Klaas Sikkel's home page

 Home > Other > Maya > Prologue
Klaas Sikkel's Home page
Other interests

Information Systems group
Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science
University of Twente

13 Ix 12 Mac

On 13 Ix 12 Mac, which is the 1865054th day of the Mayan calendar, I obtained my Ph.D. For that occasion I wrote the following


"Our guide cleared a way with his machete, and we passed, as it lay half buried in the earth, a large fragment of stone elaborately sculptured, and came to the angle of a structure with steps on the sides, in form and appearance, so far as the trees would enable us to make it out, like the sides of a pyramid. Diverging from the base, and working our way through the thick woods, we came upon a square stone column, about fourteen feet high and three feet on each side, sculptured in very bold relief, and on all four of the sides, from the base to the top. The front was the figure of a man curiously and richly dressed, and the face, evidently a portrait, solemn, stern, and well fitted to excite terror. The back was of a different design, unlike anything we had ever seen before, and the sides were covered with hieroglyphics. This our guide called an 'idol;' and before it, at a distance of three feet, was a large block of stone, also sculptured with figures and emblematical devices, which he called an altar. The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities, and gave us the assurance that the objects we were in search of were interesting, not only as the remains of an unknown people, but as works of art, proving, like newly-discovered historical records, that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages."

Thus John L. Stephens describes his first live acquaintance with the remnants of Maya civilization, at Copán, fall 1839, in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan.

"It is impossible to describe the interest with which I explored these ruins. The ground was entirely new; there were no books or guides; the whole was a virgin soil. [...] The beauty of the sculpture, the solemn stillness of the woods, disturbed only by the scrambling of monkeys and the chattering of parrots, the desolation of the city, and the mystery that hung over it, all created an interest higher, if possible, then I had ever felt among the ruins of the Old World."

Stephens was preparing to visit the remains of ancient art said to exist in the dense tropical forests, when the president of the USA sent him on a diplomatic mission to the United States of Central America: a federation of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. He was accompanied by an English friend, Frederick Catherwood, an architect and artist with extensive archaeological experience. On their way into Central America, they visited Copán. While Catherwood remained there, making accurate drawings of the antiquities, Stephens pursued his mission. But he found the country sliding into civil war; the federal government had ceased to exist. Under harsh conditions, trying to keep ahead of the war, Stephens and Catherwood travelled on to Mexico and visited, among others, the ruins at Palenque and Uxmal.
Their journey came to a premature end when Catherwood fell ill in Uxmal. In 1841 Stephens' book appeared, illustrated with (steel engravings from) Catherwood's drawings. Later that year, they embarked upon a second journey and explored some two dozen ancient sites in Yucatan. Incidents of travel in Yucatan, the illustrated account of their second journey, was published in 1843.

Who built these cities?
Which fate has befallen the people who once lived here?
Stephens, contemplating the sculptures and hieroglyphic inscriptions in Copán, believed that the history of the town was graven on its monuments.
It took another 119 years to prove that his intuition, rejected by generations of later Maya scientists, was right.

I came to visit the land of the Maya in February 1991, for the first time attending an international gathering of computational linguists, taking place at Cancun. The workshop was certainly interesting, but the proceedings were no match for A Forest of Kings by Linda Schele and David Freidel, a recently published account of Maya history that I had stumbled upon in a fortunate moment. With one and a half week to spare, half a dozen ancient Maya sites within a few days' reach, and Schele and Freidel as most qualified guides, I got infected with the same virus that has had such a grave effect upon Stephens, Schele, and many others.
I have to confess that on my trip to the Yucatan peninsula I learned much more about Maya history than about computational linguistics. But this book shows, I hope, that I have returned to the duties for which the University of Twente has engaged me the last four years.

Most of the adventure and romantic appeal of travel (and most of its hardship) has disappeared. There is preciously little ``virgin soil'' left, if any at all.
But if one goes to the ruins of Cobá, off the main tourist roads, one can climb the 42 meter high Nohoch Mul, the tallest ancient structure in the Northern lowlands, and have a magnificent view over the Cobá lake and the surrounding country, perfectly flat except for some steep and forest-covered elevations which, surely, must cover yet unexplored remnants of these mysterious people.

