Guatemala 2013

Ancient Maya

Photos by Walt & Gloria Fogler-Mancini


The ancient Maya culture was one of the great ancient cultures, dating from 2000 BC to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16C.  They had a fully developed written language, monumental architecture and sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems.  The end of the Mayan calendar in 2012 was noted around the world.

Tikal, in the heart of the tropical rainforest of El Petén, was one of the greatest Mayan city-states.  It was one of many city-states that used 21 different Mayan languages and fought for power.  In the Classic Period (2C-9C AD) over 10,000 people may have lived in the ceremonial center with 100,000 living nearby. 

The Mayan culture declined in the 8C-9C and the heart of Tikal was abandoned in the 10C.  The local people did know of the overgrown ruins, but expeditions in the 19C made them widely known to the world.  Archaeological study of the area continues and the growth of new vegetation is controlled.

Over 3000 buildings have been found in Tikal’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Pyramids, palaces, temples, palaces and administrative buildings occupy complexes that are centered around plazas.  The buildings were painted and decorated with large sculpture.  There were stelae and sculpture that provided information.

Colonists from Tikal founded Copán and Quiriguá.  In 738, Copán’s king was captured and decapitated by Quiriguá and it assumed local power.  Its 30’ stelae are the tallest monumental sculpture in the New World.  One side usually represents rulers in rounded form with explanatory hieroglyphs on other sides.  More three-dimensional sculpture called zoomorphs are remarkable and mysterious.

Copán is on the southern edge of the Mayan region, just over the border in the foothills of western Honduras.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best preserved major Mayan sites.  Its Museo de Escultura includes a life size reconstruction of the Rosalila temple with its rich stucco decorations.  Copán produced the best of Mayan art, though it was much smaller and less powerful than Tikal.

The archaeological site is easily explored.   Earthquakes and time have reduced much of the art to rubble.  Since Copán was rich with hieroglyphics, epigraphers spent decades here using them to learn the Mayan code.

One of the temples has a steep staircase with the longest Mayan inscription ever discovered.  Its 2500 glyphs detail the entire dynastic history of Copán.  The ruler who finished the Hieroglyphic Stairway in 755 AD was K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awil.  His portrait is on the stele at the foot of the staircase.

The photographs were taken with Leica cameras, the M9 and the R9 with a digital back.  All images are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission.  We can be contacted via e-mail at   Our home page is

July 27, 2013                                                                                                                                                                                                   wgfm

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