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
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.
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.