Maya Stela H, Copán.
Gender studies in ancient Maya culture and art often address the question of sexual identity.

Costume, which is gender distinctive among the modern Maya, has been a focus of attention and is usually assumed to be either masculine or feminine in archaeological contexts. 
Masculine attire is generally represented as a hip cloth or loincloth, sometimes coupled with a short skirt. Feminine costume is typically a skirt worn to below the knee, sometimes accompanied by a long tunic-like huipil.

Occasionally in Maya art, the relationship between sexual identity and gender-marked costume is problematic when attempting to interpret the subject matter.
Stela H is an example of this. In an early account of the stela, Alfred P. Maudslay identified the skirted figure shown as a woman (1889-1902, 5:50). Subsequent work and the recovery of the inscriptions has determined that this monument actually represents Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18 Rabbit), the male ruler of Copán.

So why is he shown wearing the long skirt typical of women? One interpretation is that male rulers donned such “female” costumes for bloodletting ceremonies (Schele 1979). As argued by Andrea Stone (1988, 1991), such gender crossing is suggested in other aspects of Maya ceremonies.

Photo taken by Christine and John Fournier. Quoted segments from Traci Ardren’s Ancient Maya Women (2002).

Maya Stela H, Copán.

Gender studies in ancient Maya culture and art often address the question of sexual identity.

Costume, which is gender distinctive among the modern Maya, has been a focus of attention and is usually assumed to be either masculine or feminine in archaeological contexts. 

Masculine attire is generally represented as a hip cloth or loincloth, sometimes coupled with a short skirt. Feminine costume is typically a skirt worn to below the knee, sometimes accompanied by a long tunic-like huipil.

Occasionally in Maya art, the relationship between sexual identity and gender-marked costume is problematic when attempting to interpret the subject matter.

Stela H is an example of this. In an early account of the stela, Alfred P. Maudslay identified the skirted figure shown as a woman (1889-1902, 5:50). Subsequent work and the recovery of the inscriptions has determined that this monument actually represents Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18 Rabbit), the male ruler of Copán.

So why is he shown wearing the long skirt typical of women? One interpretation is that male rulers donned such “female” costumes for bloodletting ceremonies (Schele 1979). As argued by Andrea Stone (1988, 1991), such gender crossing is suggested in other aspects of Maya ceremonies.

Photo taken by Christine and John Fournier. Quoted segments from Traci Ardren’s Ancient Maya Women (2002).

The pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site of Ixkun, modern-day department of Peten, Guatemala.

"I reached Dolores in March 1887, after a rough journey through the forest from Cajabon; and although I had been told about Ixkun some years before by the Jefe Politico of Peten, I was surprised to find that very few of the villages knew of the existence of the runs, and it was some time before anyone could be found to guide me to the site."

-Alfred Maudslay, British explorer and archaeologist, and one of the first Europeans to study Maya ruins. All italicized text in this post are segments from his accounts of exploring Ixkun (via ‘Archæology, Volumes 1-2’, Alfred Maudslay & J. T. Goodman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1889).

Human occupation of Ixkun appears to date from the Preclassic (ca. 200 CE), and peaked during the Late Classic (ca. 600-900). This large site includes a number of stelae adorned with writing in the Maya script. 

"There are several carved monoliths which formally stood on the level ground in front of the buildings, but most of them are overturned and partly destroyed."

The largest of these stelae is known as ‘Ixtun Stela 1’, as shown in the second and third photos.

The carving on the monument represents two Maya priests of chieftains, which elaborate head-dresses and ornaments, standing facing each other above a hieroglyphic inscription. […] In the lower panels [see photo 3] are two unadorned crouching human figures, with their necks and arms bound with ropes, evidently meant to represent prisoners trodden under foot by the two gorgeously arrayed figures standing above them. The marked difference in physiognomy between the Mayas and their captives is clearly shown, and this monument may celebrate the conquest of the aboriginal inhabitants of the land or the defeat of some barbarous invaders from the north whom some writers believe to have fully caused the overthrow of the Maya civilization.”

