Both the real world and the spirit world are shown on this royal tablet, which was originally set into a wall in a palace, probably above a stone bench that served as a throne. The tablet shows two women of royal lineage in the presence of supernatural beings. The women are identified as Lady Smoking Glyph (left) and her ancestor, Lady House Star (right). The glyphs on the tablet record the journey of three royal women from the city of Calakmul to the smaller city Sak Nikte’. Together, the imagery and text on this tablet indicate the important roles played by women in ancient Maya history and ritual, and the complex political relationships that existed among Maya cities.
Royal throne effigy shows two scenes of figures from a Maya royal family line. The scene on the left is about creation. Here the woman wears an elaborate headdress of feathers and a skirt of jade beads. The jade-bead skirt, worn exclusively by royalty, was associated with the Maize God and connects her to corn. Corn is the most important Maya crop and food, and the Maya believe corn is the material from which human beings were made. The royal woman stands with her back to a stool-like throne within a portable shrine. Two gods serve as columns to support the roof. On the top of the shrine is an arching serpent, a supernatural creature associated with watery places and the rebirth of the Maize God in Maya religion.
The scene on the right is about war and sacrifice. On this side, the woman wears a headdress with circles that is associated with the god of war. She stands facing away from a stool-like throne and in front of a gigantic jaguarian beast with large circles around his eyes. On its back, the beast wears a goggle-eyed mask. This face is the central Mexican Storm God, which came to the Maya lowlands in the fourth century from the city of Teotihuacan in highland Mexico. For the Maya, this image of the Storm God became a symbol of war. The huge beast represents an animal spirit protector or a god of war, possibly shown here as an enormous sculpture. Standing with its arm outstretched, holding a vertical staff, he forms another portable shrine—which could have been carried in processions and even into battle.
This drawing shows the imagery in Royal Throne Effigy with greater precision and clarity.
The glyphs on this tabletrecord the arrivals at Sak Nikte’ of royal women from the Kan (Snake) kingdom (Calakmul, to the north, in Mexico) in 520, 679, and 731. The tablet dates to August 18, 731 which coincides with the arrival of the third snake woman, Lady Ti’, and recounts the earlier arrivals of the two previous women. On this date, according to the inscription, Lady Ti’ scattered incense, perhaps in a dedication ceremony for this tablet.
The site of Sak Nikte’, which means White Flower and was probably in the ancient Maya city La Corona, seldom appears on maps. It lies hidden in the jungle of Guatemala, near Waka’ (El Peru), where Dallas archaeologist David Freidel and his team have made exciting discoveries. The location of Sak Nikte’ within the San Pedro Martir river system, a major transportation route, made the city an important link between the interior kingdoms of the Maya lowlands, such as Calakmul, and major sites in central Mexico, such as Teotihuacan.
The word “Maya”is the name of an ancient civilization and a modern people. The ruins of ancient Maya cities are found in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and western Honduras and El Salvador. This region is called Mesoamerica. Over six million Maya live in Mexico and Central American today and speak over twenty Mayan languages.The landscape of the Maya region is varied. There are volcanic mountains in the south, tropical rain forest in the central area, and drier flat lowlands in the north.
Ancient Maya history is divided into three periods of time: The Preclassic (1500 B.C. – A.D. 250); the Classic (A.D. 250-900); and the Postclassic (A.D. 900-1542). The Classic period was the “Golden Age” of Maya civilization. The Maya built their first major cities around 500 B.C. Maya cities were city-states that fought, traded, made and broke alliances, and sometimes destroyed each other.
The Maya had amazingly complex systems of mathematics, astronomy, writing, and farming. Their calendar is one of the most accurate ever invented.
Many Maya stories come from the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the K’iche’ (Quiché) Maya of highland Guatemala. The version we know was recorded in the late 1500s. The stories of the Popol Vuh tell about the creation of the world, the mythical adventures of two sets of twins, and the creation of human beings.
1. This image is visually complex and rich with figures, patterns, and details. Take time to look closely and discuss the many things that you see in this sculptural tablet.
2. This sculpture includes both images and glyphic texts that were meant to keep a record of important people and events that occurred throughout different times in history. Make a list of American sculptures that include both images and text related to important people and events in history. Why is it important to keep records? How do you keep records of important things that happen in your own personal history and life?
1. Explore qualities of depth, scale, and proportion in this relief sculpture through focused looking and drawing. Start with the gigantic jaguarian beast. Sketch the beast and the figure standing in front of it. What is the visual impact of a large-scale figure like this in the composition? Look for the two, aged, slender figures and sketch them as they appear within the columns of a structure. Sketch glyphs and patterns that you find throughout the composition. Think about their placement. As you look and sketch, consider with classmates the relationship between parts of the sculpture to the whole composition.
Powerful women appear throughout many works of art in the DMA collection. Compare the royal female figures on the Royal Throne Effigy
with the Hindu goddess Durga.
Think about the function and original context of these relief sculptures as well as the materials used to make them. What are the similarities and the differences between these two works? How do the female figures in each sculpture embody power and authority?
3. Look closely at the costumes and accessories of the figures on this tablet. Sketch the figures with as much detail as possible. Then, recreate the costumes and accessories using only the materials you can find around your classroom or home. Extend this experience by creating a life-size theatrical set that resembles the structures that you see surrounding the figures. Have classmates wear the costumes and pose them within the set to create a living version of this artwork.
4. The figures that appear on this tablet and the events recorded on the tablet records are all centered on female royalty. Research several other female royal figures, such as Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Queen Nefertiti, and Queen Cleopatra. Write an essay that compares the roles of female royal figures in different cultures and collect images of these figures in their royal dress and headwear. Present your written and visual findings to the class.
5. The relationship between the glyphic text and the imagery on this relief is important to its meaning. Create a work of visual art which incorporates text. You might consider illustrating a story or a poem that you have written.
Coe, Michael, Dean Snow, and Elizabeth Benson. Atlas of Ancient America. New York and Oxford: Facts On File Publications, 1986.
Coe, Michael D. The Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
Hammond, Norman. Ancient Maya Civilization. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1982.
Miller, Mary Ellen. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. San Francisco, Calif.: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2004.
Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London: Thamesand Hudson Ltd, 1993.
Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. Maya History. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1993.
Rediscovered Masterpieces of Mesoamerica: Mexico-Guatemala-Honduras. Boulogne, France: Editions Arts, 1985.
Explore a Maya archaeological dig site through archaeologist notes and findings.
This website provides extensive information about Maya sites and monuments.
View Maya artworks in the Met’s collection.
This interactive educational website provides an overview of the Maya and four other ancient cultures.
Travel to a Museum in Guatemala through this Spanish language website.
Explore the ancient Maya site Copan through this interactive website.
Play a game about the Maya culture of Mexico and Central America.