The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya

image: Figurine of a Male Captive 600-900

Figurine of a Male Captive
Jaina Island, Campeche, Mexico, 600-900, ceramic
Princeton University Art Museum, gift of Gillett G. Griffin
© Justin Kerr

The Court at War

For decades, when calendars were the only Maya documents that had been deciphered, scholars erroneously theorized that the ancient Maya were peaceful timekeepers or stargazers ruled by astronomer-priests. The discovery of new works of art and advances in understanding the written language revealed that, to the contrary, warfare was common. Maya city-states went to war to take over trade routes, gain special access to precious goods (especially jade, cacao, and feathers), and probably, by the late eighth century, just to get a share of diminishing resources, especially foodstuffs and construction material. Over the centuries, grim rivalries developed. The cities of Palenque and Tonina scrapped with one another for years, each claiming at least temporary victories.

Warfare took place twice for the Maya, once in the chaotic setting of battle, and a second time in court, where victories were reenacted in carefully scripted ceremonies. Wearing jaguar pelts and leather jerkins, warriors marched live captives, bound and stripped of their finery, back to the palace, where they were presented to the king and subjected to painful rituals.

image: Relief step of a captive, 650-800

Roll over the image above
to see an outline of the king held captive.
Click on the image to see an enlarged view.

Stone sculptures, figurines, and painted vessels convey the physical pain of war, the pathos of prisoners, and the power of kings as warriors. Relief sculptures of prisoners were set up in courtyards, providing a backdrop for later reenactments of victories. In some cases these reliefs served as the risers or treads of staircases, where the victors would trample them in perpetuity, as at Tonina. The Tonina lords depicted many captives from the Palenque region, but one trophy outshone them all: In 711 they captured the king himself, who is depicted in bondage in the relief above.