Essay, Research Paper: Maya And Aztec


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Plundering and carnage were the overlying results of the Spanish conquest of
MesoAmerica beginning in 1519. The ensuing years brought many new
"visitors," mostly laymen or officials in search of wealth, though the
Christianity toting priest was ever present. Occasionally a man from any of
these classes, though mainly priests would be so in awe of the civilization they
were single handedly massacring that they began to observe and document things
such as everyday life, religious rituals, economic goings on, and architecture,
which was the biggest achievement in the eyes of the Spaniards. That is how the
accounts of Friar Diego de Landa, a priest, were created, giving us rare first
per-son historical accounts of the conquest and the people it effected. To
archaeologists monumental architecture is more important than an inscribed
stelae listing names and dates. There is so much more to learn from a building
than a slab of stone usually seething with propaganda. In most societies they
are what remains after conquest, usually for their beauty or ability to
withstand the elements. Landa was amazed by what he found. "There are in
Yucatan many edifices of great beauty, this be-ing the most outstanding of all
things discovered in the Indies; they are all build of stone finely
ornamented…" (Landa, 8). If it were a commoners domestic dwelling we
would learn through the study of remaining artifacts and middens what objects
were used on a daily basis and also the standard of living, helping us to
construct an accurate view of the long neglected commoner. According to Landa
steepled roofs covered with thatch or palm leaves protected the habitat from
rain. Homes were often divided into two sections, a living section, customarily
whitewashed, and a domestic area where food was prepared and inhabitants slept (Landa,
32). In Aztec societies commoners often lived in calpolli, a residential area
segregated by occupation, usually surrounded by walls for protection (Smith,
145). If it were a domestic dwelling for a noble it would be larger than a com-moner's
dwelling, and usually consisted of more than one large structures occasionally
located on a platform near the center of the town. The high status is obvious by
the in-clusion of more elaborate and ornamental objects and frequently frescos
adorned the walls. Monumental Architecture of public and private buildings are
one of the best indi-cators of the size and importance of a site. The size of
the structure has direct corrolation to the power held by the leader, in his
ability to conduct peasants to construct the build-ing. Temples and plazas were
the main objects of monumental construction and often rival the pyramids of
Egypt in quality and size. Temples were often pyramid like struc-tures that were
built, facing east, over the cremated remains of a priest or ruler. With each
acceding ruler the temple was made larger by building over the previous, thus
the layering effect so often uncovered. Different styles of decoration and
construction were used by each culture during different periods. "In
contrast to earlier Mesoamerican pyramids with a single temple built on top and
a single stairway up the side, the pyramids built by the Early Aztec peoples had
twin temples and double stairways" (Smith, 43). "There are several
complexes of Esperanza architecture at Kaminaljuyu…these are stepped temple
platforms with the typical Teotihuacan talud-tablero motif…" (Coe, 84).
Then in less than three hundred years there was a completely different style of
architec-ture in the area, "Characteristic of Puuk buildings are facings of
very thin squares of limestone veneer over the cement-and-rubble core;
boot-shaped vault stones…and the exuberant use of stone mosaics on upper
facades, emphasizing the usual monster-masks with long, hook-shaped snouts, as
well as frets and lattice-like designs of criss-crossed elements" (Coe,
157). