Art History Briefing: Preservation of the Past, the Mayan History and Culture

The Mayan are a truly ancient people. Although it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when a culture began and ended without absolute written proof, most historians believe that Mayan settlements can be traced to the period around 1800 BCE, reaching its peak, called the “classical period” sometime around 250-900 CE. An extensive network of cities, connected by roads, many still visible today, lay testament to the complexity of the culture and its social and political structure. Along with some of the skills modern man celebrates like their mathematical prowess and calendars, the culture and artistry is being preserved by recognizing its distinctive beauty.

Who were the Maya?

The Maya are an ancient people, consisting of a variety of tribes scattered throughout Southern Mexico and Central America in modern-day Guatemala. Their massive pyramidal structures, like the one found at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, attest to the size (archeologists have indicated that some cities were inhabited by more than 100,000 people), intelligence, and complexity of the communities in which they were built, thousands of years ago.



The Maya believed in a multitude of gods, and there is a deep connection between astronomy and the belief that everything contains a thread of spirituality. With the institution of Roman Catholicism, the Maya blended the two beliefs together to form a unique expression of faith which continues today, complete with lavish rituals.

Political Structure

Most Maya communities were ruled by a kingship, which was thought to be divinely ordained.

Agricultural Prowess

The Maya were accomplished agriculturists; complex water management systems, with channels and underground water sources (cenotes) made for successful harvests. Without grazing animals, the land was not cleared and remained lush.

Unique Skills

Their modern number system signified their strong mathematical abilities, and they mastered complicated and precise calculations, and led to their skills in astronomy and the use of their dual calendars.

Why Did the Maya Disappear?

There are several theories surrounding the great decline of the Maya civilization around 900. Wars, political and social issues, and weather shifts all likely played a part in the decline. Some point to the diseases that the Spaniards brought with colonization; however, the largest decline had already occurred when Europeans arrived in the 1500’s.

More recent studies by historians and climatologists suggest that rapid growth, which led to clearing and deforestation of lands for additional development, created long-term drought patterns. This is a strange occurrence, as an intelligent culture with good understanding of the environment would likely know the results of this behavior, yet still chose to continue. Their large communities were unsustainable, forcing residents to abandon the cities for rural living.

Preservation of the Mayan Culture

Upon Spanish arrival, the Maya were forced to modify their beliefs and ways of life. Over time, the “old ways” were likely lost, as subsequent generations were indoctrinated in the Western culture, creating a new blend of both Maya and colonial practices. The Spanish destroyed much of the artifacts upon their arrival and during colonization; British explorer Alfred Maudsley ventured throughout the area in the 1880’s, and sketched and made molds of many of the surviving artifacts he discovered, as well as beginning to decipher Maya inscriptions and their numbering system. His respect and desire to preserve the culture played an immense part in salvaging artifacts and artworks which could otherwise degrade and be lost.

Preservation of Mayan Art Works

Although many works of art and cultural icons were lost, some examples were saved, and other skills were passed on from generation to generation by the Mayan people. The preservation of these examples of Mayan artistry has continued, both with traditional Maya people and other artists who appreciate their beauty.


Nearly all the complex and unique Mayan writing was destroyed. All but three books have been lost, but writing was discovered on monuments, lintels, stelae, and some household items. The Mayan written language contained both picture and syllabic writing, creating an artistic, geometric pattern, telling stories in words and numbers.


Many different tribes of Maya created masks. Used in ceremonies & dances, representing significant events and specific customs in the area. The masks were used to tell stories of traditional gods as well as animals, and the wearers would at times use psychedelic mushrooms and alcohol to enter a trance-like state. When people began the practice of Roman Catholicism, masks were adapted to represent saints and even the “devil”. Skills were passed on between generations, and masks continually used (even painted over again & again). After Spanish colonization, masks were used for the Dance of the Conquest, telling the story of Pedro de Alvarado’s defeat of the Maya king, Tecun Uman. Masks were made from wood and even stone and were cherished for generations, no matter their condition. Masks are still used today in some areas. Some modern artists are preserving the skill and artistry of traditional Maya masks. Richard Mazzola is one artist renowned for his exquisite masks, created both in sculpture and in painting, while Diego Marcial Rios combines the Mayan techniques with modern tools to create breathtaking masks inspired by ancient legends.


The Tz’utuhil tribe in Chiapas and Guatemala is one group who has been successful in maintaining the Maya painting tradition. Artists like Pedro Rafael Gonzalez, from the communities of San Pedro la Laguna and San Juan la Laguna have preserved the Tz’utuhil techniques by using them in contemporary painting, called naïve art.

Conquest Dances

Dance has been a central part of Maya celebrations and rituals, evident in ancient artworks featuring masked dancers. Dances evolved after Spanish colonization to include Catholic stories and to re-tell the story of Spanish conquest in a pro-Spanish light. To this day, these dances continue to be performed.

British Museum Google Maya Preservation Project

Since the 1890’s, many of Maudslay’s artifacts, more than 400 plaster casts, over 800 glass plate negatives, and nearly 1200 pages of notes and measurements he took while studying Maya ruins in Mexico and Guatemala have been hidden from public sight. In a joint venture, Google and the British museum are working together to digitize the collection.

  • What causes the decay? The casts Maudslay took are now over 120 years old and show the weathering of time. Humidity fluctuations allow the natural salts contained in the plaster to become soluble, moving towards the surface to evaporate and form crystals. The surface becomes pitted, and detail is lost. Fine brushes are used to wipe away the crystals, revealing more detail and a brighter hue.
  • By creating 3D digital scans of the casts and other artifacts, their stories can further be deciphered, and the culture and historical significance of the Maya can be preserved for future generations.
  • Google is providing a unique immersive experience online, providing viewers access to the collection in a revolutionary new way.