Maya Art & Writing: A Brief Guide

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The Maya civilization created distinct artworks and fully developed a complex writing system before the Common Era. Their creativity was more advanced than many contemporary cultures of the Old World.

Archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of information about the Maya civilization through discoveries and deciphering of Maya art and writing. The deciphering of knowledge gained from these primary sources often results in scholars having to push back the timeline of Maya inventions and achievements. A prime example is the discovery of Maya writing from the Pre-Classic period on stone near San Bartolo.

The humidity in most of the Maya areas wreaked havoc with their books, painted buildings, and artworks. So much seemed lost … and then archaeologists started discovering beautifully painted murals and other art in the deepest levels of Maya structures. Their habit of building new structures over and around older ones, often more than once, had done an excellent job of preservation in many cases.

Maya art included stone, wood, clay, and stucco sculptures and decorations. Exquisite carvings and jewelry were made of wood, obsidian, jade, bone, shells, and stone. Action scenes were portrayed on slipped ceramic vessels, murals, and reliefs. Artists made moldings, statuettes, portraits of rulers, and more.

Their tools included stones, obsidian and jade carving instruments, and paintbrushes. Paint for Maya art was made from pigment and water, bound with clay. The color pigment was obtained from berries, plants, fruits, ores, and even insects. The special technique of the Maya civilization for making “Maya blue”, a rich turquoise blue, was lost in the 16th century, sometime during the Spanish conquest. The four cardinal directions were associated with colors by the Maya civilization in Maya artworks: red for East; yellow for South; black for West; white for North. Favored colors were blue, representing water, wind, and sky-gods, and green representing vegetation and life.

Only faint traces of magnificently bright colors are left on statues, monuments, temples, pyramids, houses, and miscellaneous artifacts that are exposed to the elements. Once archaeologists discovered the hidden substructures above ground and excavated inside underground structures, they discovered well-preserved art and decorations going back throughout the Maya eras.

Scholars believe that royals employed full-time artists during some eras of the Maya civilization. It is speculated that artists came exclusively from elite classes.

The Maya civilization decorated architecture with all kinds of art. A typical city center with its plazas and precision placed pyramids, adjacent buildings, and monuments, were often plastered with stucco and painted red. Buildings and plazas were decorated with colorfully painted stone or stucco sculptures and sometimes murals.

A chance discovery by a scuba diver in 1998 of an underwater Maya religious center led to archaeological investigations in 2007 of a sunken city in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. It is now named Samabaj, sometimes called the Atlantis of Guatemala. It was a large religious center on an island in the middle of the lake before it was flooded, probably after a volcanic eruption. It is frozen in Maya Pre-classic time – un-looted, and undamaged by the elements, and one can only imagine what beautiful sculptures, pottery, and other wonderful art are yet to be discovered there.

Several magnificent murals have been uncovered, excavated, and restored in this century alone. These murals were painted on walls of temples, public buildings, and houses. Bonampak murals depict scenes of daily life, war, ceremonies, mythology, and more in brilliant or muted colors and use excellent techniques that outlasted the elements when protected. Calakmul murals include scenes from the daily lives of commoners. The oldest San Bartolo murals discovered in 2001 depict scenes from mythology and the royal court. They are dated to around 100 CE.

Maya reliefs on lintels and doorposts often contain glyphs and images. There are examples of this in several museums. The famous royal bloodletting scene called Lintel 24 housed at the British Museum gives us a glimpse into royal bloodletting to mollify the gods and prove the ruler’s right to the throne.

Hand-crafted clay vessels and utensils for daily use and burial goods date back to the earliest Pre-classic Maya civilization. Potters experimented with different techniques. By the late pre-classic period they were producing monochrome ceramics in intricate shapes, styles, and art in black, red, and cream.

Like other ancient cultures across the world Maya pottery started with simple clay containers and was refined over time to include elaborately decorated ceramics for multiple functions, statuettes, and art objects. By the first century CE, creativity was freely expressed in styles, decorations, and applications that included beautiful statuettes. Containers were often crowned with exquisitely crafted animal figures on lids.

Several tempers were used to elasticize and strengthen the clay. These included crushed limestone, grog, and volcanic ash. Objects would often be covered with slips or a mineral/water mix before firing to add shine and color. Vessels from the late Pre-classic included hollow footage filled with pebbles that made a sound as they were carried or moved around.

Decorations in color included court scenes and rituals, mythological scenes, gods, and rulers painted and sculpted onto ceramics — sometimes with hieroglyphic captions.

The very essence of Maya writing lies in exquisitely crafted pictures and symbols. Maya artists and writers or scribes were both called t’zib. It is clear from looking at the hieroglyphs that only a skilled artist could master the execution thereof.

Monuments, altars, stelae, doorposts, stairs, and pottery often comprised both art and carved or painted writing.

There are eight hundred glyphs and symbols in Maya writing. Some of these are used as syllables and some represent entire words. Different symbols were sometimes used by different scribes for the same syllables mainly due to conflation and dialects. As one analyst puts it, the Maya scribes were having fun in the execution of their craft!

Before a breakthrough in 1952, scholars tried to decipher Maya writing as phonetic, like English, French, Spanish, and so on, after 17th-century bishop Diego de Landa’s Spanish efforts. Then they realized the hieroglyphs of Maya writing were a combination of phonetic and syllabic. Much of the extant Maya writing has been translated since.

The Maya books were codices. They made the paper from the inner bark of fig trees and folded it concertina style. They used brushes to paint the glyphs and symbols. The ink was made from water, thickened with clay to which a color pigment was added – for example, cochineal (insects) for red, and soot for black. Surfaces were prepared with white limestone dust mixed with water to create a uniform background.