Photos courtesy & taken by Simon Burchell via the Wiki Commons.

The jade burial objects which adorned the body of Maya ruler Pakal the Great.

The mortuary crypt of the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque is perhaps the most complex mausoleum from the Classic period. It was designed to contain the mortal remains of K’inich Hanab Pakal, also known as Pakal the Great. The sarcophagus contained the body wrapped in a funerary bundle covered with cinnabar, a highly toxic, red-colored mineral. His body was adorned with many jade objects that are displayed here on a modern reproduction of Pakal’s body. The mortuary mask, incrusted with more than 200 tiny carved polished and perfectly assembled bits of jade mosaic, is an extraordinary masterpiece.

The proportions of the mask and the skull are the same, so it is clearly a faithful portrait of the ruler in life Pakal wore a diadem on his forehead and ear spools as well as a complex pectoral of tubular and squash-shaped beads. His hands held a sphere and a cube, as well as rings on each of his fingers. All of this finery was fashioned of jade.

The green color of jade suggests a relationship with the agricultural cycle and the annual, renovation of nature. With his jade mask, Pakal was transformed into the Young Maize God, who awaits his opportunity to return as the new vegetation to continue the annual corn cycle. This significance is reinforced by the figurine placed below to the right, which represents the patron god of the month known as Pax, mentioned in the inscriptions as te’, “tree” alluding to Pakal as the seed that augured the illustrious promise of the ruling lineage.

The texts and archaeology suggest that Pakal passed away before the completion of the Temple of the Inscriptions, a task that fell to his eldest son, Kan Balam II. Many late inscriptions refer to Pakal as “the lord of the pyramid”, which implies that the construction of this building was an event of particular significance for Palenque. (x)

Courtesy & currently located at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico. Photos taken by Travis S.

Temple 216 in the East Acropolis at Yaxha.
Yaxha is a pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site in the northeast of the Petén Basin region, Guatemala. Yaxha was the third largest city in the region, and was particularly powerful during the Early Classic period (c. AD 250–600).

Photo courtesy & taken by Carsten ten Brink.

Temple 216 in the East Acropolis at Yaxha.

Yaxha is a pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site in the northeast of the Petén Basin region, Guatemala. Yaxha was the third largest city in the region, and was particularly powerful during the Early Classic period (c. AD 250–600).

Photo courtesy & taken by Carsten ten Brink.

Sacred Cenote, also known as Cenote Sagrado, or the Well of Sacrifice, a pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site at Chichen Itza, northern Yucatán Peninsula.
Post-Conquest sources (both Maya and Spanish) tell us of the sacrifice that took place at the Sacred Cenote in pre-Columbian Maya, where both objects and human beings were sacrificed for the Maya rain god Chaac. Archaeologist Edward Herbert Thompson (1857-1935) recovered artifacts of gold and jade, as well as human remains, from the Sacred Cenote. Subsequent work at the site as found that the human remains display wounds consistent with human sacrifice.
While researching this site, I came across this 1579 report received by Charles V of Spain from the mayor of Valladolid, located near the cenote:

The Lords and principal personages of the land has the custom, after sixty days of abstinence and fasting, of arriving by daybreak at the mouth of the Cenote and throwing into it Indian women belonging to each of these lords and personages, at the same time telling these women to ask for their masters a year favorable to his particular needs and desires. The women being thrown in, unbound, fell into the water with great force and noise. At high noon, those that could, cried out loudly and ropes were let down to them. After the women came up, half dead, fires were built around them and copal was burned before them. […]
-Quoted in Gary R. Varner’s Sacred Wells: A Study in the History, Meaning, and Mythology of Holy Wells & Waters.

Photo courtesy & taken by Tom Söderlund.

Sacred Cenote, also known as Cenote Sagrado, or the Well of Sacrifice, pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site at Chichen Itza, northern Yucatán Peninsula.

