During this period the Mayas numbered in the millions, they created a multitude of kingdoms and small empires, built monumental palaces and temples, engaged in grandiose ceremonies, and developed an elaborate hieroglyphic writing system. The social basis of this exuberant civilization was a large political and economic intersocietal network (world system) extending throughout the Mayan region and beyond to the wider Mesoamerican world. The political, economic, and culturally dominant ‘core’ Mayan units of the Classic Mayan world system were located in the central lowlands, while its corresponding dependent or ‘peripheral’ Mayan units were found along the margins of the southern highland and northern lowland areas. But as in all world systems, the Mayan core centers shifted through time, starting out during Preclassic times in the southern highlands, moving to the central lowlands during the Classic period, and finally shifting to the northern peninsula during the Postclassic period. In this Mayan world system the semi-peripheral (mediational) units generally took the form of trade and commercial centers.
The most notable monuments are the stepped pyramids they built in their religious centers and the accompanying palaces of their rulers. The palace at Cancuén is the largest in the Maya area, though the site, interestingly, lacks pyramids. Other important archaeological remains include the carved stone slabs usually called stelae (the Maya called them tetun, or “tree-stones”), which depict rulers along with hieroglyphic texts describing their genealogy, military victories, and other accomplishments.
Art – Maya art of their Classic Era (c. 250 to 900 CE) is of a high level of aesthetic and artisanal sophistication. The carvings and the reliefs made of stucco at Palenque and the statuary of Copá, show a grace and accurate observation of the human form that reminded early archaeologists of Classical civilizations of the Old World, hence the name bestowed on this era. We have only hints of the advanced painting of the classic Maya; mostly what has survived are funerary pottery and other Maya ceramics, and a building at Bonampak holds ancient murals that survived by chance. A beautiful turquoise blue color that has survived through the centuries due to its unique chemical characteristics is known as Maya Blue or Azul maya, and it is present in Bonampak, Tajín Cacaxtla, Jaina, and even in some Colonial Convents. The use of Maya Blue survived until the 16th century when the technique was lost. Late Preclassic murals of great artistic and iconographic perfection have been recently discovered at San Bartolo. With thedecipherment of the Maya script it was discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations where artists attached their name to their work.
Maya architecture spans many thousands of years; yet, often the most dramatic and easily recognizable as Maya are the stepped pyramids from the Terminal Pre-classic period and beyond. There are also cave sites that are important to the Maya. These cave sites include Jolja Cave, the cave site at Naj Tunich, the Candelaria Caves, and the Cave of the Witch. There are also cave-origin myths among the Maya. Some cave sites are still used by the modern Maya in the Chiapas highlands.
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The Kingdom of the Maya • Locations & Activities