- Published: August 28, 2022
- Updated: August 28, 2022
- University / College: University of Surrey
- Language: English
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Person and Place in PreClassic Maya Ritual
Person and Place in PreClassic Maya Ritual
The enigmatic Maya civilization evokes pangs of interest among historians and commoners. The ancient civilization was advanced in several ways and their quintessence is still existent on the heart of the world which is adorned by the massive archeological structures constructed by the Maya people. An insight into their constructions would enable one to decipher the intricacies of their culture. The Maya society and its structure can be comprehended in relation to the artifacts, paintings, monuments, temples and other structures. Excavations in the heartland of the ancient Maya civilization have unearthed such evidences that place the Maya society and culture under the scanner of the ardent historians. A gradual shift can be noticed in the Maya society and the emergence of class distinctions creep in with time and the Maya society finally becomes the prototype of the contemporary societies which exhibit wide divisions among classes.
Communities emerge from the life experiences and rituals prevalent in the physical world and can be seen as symbolic constructions existing in the minds of the community members. The physical settings of rituals portray the factors of communal identity. The rituals reflect the future action and remain as variable balance between loss and accretion and with every performance some elements of the ritual are changed. The people who took part in the ritual added a situational awareness and the pronounced or subtle modifications that could be found in architecture and iconography are signs of the changes in the perception of the Maya people about themselves socially and individually.
As such, understanding the rites and rituals of the civilization becomes a pivotal factor in the holistic comprehension of the Maya place and people. Rigorous excavations and discoveries have brought the Maya civilization in the limelight of anthropological and historical studies from the past century. As more excavations unearth the archeological evidences, one can be hopeful of getting a perfect mental simulation of the Maya life and culture.
The study of Preclassic ritual finds inception around 400 BC at the end of Middle Preclassic time. A common architectural structure of this time was the round performance platforms. These platforms saw transformation over time and were made into truncated pyramids with zoomorphic structures being sculpted on the walls. However, around 100 BC, the Maya started to make taller buildings and the designs introduced exclusivity to public rituals, something that was not prevalent before. Rituals affecting or impacting the Maya community were performed in full or partial seclusion. Interestingly, now these rituals were permitted to be performed by select individuals on others’ behalf. Majority of the Preclassic period saw governance that was partly validated through performances where masks were used. But, the Terminal Late Preclassic or Protoclassic period saw the earliest public representations of individuals. The masks in Maya civilization communicate the philosophy of order and justice and masked performances played a pivotal role in enacting and negotiating community identities. Interplay between masking and crowning can be found in Protoclassic imagery and material culture. The masks get incorporated into crowns which were worn on the top of the head by the leaders. The authoritative roles were no longer symbolic in nature, but were rather focusing on the individual now. The changes in practice in entombment signify the social divisions that were creeping into the Maya society by the onset of Protoclassic period. The private sanctuaries, images of leaders, body ornaments, all signal toward the existence of the transcendental identities in the Maya society and the society had now transformed into one which had class distinctions.
In the Preclassic era, agriculture was the principle source of food and economy for the Maya civilization. All the villages got densely populated and with time social hierarchies emerged. The civilization of Olmec was the first one in Mesoamerica. They constructed pyramids along the coast. The Maya culture imbibed a lot of features from the Olmec civilization. The Izapan culture also influenced the Maya culture enormously.
The question of emergence of social class divisions arises here. The Maya civilization saw the emergence of classes with time. The agricultural prosperity brought in economic advancement. This in the course of time was transformed into a pyramidal structure of economic hierarchy. The wealth accumulated in the hands of a section of people, and with it the power. The paramount symbolism of justice and governance got shrouded by the omnipotent individual who held a hierarchical position in the social order. The individuals of authority exuded power and with vested interests promoted the canyon of social class division. This is evident from the transformation of the masks into head-dresses and the change in the nature of entombment with time. A classless society was now seeing the tell-tale signs of socio-economic disparity. As obvious, the powerful class or the elite then brought in the bureaucracy, a section of the Maya people with whose assistance they aimed to govern the entire land of Maya. These bureaucrats became rich and at the lowest rung of the social order remained the cultivators.
The archeological evidence mirrors the social structure and political complexity that had emerged in the Maya society. The spurt in the number of palaces and wealthy burials pointed toward the rise of a bureaucracy staffed by the elites. The elites were patrons of the buildings. It has been estimated that quite a significant number of people among the total Maya population belonged to the elite class. The nobility was called itz’at winik (wise people) and they were wealthy, literate. The position of nobility was based on lineage. Mural paintings exhibit the presence of scribes, priests, merchants, warriors, painters who were all members of the elite or the secondary elite class. Depending upon the sizes of the houses that are excavated, one may surmise that there was the presence of the middle class. The commoners were never depicted in art and architecture. However, there was the presence of farmers, workers, servants and slaves. The excavations at Ceren, on the outskirts of the site of San Andres in Western Salvador have shown such evidences.
Maya archeology presents an elaborate ideology and reflects the elite culture of the civilization. It can be said that the elite culture and its manifestations through archeology depicts the unstable political dynamics of the Maya era.
