The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power before the Classic Period

The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power before the Classic Period

The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power before the Classic Period

The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power before the Classic Period

Synopsis

When the Maya kings of Tikal dedicated their first carved monuments in the third century A.D., inaugurating the Classic period of Maya history that lasted for six centuries and saw the rise of such famous cities as Palenque, Copan and Yaxchilan, Maya civilization was already nearly a millennium old. Its first cities, such as Nakbe and El Mirador, had some of the largest temples ever raised in Prehispanic America, while others such as Cival showed even earlier evidence of complex rituals. The reality of this Preclassic Maya civilization has been documented by scholars over the past three decades: what had been seen as an age of simple village farming, belatedly responding to the stimulus of more advanced peoples in highland Mesoamerica, is now know to have been the period when the Maya made themselves into one of the New World's most innovative societies. This book discusses the most recent advances in our knowledge of the Preclassic Maya and the emergence of their rainforest civilization, with new data on settlement, political organization, architecture, iconography and epigraphy supporting a contemporary theoretical perspective that challenges prior assumptions.

Excerpt

My fascination with the Maya began at age seven. It was during my second trip to visit family in Guatemala that, luckily for me, my parents decided take me on a one-day excursion to Tikal. This was in 1970. The Pennsylvania Museum project had just ended. There was no road to Tikal and the daily flight into Tikal was on what must have been a Second World War surplus airplane. The landing on the site’s dirt airstrip was a memorable experience in and of itself. Looking out from the small airplane window as the plane almost touched the treetops, I had no idea where we were going to land. At the last minute, the white landing strip appeared below us. The experience only grew more astonishing for me from that moment on. The view of temples of the Great Plaza left the biggest impression on me. The sounds and sights of Tikal’s wildlife were also something I never forgot. Because the restorations had just been finished, the pyramids were blindingly white and stood in contrast to the dark green of the tropical trees around them. During the tour, I remember asking many questions. The answers were rather disappointing. There were too many “we don’t know”s. I distinctly remember that the most pressing question I and everyone else was asking was “How did the Maya build such an impressive civilization in this fearsome jungle with stone tools?”

I probably did not spend the next thirty-something years of my life constantly thinking about this question, but it was certainly in the back of my mind as I set out to become an archaeologist. I was fortunate enough to be admitted into a graduate program that was most closely focused on the early periods of Maya civilization (Boston University). By then, much progress had been made in Maya archaeology since my first visit to Tikal. But most of the new information had come from the decipherment of hieroglyphic inscriptions and therefore it dealt primarily with the lives of Classic Maya kings. It said little about the time before kings. So there was still plenty for me to contribute on the subject of how the Maya had built their civilization. The answers were obviously to be found in the obscure eras prior to the Classic period. When it came to choosing a dissertation project, I wanted to take up a site in the unexplored Peten district of Guatemala. Norman Hammond, my advisor, suggested Holmul because ever since 1911 it had been known to have some . . .

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