Post-Conquest sources (both Maya and Spanish) tell us of the sacrifice that took place at the Sacred Cenote in pre-Columbian Maya, where both objects and human beings were sacrificed for the Maya rain god Chaac. Archaeologist Edward Herbert Thompson (1857-1935) recovered artifacts of gold and jade, as well as human remains, from the Sacred Cenote. Subsequent work at the site as found that the human remains display wounds consistent with human sacrifice.

While researching this site, I came across this 1579 report received by Charles V of Spain from the mayor of Valladolid, located near the cenote:

The Lords and principal personages of the land has the custom, after sixty days of abstinence and fasting, of arriving by daybreak at the mouth of the Cenote and throwing into it Indian women belonging to each of these lords and personages, at the same time telling these women to ask for their masters a year favorable to his particular needs and desires. The women being thrown in, unbound, fell into the water with great force and noise. At high noon, those that could, cried out loudly and ropes were let down to them. After the women came up, half dead, fires were built around them and copal was burned before them. […]

-Quoted in Gary R. Varner’s Sacred Wells: A Study in the History, Meaning, and Mythology of Holy Wells & Waters.

Photo courtesy & taken by Tom Söderlund.

The Maya archaeological site of San Andrés, El Salvador. 

Shown in the first photo is structure 1, and in the third, structure 5. Neither of these pyramids have been fully excavated, with particularly little work done on structure 5. The main plaza is visible in both the second and fourth photos.

Human occupation of the site can be dated back to 900 BC, when it served as a small agricultural town. The ruins shown, and the peak period of San Andrés, however dates to its Maya occupation between 600-900 AD.

San Andrés lies in the broad valley of the Sucio River, which has many mounds and apparently was thickly occupied in pre-Columbian times. San Andrés is the most interesting in the group in the area and the only one that has been systematically excavated. 

[…] The major pyramid [see photo 1] rises in several tiers and has a stair on the north side. Construction is of adobe brick covered with lime plaster -similar to that used at Tazumal and Kaminaljuyu. 

[…] The architectural and ceramic remains indicate the San Andrés was occupied during the Classic period and into the post-Classic. There is evidence of influence from the Guatemala highlands, as well as from Copán, where the plaza-acropolis arrangement of the structures is similar. Ceramics of Copán type are also found at San Andrés

-Joyce Kelly, An Archaeological Guide to Northern Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
After the Spanish Conquest, San Andrés became part of a colonial estate for cattle and indigo production. The site was later buried due to the Playón volcano eruption of 1658 AD.

Photos courtesy & taken by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz.

Maya ball court, Coba, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Major building construction seems to have occurred in Coba during the middle and late Classic period (500-900).

The Native American ball game was played with a rubber ball on a masonry court, and was widely known in Central America and Mesoamerica. Its range extended over an area of 2,500,000 square kilometers, from the U.S. Southwest into the Amazon region of South America. It was played for at least 2,000 years prior to European contact.

The object of the game, as indicated by archaeological and ethnohistoric evidence, was to score a goal by propelling the ball into the ground of the opposing team’s end of the court, or through a ring or other marker along the side of the court. As in modern soccer, players could not use their hands to propel the ball, and the game in play may have resembled soccer, with considerable action. 

[…] Scholars have frequently associated the game with human blood sacrifice. Much of our understanding of the myth and significance of the ball game comes from the account of the Third Creation in the Maya epic, the Popul Vuh, wherein both generations of Hero Twins, avatars of the Sun and Venus, are sacrificed by decapitation and then reborn. Numerous portrayals of the game show decapitation of a ballplayer, the same image emphasized in the Popul Vuh.

[…] Although the game had important ideological overtones, it was also no doubt a widespread form of more casual recreation, and the outcome of a game was the focus of considerable gambling action, with bets of all sizes and bettors of all social classes. 

-Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia (2001).

Photos courtesy & taken by Dennis Jarvis.

