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The Magnificent Maya

Fact & Fantasy

Review of the talk by Dr Diane Davies
on February 27th 2019
Diane Davies

Everybody thinks they know a bit about Central and South American civilisations, the Incas, the Aztecs and the Maya but many cannot quite recall which part of Central America or which era; who held human sacrifices, who fought the Spanish, who invented which calendar or script etc.  Diane Davies sought to put our minds at rest about several misunderstandings of the Maya.

The Maya lived in what is now Guatemala, Belize and South Mexico in the period roughly 0 BC/AD to 1200 AD.  They flourished around 700 AD when Islam was emerging and the Roman Empire was finished.  Of course, the indigenous people still live there, around 8 million, but the social and government structures of Mayan times have been lost and indeed the Mayan people have suffered much discrimination to the present day.

Diane challenged the Cranleigh audience with a number of claims, some of which involved minimal evidence on the night, but she did offer more in depth answers to those who study her research or take a trip to the Mayan areas, particularly the rain forest areas of El Peten which includes the magnificent ruins of the pyramid temple of Tikal.

Temple of Tikal

Diane’s talk was beautifully interspersed with video of temple sunsets, Mayan singing, hat weaving and underground tomb discovery.  This format really brought to life the feeling of being on the spot.  While regularly reminding us that the Maya discovered chocolate and used it in royal ceremonies, she went methodically through the misunderstandings of Mayan history.

Their gigantic temples were apparently built without metal tools, no use of wheels and no use of pack animals.  That the use of the tumpline, a sling for a human to carry a load on the back, was the answer to these limitations may have benefited from some challenge.  Diane affirmed that while the Egyptian pyramids were tombs the Mayan pyramids were temples.  Their extraordinary ball game involving hitting a ball through a hoop using only hips, elbows and knees was intriguing to watch in reconstruction.  The numbering system based on ‘20’ was intriguing and the calendars based on the 260-day sacred year and the 365-day solar year were almost baffling.  Since the Maya counted all dates from the beginning of time some 3000+ years ago we could believe that they were anything but primitive.

Dr Davies shared some interesting social customs; for example, while they often fought amongst themselves, their battles were not to kill all opposition but to seize the leader and exact tribute.  The Maya had written many texts which have not survived the humidity of the jungle or the burning by the Spanish but she showed us an example of a long scroll which has survived which was like a Bayeux Tapestry of information and history.  It was also beautiful and interesting to note that in Mayan language the same word is scribe and artist.  We were shown painted vessels, jade ornaments and temple inscriptions.

This was an enormous subject to cover in one lecture and all credit to Diane for holding our attention and showing us so much rich art work and demonstrating the Mayan wide development of knowledge, science and culture.  Sadly, so much has been lost over time.
Intriguingly she suggested that there may still be much to discover now hidden in jungle.  Apart from the great pyramid temples our understanding of the Maya can only really be improved by sharing the dedicated research and information of a scholar like Diane Davies.

Stephen Dennison

Related links

Diane Davies' website
Maya civilisation - Wikipedia article