stage into a new social status, that of an ancestor. Although Hertz did not categorize or even number these stages, his concern with the liminal phase of death rites has, along with van Gennep’s approach, set the standard for subsequent elaborations and refinements of the anthropology of mortuary ritual. More important for the present study, however, has been his idea that the changing state of the body during these ceremonies often . . .

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