[vi + 392 uninteresting pages deleted]


The Maya have fascinated many people. Living in the stone age, in the midst of tropical rain forest, these people achieved the highest indigenous culture in the Americas, the only one with a complete script. The classic Maya period, in which most of the art and all the inscriptions are dated, lasted from 100 to 900 A.D. As enigmatic as the rise of this culture is its sudden downfall, in the 9th century. Almost within a single life span, the Maya ceased to make inscriptions all over the country, stretching From Tabasco in the West to Belize and Honduras in the East.

For a long time, only fragments of Maya the script - the calendar system and records of astronomic events - could be read, which added much to the mystery. Only in the last decades the script has been deciphered, and considerable parts of their history can be reconstructed. With the facts on the table, now, they appear to be a somewhat more mundane lot then generations of Maya experts would have liked them to be.
The sculptures and monuments do not depict scenes with gods, but describe the deeds of kings and other ahau, members of the ruling class. Some kings fancied themselves depicted as gods, from which the ahau claimed to descend. Public art primarily served purposes of personality cult and political propaganda.
Like ancient Greece, the country was divided into independent city states. Although there was a common culture, there has never been a political unity. These city states were constantly at war with each other. The purpose of war was not so much to occupy neighbouring cities (only after centuries it has occurred to them that you could actually impose your rule on other cities by implanting a vassal as king) but to take captives. These were sacrificed to the gods. The higher the captive, the higher the esteem of its captor.

Writing was a form of art, and with such a rather complex script, it is supposed that only the ahau were literate. When Maya society collapsed, the knowledge of the script was lost.
How the script functions, and how that knowledge has been regained in our time, is a fascinating story that can not be summarized satisfactorily in a few lines. The interested reader is referred to Coe [1992]. A comprehensive history of the Maya as far as it can be reconstructed from the inscriptions is given by Schele and Freidel [1990].

A note on the illustrations

The illustrations are copied from [Stephens, 1841], after drawings made on site in 1839 by Frederick Catherwood in (what is now known as) Copán, Honduras.

The first picture displays the top of a sculptured stone, six feet square and four feet high, that is technically known as "Altar Q". This monument was commissioned by Yax-Pac, the sixteenth king of Copán, to celebrate his accession to the throne on July 2nd, 763.

The four sides display the sixteen kings, in clockwise order, each one seated on a glyph representing his own name. Yax-Pac is seated in right middle position on the West side. He faces Yax-Kuk-Mo', the first king. The 3rd-6th, 7th-10th, and 11th-14th kings are displayed on the North, East, and South sides respectively.

The inscription on the top starts to commemorate that Yax-Kuk-Mo' displayed his divine scepter at September 6, 426 A.D. (or, rather, 5 Caban 15 Yaxkin in the Maya calendar) and became king three days later.

As much of the Maya art, this monument had a clear political purpose. Yax-Pac had good reasons to stress his direct descendance from the legendary founder; there are indications that the nobility of Copán questioned the sovereignty of the king.
But problems far greater than political rivalry overshadowed the city. Copán had become overpopulated. With the most fertile part of the valley covered by an expanding city, agriculture had been pushed onto the hill sides. Erosion, aggravated by deforestation, depleted the usable soil at an ever faster rate. Malnutrition and anaemia plagued the ahau as well as the common man, while the community was driven inexorably towards an ecological breakdown.
Yax-Pac reigned for no less than 56 years, but the dynasty barely survived him. In the days of his successor, U-Cit-Tok, seventeenth king in the line of Yax-Kuk-Mo', the ravaged land regressed into prehistory - or, rather, posthistory. The last erected monument commemorates the accession of U-Cit-Tok. It has not been finished. The recorded history of Copán ends on the day that the artists laid down their tools and left the job.


Michael D. Coe (1992). Breaking the Maya Code. Thames and Hudson, London.

Linda Schele and David Freidel (1990). A Forest of Kings: the Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. William Morrow, New York.

John L. Stephens (1841). Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Harper & Brothers, New York.
Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York (1969).

John L. Stephens (1843). Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Harper & Brothers, New York.
Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York (1963).

Last modified on 27 Jul 1995