'Structure VIII' from the Maya archaeological site of Becan, Campeche, Mexico.
Rediscovered in 1934 by archaeologists John Denison and Karl Ruppert, ‘Becan’ was named after the distinctive ditch surrounding the center of the city -its original ancient name is not known.
Becan was occupied in the middle Pre-Classic period (ca. 550 BCE), and reached its peak in population and as a ceremonial center during the late Pre-Classic, declining in the early Classic period (ca. 250 CE).

Photo courtesy & taken by Luca Penati.

'Structure VIII' from the Maya archaeological site of Becan, Campeche, Mexico.

Rediscovered in 1934 by archaeologists John Denison and Karl Ruppert, ‘Becan’ was named after the distinctive ditch surrounding the center of the city -its original ancient name is not known.

Becan was occupied in the middle Pre-Classic period (ca. 550 BCE), and reached its peak in population and as a ceremonial center during the late Pre-Classic, declining in the early Classic period (ca. 250 CE).

Photo courtesy & taken by Luca Penati.

Chac, the Maya Rain God. 
Chac is one of the Maya pantheon’s longest-surviving and oldest deities, and is still worshipped by the Maya today.

The god of rain, thunder, and lightning was known to the Maya as Chac and, like many of their deities, he was both adored and feared. The rain he brought was necessary for the growth of crops, but, if it fell to heavily, it could also destroy them, and his storms and bolts of lightening often spelled death and disaster.
Depictions of Chac in surviving Maya books show a figure, often painted blue, with a curving pendulous nose, hair tied up on top of his head, and barbels projecting from the corners of his mouth. Sometimes these barbels are in the form of snakes, an animal often associated with lightening. Chac holds an axe with which, as he strides through the celestial realm, he occasionally hits a hard object. The resulting sparks are transformed into shafts of lightning, which come down to strike the Earth. The sound of the axe’s impact rolls around the sky as thunder.
-Timothy Laughton, Exploring the Life, Myth, and Art of the Maya

The photograph above is of an effigy urn in the form of Chac. Mexico, eastern Yucatan, Late Postclassic Maya, Mayapan style. Earthenware and paint. 
Courtesy & currently located at the de Young Museum, San Francisco. Photo taken by Leonard G.

Chac, the Maya Rain God. 

Chac is one of the Maya pantheon’s longest-surviving and oldest deities, and is still worshipped by the Maya today.

The god of rain, thunder, and lightning was known to the Maya as Chac and, like many of their deities, he was both adored and feared. The rain he brought was necessary for the growth of crops, but, if it fell to heavily, it could also destroy them, and his storms and bolts of lightening often spelled death and disaster.

Depictions of Chac in surviving Maya books show a figure, often painted blue, with a curving pendulous nose, hair tied up on top of his head, and barbels projecting from the corners of his mouth. Sometimes these barbels are in the form of snakes, an animal often associated with lightening. Chac holds an axe with which, as he strides through the celestial realm, he occasionally hits a hard object. The resulting sparks are transformed into shafts of lightning, which come down to strike the Earth. The sound of the axe’s impact rolls around the sky as thunder.

-Timothy Laughton, Exploring the Life, Myth, and Art of the Maya

The photograph above is of an effigy urn in the form of Chac. Mexico, eastern Yucatan, Late Postclassic Maya, Mayapan style. Earthenware and paint. 

Courtesy & currently located at the de Young Museum, San Francisco. Photo taken by Leonard G.

As eternal guards watching over the deceased ruler, nine warriors were modeled on the walls of the funerary chamber in bas-relief. They represent the Lords of the Night, who were the regents of the nine levels or tiers, into which according to ancient Maya belief, the underworld was divided. (-Palenque Museum)

The sarcophagus of Maya ruler K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (Late Classic period, 603-683), Palenque’s greatest ruler. His tomb is located beneath the Temple of Inscriptions, and lay undetected for more than a century of explorations before being discovered by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in the mid-twentieth century. The burial chamber contained the bones of one women and four men as sacrifices.

A mammoth limestone sarcophagus, its sides carved with portraits and hieroglyphs, filled most of the chamber. Inside lay the skeletal remains of Pakal, covered with jade beads, a disintegrated jade mosaic mask, and other offerings.

