Sunday 27 November 2016

Classical Mayan Period

Various advanced cultures flourished simultaneously in the Americas between the 1st century BC and c.400-600 CE - a period that includes part of the great Mesoamerican "Classic" eras. Perhaps the best known of these cultures was that of the Maya people, who with their stunning temples and scientific knowledge created one of the most extra ordinary early American Civilizations.

Calakmul was one of the most important Classic period cities

The early Maya civilization developed in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. This region consists of the northern lowlands encompassing the Yucatán Peninsula, and the highlands of the Sierra Madre, running from the Mexican state of Chiapas, across southern Guatemala and onwards into El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain.

The Classic period is largely defined as the period during which the lowland Maya raised dated monuments using the Long Count calendar. This period marked the peak of large-scale construction and urbanism, the recording of monumental inscriptions, and demonstrated significant intellectual and artistic development, particularly in the southern lowland regions. The Classic period Maya political landscape has been likened to that of Renaissance Italy or Classical Greece, with multiple city-states engaged in a complex network of alliances and enmities.

Long Count Calender

During the Classic Period, the Maya civilization achieved its greatest florescence.The Maya developed an agriculturally intensive, city-centred civilization consisting of numerous independent city-states – some subservient to others. During the Early Classic, cities throughout the Maya region were influenced by the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the distant Valley of Mexico.

A temple in Valley of Mexico

At its height during the Late Classic, the Tikal city polity had expanded to have a population of well over 100,000. Tikal's great rival was Calakmul(see above), another powerful city polity in the Petén Basin. Tikal and Calakmul both developed extensive systems of allies and vassals; lesser cities that entered one of these networks gained prestige from their association with the top-tier city, and maintained peaceful relations with other members of the same network.

Temple complex in Tikal 

Tikal and Calakmul engaged in the manoeuvering of their alliance networks against each other; at various points during the Classic period, one or other of these powers would gain a strategic victory over its great rival, resulting in respective periods of florescence and decline.

In the southeast, Copán was the most important city. Its Classic-period dynasty was founded in 426 by K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo'.Copán reached the height of its cultural and artistic development during the rule of Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, who reigned from 695 to 738. His reign ended catastrophically in April 738, when he was captured by his vassal, king K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat of Quiriguá(see below). The captured lord of Copán was taken back to Quiriguá and, in early May 738, he was decapitated in a public ritual.


Capital cities of Maya kingdoms could vary considerably in size, apparently related to how many vassal cities were tied to the capital. Overlords of city-states that held sway over a greater number of subordinate lords could command greater quantities of tribute in the form of goods and labour. The most notable forms of tribute pictured on Maya ceramics are cacao, textiles and feathers.

The social basis of the Classic Maya civilization was an extended political and economic network that reached throughout the Maya area and beyond into the greater Mesoamerican region. The dominant Classic period polities were located in the central lowlands; during this period the southern highlands and northern lowlands can be considered culturally, economically, and politically peripheral to this core area. Those loci that existed between the core and the periphery acted as centres of trade and commerce.

The most notable monuments are the pyramid-temples and palaces they built in the centres of their greatest cities. At this time, the use of hieroglyphic script on monuments became widespread, and left a large body of information including dated dynastic records, alliances, and other interactions between Maya polities. The sculpting of stone stelae spread throughout the Maya area during the Classic period, and pairings of sculpted stelae and low circular altars are considered a hallmark of Classic Maya civilization.

Stela representing king K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat.

The Maya civilization participated in long-distance trade, and important trade routes ran from the Motagua River to the Caribbean Sea, then north up the coast to Yucatán. Another route ran from Verapaz along the Pasión River to the trading port at Cancuen; from there trade routes ran east to Belize, northwards to central and northern Petén, and onwards to the Gulf of Mexico and the west coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Important elite-status trade goods included jade, fine ceramics, and quetzal feathers. More basic trade goods may have included obsidian, salt and cacao.

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