Saturday Archaeology: Digging the Mayans in Stages
A first lesson in rediscovering the Mayan architecture that built their many impressive temples has been that each successive generation took a lesson from the past, literally, and covered the existing structure with another. While digging at the Blue Creek, Belize, Maya Research Program dig, we were finding the later layers, recording the data we found, then going deeper to find the preceding structures. To find a Mayan pyramid means that you have found the last, top, layer of the civilization that built it and under that structure there is another, earlier, one.
Tombs were often encased within or beneath Mayan structures. Frequently new temples were built over existing structures. The Mayans also expressed themselves artistically. Their ceramics were made in a large variety of forms and decorated with complex scenes. The Mayans also designed works of art from flint, bone and shell, along with making decorated cotton textiles. Even metal was used for ceremonial purposes. Items made with metal include necklaces, bracelets and headresses.
It is evident that all of the structures built by the ancient Mayans were built in honor of the gods. Compounds were built with large open areas, from which all the citizens could view the religious ceremonies taking place on the platforms elevated above the city.
At Copan we can now view many generations of the past, with references to those earlier generations incorporated into each new building and commemorative work of art.
Archaeologists have excavated extensive tunnels under the Acropolis, revealing how the royal complex at the heart of Copán developed over the centuries and uncovering several hieroglyphic texts that date back to the Early Classic and verify details of the early dynastic rulers of the city who were recorded on Altar Q hundreds of years later. The deepest of these tunnels have revealed that the first monumental structures underlying the Acropolis date archaeologically to the early 5th century AD, when K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ established the royal dynasty. These early buildings were built of stone and adobe and were themselves built upon earlier earth and cobble structures dating to the predynastic period. The two styles of building overlap somewhat, with some of the earthen structures being expanded during the first hundred years or so of the dynastic history of the city. The early dynastic masonry buildings of the Acropolis included several with the Early Classic apron-molding style of Tikal and one built in the talud-tablero style associated with Teotihuacan, although at the time the talud-tablero form was in use at both Tikal and Kaminaljuyu as well as in Central Mexico.
Below, the Hieroglyphic Staircase forms a major record of dynastic history as well as one of the outstanding artworks known from Mayan civilization.