The most stunning object in the tomb was the magnificently carved sarcophagus lid, depicting Pakal’s apotheosis, emerging like the sun at sunrise from the jaws of the underworld, reclining on the mask of the partially skeletal sun god, marking the transition from death to life. The implication of this association is clear, for like the sun, Pakal mastered the forces of death and was reborn as a deity, just as the sun is reborn each day at sunrise. The pathway of their ascent is marked by the world tree, shown sprouting from behind Pakal. In its jeweled branches rests the double-headed serpent bar, the cosmic symbol of Maya rulership, and its crown sits the celestial bird. The entire scene is framed by a sky band containing the symbols of the most important celestial deities, including the sun, moon, and Venus.

-R. Sharer, The Ancient Maya, page 453.

+ For those interested, this drawing shows the details of the sarcophagus lid spoken of.

Courtesy & currently located at the Palenque Museum, Mexico. Photos taken by Maya Portrait Project.

What exactly is this person doing?

The scene represents a bloodletting ritual performed by the king of Yaxchilán, Shield Jaguar the Great (681-742), and his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook (Itzamnaaj Bahlen III). The king holds a flaming torch over his wife, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (x)

Bloodletting was an essential part of being Maya royalty. This formidable ordeal mirrors the sacrifice involved in the Mayan story of creation, where the gods let their blood to create humans. The pierced tongue of Lady Xook enables her blood to flow as part of a ritual communication with spirits and gods.

By choosing to take part in the ritual, the queen demonstrated both her moral and physical strength to the people, and her suitability as a Maya royal. (x)

This particular limestone lintel (which you can see the full image of here) is considered one of the masterpieces of Maya art, and was originally one of a series of three panels at Yaxchilán.
Courtesy & currently located at the British Museum, London. Photo taken by KateMonkey.

What exactly is this person doing?

The scene represents a bloodletting ritual performed by the king of Yaxchilán, Shield Jaguar the Great (681-742), and his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook (Itzamnaaj Bahlen III). The king holds a flaming torch over his wife, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (x)

Bloodletting was an essential part of being Maya royalty. This formidable ordeal mirrors the sacrifice involved in the Mayan story of creation, where the gods let their blood to create humans. The pierced tongue of Lady Xook enables her blood to flow as part of a ritual communication with spirits and gods.

By choosing to take part in the ritual, the queen demonstrated both her moral and physical strength to the people, and her suitability as a Maya royal. (x)

This particular limestone lintel (which you can see the full image of here) is considered one of the masterpieces of Maya art, and was originally one of a series of three panels at Yaxchilán.

Courtesy & currently located at the British Museum, London. Photo taken by KateMonkey.

Chacmool statue on the top of the Temple of Warriors in the Chichen Itza complex, Mexico. Mayan, dates to the Late Classic-Early Postclassic.
Chacmool is the term used to refer to these particular reclining pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sculptures, which are often associated with thrones or sacrificial stones. This Chacmool statue is leaning towards the entrance of the pyramid’s temple, and is at the top of the stairway on the pyramid’s summit. 
With over its nearly 1,000-year history, the sacred site of Chichen Itza was one of the greatest Mayan centres of the Yucatán peninsula. The artistic works and stone monuments reflect and reveal the Maya and Toltec vision of the world and universe. 
Photo courtesy & taken by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.

Chacmool statue on the top of the Temple of Warriors in the Chichen Itza complex, Mexico. Mayan, dates to the Late Classic-Early Postclassic.

Chacmool is the term used to refer to these particular reclining pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sculptures, which are often associated with thrones or sacrificial stones. This Chacmool statue is leaning towards the entrance of the pyramid’s temple, and is at the top of the stairway on the pyramid’s summit. 

With over its nearly 1,000-year history, the sacred site of Chichen Itza was one of the greatest Mayan centres of the Yucatán peninsula. The artistic works and stone monuments reflect and reveal the Maya and Toltec vision of the world and universe. 

Photo courtesy & taken by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.