Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations

Six Centuries of Mayan Achievement: 300 AD to 900 AD

Category: Maya

Caracol in Chichen ItzaDuring the Classic period, the Maya made significant advancements in the fields of astronomy and calen­dric. The Maya observed three distinct calendars. They were the 260-day sacred year (tzolkin) calendar, the tun or 360-day year, and the vague year calendar, which was

divided into eighteen months of twenty days each. Unquestionably, the most outstanding Mayan calendric achievement was the Long Count Calendar. The basic unit of the Long Count was the kin or day. There were 360 days in a Long Count year or one tun. The Maya didn’t have hours, minutes, or seconds.

When scholars began to unravel the complex calendars they discovered the amazing astronomy skills of the Maya. Ancient Maya observatories look amazing close to the ones we have today. Using fixed lines they could meticulously plot the movements of the moon, sun, and Venus. Also, they are believed to have stud­ied Mars, Jupiter, and Mercury. They were so advanced that the could predict solar eclipses. Their mea­surement of a tropical year was 365.2420 days compared to our present estimate of 365.2422 days. Achievements of this magnitude were made possible by a sophisticated system of mathematics. The Mayans were one of the first civilizations to use the principle of zero. Only, the Babylonians and the Hindus had used zero before them. Amazingly, even the Romans and Greeks had no concept of zero, and zero was not introduced into Europe until the Middle Ages.

Copan - ancient mayan cityMayan architecture focused on external splendor. We do not know if Mayan architects used predetermined plans or sketches. The Mayans did not have the use of the wheel, metal tools, or animals. They relied solely on manpower, stone tools (drills, axes, and chisels), and henequen rope. Cities were not laid out by some formalized plan. However, they all had similar structures-open courtyards, pyramids, temples, pal­aces, and shrines. These buildings were incredibly impressive in terms of design, size, and external decora­tion. Maya architects enhanced important temples and palaces, by elevating them on platforms, pyramids, or acropolises. Many buildings were adorn with sculptures. Ancient Mayans painted these buildings in polychrome paint, indicating the buildings were originally coated in bright colors.

Maya engineers excelled in the building of roads and causeways. The roads were constructed of large stones overlaid in rubble, and surfaced with a smooth layer of cement. They were usually white in color, and raised about four feet from the ground. The longest Mayan road was more than sixty miles in length.

Mayan art also flourished during this time period. Sculptures were a very important part of the Mayan Empire. Sculptors favored limestone, however they also used sandstone, wood, stucco, and clay. Carving was common in shell, jade, and bone. Artists also excelled in feather work, mosaics, and inlays. Mayans used a wheel type device called a kabal to make pottery. The kabal spun between the potters legs and they used it to make jars, bowls, plates, and vases.

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