Another point of discussion should be the emergence of kingship in the Maya civilization. The transformation of the symbolic governor and leader into the individual signifying omnipotence was a huge leap in the path of the emergence of kingship. The elite or the epitomes of superhuman authority exercised power not less than that of the future kings of the Maya civilization. From showing hegemony in cultural practices, lifestyles, entombment and so on, the powerful people showed the optimum traits of the ruler.
Ruined cities have been recovered and some like Tikal in the Guatemala lowlands of the Peten provide partial access to tourists. These sites have architecture and sculpture that vary over time period and with location. However, most of the cities were constructed around strong political and pious centers. Royal tombs have been excavated under elite residences and steam baths have been found near residential and pious buildings. Studying these, historians can comprehend the social hierarchy, social and religious practices of the Maya society. The presence of agricultural practices is made evident by the stone canals and plastered reservoirs. Pottery serves as one of the most important sources of the history of the Maya civilization. Besides, the valuable articles that have been discovered from the tombs shows the amount of accumulation of wealth in the hands of a section of the society.
The zoomorphic sculptures of the Maya might make one reminiscent of the zoomorphic images of the Egyptian gods. There was a gradual spurt in the convergence of attention and importance to the religious features with time. It might make one retrospect if the indulgence given to religion and ritualistic practices is an indication of a possible ecological imbalance that could have been creeping in the environment of the Maya. The Preclassic Maya used to adore the rain god, a similar feature that is also seen in the Aryan civilization through their devotion for the rain god, Varuna. It might be understood that the inclination toward the heavenly and inexplicable that goes beyond the transient world was due to the uncertainties that had popped up in the Maya civilization.
However, the religious developments also facilitated the documentation of the emergence of social class division. The wealthy class’ insistence on the exclusivity in religious matters became evident through the archeological studies. The economic hegemony laid its clutches on religion and rituals. The structures of the temples and exclusive rights of specific people to perform rituals are the conspicuous signs.
The Maya society with the advancement of time had moved from being a classless society to a society with distinct classes that differed not only in terms of economy, but also the social privileges. Wealth got accumulated in the hands of a section of the mass which later emerged as the elites. The culture of the land bears the marks of this metamorphosis. It exposes how vested interests creep into the societal order and transforms the very nature of a society. The art and architecture of the Maya is the foremost example of the hegemony of the elite class in the cultural dais and the oblivion which has been meted out to the people belonging to the lower rungs of the societal hierarchy.
It is evident that the conception of a distinct Preclassic period and a Classic period is blurred in the course of study in the field. The features of the Classic period of the Maya civilization like the emergence of kingship, class distinction and economic differences, all had shown their existence in the Preclassic period of the civilization itself. As the civilization progressed, so did the intricacies and the society was transformed into a stratified one from a classless ideal land of proletarian subsistence. An insight into the gradual changes of the Maya society that got reflected in the cultural sphere would make one comprehend the emergence of monarchy in the world order. One can understand the tenets of the centralization of power and the impending effects of the same. Centralization of power would obviously bring in distinction in many interlinked aspects. The Maya culture holds the key to understanding the functioning of the social contract. If the elite culture was a way to quench the thirst for power and paramount status, the surmised conflicts within the Maya civilization which might have actually led to its downfall were impending. The rise in ritualistic practices could have been the premonition of the ecological imbalance, the lack of environmental amiability which might have been the other reason of the downfall of the rich civilization. The entire archeological survey shows the change of a simplistic agrarian community into a complex, diversified and disintegrated society.
The paper in question gives an insight into the intricacies of the Maya civilization and culture and establishes these facts with the archeological evidences. It documents the gradual transformation of the Maya society and the complexities in class division and economic status that had popped up with time. In addition to the paper in curriculum, when other scholarly sources are referred to by one, the picture of the Maya civilization and culture becomes clearer. It is intriguing to think that the human characteristic of cultural hegemony and economic dominance has been sort of intrinsic from such an ancient time.
With advancement of civilization, only the facets have transformed, but the basic schema of economic disparity has remained the same. The dominance of the economically strong class in the exercise of rituals and in the field of religion by attributing exclusivity to the temples reflects the patronization of the religious markers by them. The elevation of the individual as the omnipotent is the tell-tale sign of the hunger for power, recognition and the ardent wish to be documented in the pages of history by transcending the scythe of temporality. Hence the architectural works showed a huge change in their content and nature with time. The essence and aura of one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world still remain unadulterated and evokes pangs of interest with every aspect among the gazillion who get engrossed and immersed in the concealed soul of the Maya civilization. The sources act as the link undermining the discontinuity of time and thus enable in the deciphering of the Maya.
A structural approach in the study of societies and cultures would enable the anthropologist to unravel the commonalities latent in societies and cultures that have existed over a huge span of time and over varied geographical area. It is intriguing that the Aryan civilization, the Indus Valley civilization and the ancient Egyptian civilization also bear the same factors in the societal structures. As such, the study of the Maya civilization in the light of architecture and community ritual is of extreme importance in the understanding of the various civilizations that have followed it in the lengthy timeline of history.
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