The Role of the Plaza in Maya Festivals

Spectacles and Spectators

Great Plaza at Tikal, Peten, Guatemala
Great Plaza at Tikal, Peten, Guatemala. Takeshi Inomata (c) 2006

Like many pre-modern societies, the Classic period Maya (AD 250-900 AD) used ritual and ceremony performed by the rulers or elites to appease gods, repeat historical events, and prepare for the future. But not all ceremonies were secret rituals; in fact, many were public rituals, theatrical performances and dances played in public arenas to unite communities and express political power relationships.

Recent investigations of public ceremonialism by University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata reveal the importance of these public rituals, both in the architectural changes made in the Maya cities to accommodate the performances and in the political structure which developed alongside the festival calendar.

Maya Civilization

The 'Maya' is a name given to a group of loosely associated but generally autonomous city-states, each led by a divine ruler. These small states were spread throughout the Yucatán peninsula, along the gulf coast, and into the highlands of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Like small city centers anywhere, the Maya centers were supported by a network of farmers who lived outside the cities but were held by allegiances to the centers. At sites such as Calakmul, Copán, Bonampak, Uaxactun, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Caracol, Tikal and Aguateca, festivals took place within the public view, bringing together the city residents and the farmers and reinforcing those allegiances.

Festivals of the Maya

Many of the Maya festivals continued to be held into the Spanish colonial period, and some of the Spanish chroniclers such as Bishop Landa described festivals well into the 16th century. Three types of performances are cited in the Maya language: dance (okot), theatrical presentations (baldzamil) and illusionism (ezyah).

Dances followed a calendar and ranged from performances with humor and tricks to dances in preparation for war and dances mimicking (and sometimes including) sacrificial events. During the colonial period, thousands of people came from all around northern Yucatán to see and participate in the dances.

Music was provided by rattles; small bells of copper, gold and clay; tinklers of shell or small stones. A vertical drum called the pax or zacatan was made of a hollowed tree trunk and covered with an animal skin; another u- or h-shaped drum was called the tunkul. Trumpets of wood, gourd, or conch shell, and clay flutes, reed pipes and whistles were also used.

Elaborate costumes were part of the dances as well. Shell, feathers, backracks, headdresses, body plates transformed the dancers into historical figures, animals, and gods or other-worldly creatures. Some dances lasted all day, with food and drink brought to the participants who kept dancing. Historically, preparations for such dances were substantial, some rehearsal periods lasting for two or three months, organized by an officer known as a holpop. The holpop was a community leader, who set the key for the music, taught others and played an important role in festivals throughout the year.

Audiences at Maya Festivals

In addition to Colonial period reports, murals, codices, and vases illustrating royal visits, court banquets, and preparations for dances have been the focus for archaeologists to understand the public ritual which predominated the classic period Maya. But in recent years, Takeshi Inomata has turned the study of ceremonialism at Maya centers on its head---considering not the performers or the performance but rather the audience for the theatrical productions. Where did these performances take place, what architectural properties were constructed to accommodate the audiences, what was the meaning of the performance for the audience?

Inomata's study involves a closer look at a somewhat less-considered piece of monumental architecture at classic Maya sites: the plaza.

Plazas are big open spaces, surrounded by temples or other important buildings, framed by steps, entered via causeways and elaborate doorways. Plazas in Maya sites have thrones and special platforms where performers acted, and stelae---rectangular stone statues such as those at Copán---representing past ceremonial activity are also found there.

Plazas and Spectacles

Plazas at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá include low square platforms; evidence has been found in the Great Plaza at Tikal for the construction of temporary scaffoldings. Lintels at Tikal illustrate rulers and other elites being carried on a palanquin--a platform on which a ruler sat on a throne and was carried by bearers. Wide stairways at plazas were used as stages for the presentations and dances.

The plazas held thousands of people; Inomata reckons that for the smaller communities, nearly the entire population could be present at once in the central plaza. But at sites such as Tikal and Caracol, where over 50,000 people lived, the central plazas could not hold so many people. The history of these cities as traced by Inomata suggests that as the cities grew, their rulers made accommodations for the growing populations, tearing down buildings, commissioning new structures, adding causeways and building plazas exterior to the central city. These embellishments indicate what a crucial part performance for the audience was for the loosely structured Maya communities.

While carnivals and festivals are known today throughout the world, their importance in defining the character and community of governmental centers is less considered. As the focal point for gathering people together, to celebrate, prepare for war, or watch sacrifices, the Maya spectacle created a cohesion that was necessary for ruler and common people alike.

Sources

To get a look at what Inomata is talking about, I've assembled a photo essay called Spectacles and Spectators: Maya Festivals and Maya Plazas, which illustrates some of the public spaces created by the Maya for this purpose.

Dilberos, Sophia Pincemin. 2001. Music, dance, theater, and poetry. pp 504-508 in Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America, S.T. Evans and D.L. Webster, eds. Garland Publishing, Inc., New York.

Inomata, Takeshi. 2006. Politics and theatricality in Mayan society. Pp 187-221 in Archaeology of Performance: Theaters of Power, Community and Politics, T. Inomata and L.S. Coben, eds. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

Inomata, Takeshi. 2006. Plazas, performers and spectators: Political theaters of the Classic Maya. Current Anthropology 47(5):805-842