Maya rulers left their mark on monumental complexes

Early Maya rulers left their mark on monumental complexes, transforming from a shared form of religion after the emergence of kingship in 400 BC.

In order to solidify their power, rulers in the Maya lowlands adapted these complexes to install their mark on the landscape, and how people would remember them.

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In a Dartmouth study published in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica, Ryan H. Collins from the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth studied data from the Maya site, Yaxunám, and other pyramid plaza complexes or temples known as E groups in the Maya lowlands that have astronomical alignments with the equinoxes and solstices.

Collins said: “Maya rulers seemed to have real angst about the past world and think that it could interfere with their authority, so they would try to tweak it, or even erase it altogether. These rulers saw themselves as the embodiment of the Maya sun god and wanted to put their personal stamp on the city, so monuments and the ways people experienced the city were modified to reflect a ruler’s desires over his or her lifetime.”

In the E group, each of the sites were built along an east-west axis and was characterised by a pyramid to the west, and a long-raised platform to the east. Data from studying Yaxuná and the other sites revealed that around 400 BC, Maya complexes in the E group were built on existing temples, and in many cases new architecture would be constructed right on top of everything that was there before, where there could five, six or even seven pyramids preserved under the latest phase of construction.

“Over time, these temples became more about the rulers and less about the ritual and religion that once brought the communities together in the first place,” says Collins. At Yaxuná, in the original city centre alone, there were 11 phases of construction between 900 B.C. and 100 B.C.

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While new monuments within the E Group were created over old ones, some aspects were maintained through time. For example, the original eastern structure (Str. 5E-6) at Yaxuná contained a circular stone foundation on level eight, which was preserved and emphasized by later generations through a circular incised line on the floor of level six.

Precious items were also found cached on levels seven and four, including a polished magnetite fragment and a ceramic vessel with greenware beads that were likely obtained through long-distance trade. “The Maya would go back and mark spaces of social significance generations later, not centuries later, illustrating how people were really emphasizing memory and continuity with things that they thought were important,” says Collins.

However, other areas of the Yaxuná site and other E Group sites contained evidence of termination rituals. These rituals were used to destroy the energy or soul associated with a building, especially if it was sacred, such as by spreading the ash of burned incense over an area. In the eastern structure at Yaxuná, ash was found near a grinding stone, providing evidence that a former space for rituals was used to prepare food in later years.

“In archaeology, there has been the assumption that Maya kingship represented a continuity with the past but as Maya rulers altered peoples’ experience of where they lived, these rulers were actually breaking away from Mesoamerican building traditions and redefining the Maya city,” says Collins. “The first millennium of Maya culture for the E Group marks a period for not only new monuments but for the development of massive civic architecture, as large-scale roadways were built and districts began to emerge. These changes also may have driven Maya civilization’s shift from an egalitarian society to a more hierarchical structure.”


Header Image Credit : Dennis Jarvis – CC BY-SA 2.0

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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