Much of what the average person knows about ancient cultures comes down to a handful of artifacts.
We know the ancient Egyptians partly from Bust of Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone. We know the Anglo-Saxons partly by the helmet and treasure left at Sutton Hoo.
But what are the most important treasures of the ancient Maya civilization?
For those not so familiar with this culture, we enlisted the help of Elizabeth Paris, an archaeologist from the University of Calgary who focuses on the Maya.
Together we have summarized some of the most culturally and artistically significant artifacts from southern Mexico and Central America during the time of the ancient Maya.
(For the purposes of this article, we defined artifacts as objects – not including a structure or anything fixed to the ground. This omitted things like murals, elaborate stationary sculptures, and temples.)
Learn more: The 6 Most Iconic Artifacts of the Ancient World
1. The Madrid Codex
Most of what we know about pre-Columbian Maya culture comes from a few surviving books: Madrid, Dresden, Mexico City, and Paris. codex.
The Maya recorded details of their calendar, rituals like human sacrifice and other celebrations, myths, and daily activities such as beekeeping in these codices.
They were usually inscribed on some sort of paper made from hammered bark, Paris says.
There were once many more of these manuscripts, but Spanish priests burned many during the Inquisition period, making the few survivors all the more important.
The Madrid Codex is somewhat longer than the Dresden and Paris Codexes, and was probably written in the Mayapan region of the Yucatan Peninsula just before or around the time the Spaniards arrived.
“It’s a wonderful distillation of ritual thought [from] right now,” Paris says.
The Madrid Codex, which is full of elaborate artwork plus Mayan hieroglyphs, was actually split into two parts at some point. Some of it was brought to its namesake city in Spain; the other was delivered to the Vatican.
A French researcher Understood the manuscripts belonged together in the 1880s and united the two parts.
Learn more: Unlock Ancient Texts with the 2,000-Year-Old Rosetta Stone
2. Golden Mask at Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is one of the most famous Mayan ruins, in part because of the huge cenote behind it.
The freshwater sinkhole – one of many that appear all around the Yucatan Peninsula – was used by the people of Chichen Itza to sacrifice humans and make offerings to the gods.
Archaeologists who dredged the cenote there in the 1930s discovered gold ornaments that form a three-part mask – basically two eyes and one mouth. The eyes are adorned with a feathered serpent called Quetzalcoatl in the Nahuatl language, or “Kukulkan” in Yukatek. The creature is one of the main gods of Chichen Itza.
The style of the mask, including the embossed gold, is something more characteristic of the Pacific Coast regions of Costa Rica and Panama than of the Yucatan Peninsula. So the artifact probably came from that area, Paris says: “You don’t have a lot of gold working among the [ancient] Maya.”
Notably, the goggle-like appearance of the eyes is emblematic of Tlaloc, the central Mexican rain god.
This iconography is consistent with Chichen Itza in the Late Classic period and into the Postclassic period (from around AD 900), when the central Mexican version of the rain god began to replace Chaac, the Mayan version.
The image of the mask, probably made in the Postclassic era, has become popular enough that you can find it today on t-shirts at souvenir stands. “It has entered the zeitgeist in Mexico,” says Paris.
Besides the beauty of the piece, the mask is important because it also reveals the extent of a trading network of which Chichen Itza was part, stretching along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
3. Resurrection Plate
A very detailed plate depicts the resurrection of the corn god Hun Hunahpu by his sons Xbalanque and Head-Apu. These are well-known themes that appear in the Popol Vuh – a sacred Mayan religious book.
The story involves Hunahpu and his brother being tricked by the lord of the underworld and sacrificed by decapitation after losing a ball match. But Hunahpu’s twin hero sons, Xbalanque and Head-Apu, come down and defeat the lords of the underworld at the match.
The twins, who are later resurrected as the sun and moon, are depicted on either side of Hunahpu on the decorated plate, apparently helping to resurrect him. A tortoise shell symbolizes the world, and the decapitated head of Hunahpu also sprouts corn.
“The plate is so symbolically rich,” says Paris.
Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly where the plaque came from because it has no archaeological context. But the style of representation is called codex style, a form of pottery very specific to the northern Petén region of Guatemala.
The plate was probably produced in the Tikal or Calakmul region. It is now hosted in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
4. Tikal Marcador
Marcador, Tikal, Guatemala, limestone, AD 416, Maya. Museo Nacional d’Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala. (Credit: Megan E. O’Neil)
This object is certainly the largest on the list. Standing between 2.5 and 3 feet tall, the stone monument was probably displayed on an altar at Tikal, a Maya capital during the Classic period spanning AD 200-900.
The monument is essentially a pillar surmounted by a stylized banner representing leaves. It is probably a carved stone version of the type of stick and leaf banners common at the time, not so much in Tikal as in Teotihuacana major city in central Mexico at the time.
The writing surrounding the pillar speaks of the relationship between Tikal and Teotihuacan. However, scholars who study the Maya do not all agree on the exact nature of this relationship – whether Teotihuacan conquered Tikal or if it was simply an alliance.
The disc has two names – Spearthrower Owl and the rain god Teotihuacan Tlaloc. The hieroglyphs on the cylinder speak of the arrival of Spearthrower Owl and Sihyaj K’ahk in Tikal in the fourth century AD
Sihyaj K’ahk’ is important because he goes on to found a new dynasty in Tikal, which may or may not be the result of a Teotihuacan takeover. The identity of Spearthrower Owl – this name is the one given by archaeologists to describe a hieroglyph – is unclear, but it could come from Teotihuacan, says Paris.
The cylinder was found buried intact in Tikal.
Learn more: Why was the Pyramid of the Sun built?
5. Rio Azul Chocolate Cup
(Credit: Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología/Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes of Guatemala/Registry number 188.8.131.528a, b)
This rare ship was found in the tomb of a king of Rio Azul dating from the late 5th century AD
Rio Azul was an important Maya city during the Classic Period, located in northern Guatemala near the borders of Belize and Mexico.
Archaeologists found chocolate residue inside the container, which includes a unique screw cap. Its hieroglyphs also note that the cup was used for chocolate.
When archaeologists are the first discovered this ship in 1990he helped spark a whole movement to study the residues and use of chocolate among the ancient Maya.
This research revealed that chocolate was mostly enjoyed by elites, as cocoa could only grow in a few select regions in Mesoamerica. Cocoa beans were also used as currency.
“It was a time when you could literally drink your money, and money grew on trees,” Paris says.
Ships like this are emblematic of the elite palace culture of the early Classic period.
Learn more: Where is Tulum and why was it so important to the ancient Maya?