The Maya civilization (300-900 C.E.) was one of the most sophisticated in the pre-Columbian Americas. It extended from southeastern Mexico across modern-day Guatemala, Belize and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The Maya were never politically unified but lived in around sixty separate kingdoms, each with its own ruler. Relations between the kingdoms were complex. There was negotiation, trading and inter-marriage, as well as invasion and warfare.
Maya cities usually had a dramatic stepped pyramid topped by a temple sanctuary at their center. Close by were the palaces of the royal court, which functioned as the center of government and provided luxury accommodation. As well as lesser residences, temples and plazas, ball courts have been identified. These consisted of two parallel walls between which a ritual game using a rubber ball was played.
The Maya produced impressive artworks, including polychrome ceramic vases and carved stone monuments portraying their rulers. The British Museum holds a number of carved lintels from Yaxchilan in modern south Mexico. They are considered to be among the masterpieces of Mayan art and record the rulers of the city.
The Maya developed a sophisticated writing system and used an elaborate calendar system known as the Long Count to provide dates. The majority of surviving examples of Maya writing are from the Classic period (250-900 C.E.) although some date to the Late Preclassic (400 B.C.E. - 250 C.E.). The origin of the script is complex and far from clear. Maya writing has been found on monumental sculpture, public buildings, murals, pottery, portable objects (made of shell, obsidian, bone, wood, jade and other stones) and screenfold books, called codices. The inscriptions deal mainly with calendrical and astronomical information, and historical events such as alliances, wars, lineages and marriages. They were only identified as a writing system by scholars during the nineteenth century.
The text was inscribed in blocks placed in horizontal and vertical rows. One or more glyphs were set in each of these blocks. The reading order within each block is generally from left to right and top to bottom. Two columns were read together following the same order. The text appears sometimes in single columns, in L-shape or other arrangements (see, for example, the Yaxchilán Lintels).
Maya hieroglyphs were first identified as a writing system during the nineteenth century, when the bar-and-dot numerical system was deciphered. In the 1950s it was discovered that the script combined signs representing whole words with signs representing syllables. Certain glyphs were recognized as naming specific people and cities (known as Name Glyphs and Emblem Glyphs respectively). There were major breakthroughs in decipherment in the second half of the twentieth century and approximately 85% of the glyphs can now be read.
The Maya today
By about 800 C.E. Maya civilization was in decline. Building and monument-making stopped and in some places there is evidence of violence and destruction. The problems may have been caused by warfare and agricultural crisis. Despite this "collapse," the Maya survived in reduced numbers. There are about six million Maya alive today.