All Subjects
      All Types

        Info

        Grades

        6-12

        Permitted Use

        Stream, Download, Share, and Modify


        Part of PBS LearningMedia
        5 Favorites
        1396 Views

        Elites in Mayan Society

        The Maya were a largely agricultural civilization that rose to dominate the areas of Guatemala and southern Mexico between the years 250 and 900 BCE. Like most pre-modern civilizations, the majority of Mayans were farmers. However, it was the royal family and their nobles that ruled and managed Mayan society. The elites were the ones who ruled the government and waged war. But their responsibilities also included religious and intellectual pursuits, like serving as priests, studying astronomy, and maintaining the Mayan calendar.

        Below the Mayan nobles were commoners. And the division between these two social classes was very rigid. The nobles maintained their privileges by claiming descent through specific family lineages. In other words, one was born a noble. Commoners could work in any number of different trades. As we have already indicated, many commoners were farmers or agricultural workers. But there were also artisans and merchants. Some of these artisans and merchants grew to be quite wealthy and powerful. This wealth and power gained them influence certainly, but it did not make them noble. In fact, the nobles guarded their elite status by forbidding commoners from wearing the cloths of a noble. 

        Review the images below to learn more about what art and archaeology tells us about elite status in classical Mayan civilization. Then complete the associated worksheet.

         

        Elite Mayan Home

        Common Mayans would have lived in small mud or reed homes. Elite families had homes built of stone. This image above is of the palace complex at Palenque, a Mayan site in southern Mexico. Such a large stone complex would have housed only the most elite family or families in the city. The palace dates from 721 CE and is set on a 10-meter high platform. There is a central courtyard with rooms surrounding it. The walls of this palace were decorated with colorful stucco paintings depicting past Mayan kings. From the 25-meter high tower in the complex, nobles would have been able to look upon the entire sprawling city.

        Permitted Use:

        Stream, Download, Share, and Modify

        Accessibility:


        Transcript:


        Download:

        Close

        King Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil (695-738 AD)

        Stelae, or upright stone slabs with commemorative inscriptions, could also be used to represent royalty and other elites. This stela shows a Mayan king of Copan from the eighth century. By this time, the ruler of a city-state (known as k’uhul ahaw, or “divine lord”) had taken on a nearly religious status, requiring him to master many roles.

        Permitted Use:

        Stream, Download, Share, and Modify

        Accessibility:


        Transcript:


        Download:

        Close

        Jaguar Platform at Chichen Itza

        In Mayan society, the jaguar was a symbol of elite status and power. Members of the elite often wore the pelts of jaguars to show their prestige. Images of jaguars, such as that on the face of this funerary urn from Guatemala’s classic period (600-950), were used to denote elite status. The intricate work and jaguar on the face of this urn suggests that it contained the remains of an important Mayan of some status.

        Permitted Use:

        Stream, Download, Share, and Modify

        Accessibility:


        Transcript:


        Download:

        Close

        Representation of Mayan Hieroglyphics on a Stele, from 'Narrative and Critical History of America,' Published in 1889

        Carved stone stelae like this one from the Mayan city of Copán are often covered with Mayan hieroglyphics. These hieroglyphics celebrated religious figures but also the acts of the elite, such as successful generals or kings. In this way, the Mayan elite were immortalized.

        Permitted Use:

        Stream and Download

        Accessibility:


        Transcript:


        Download:

        Close

        You must be logged in to use this feature

        Need an account?
        Register Now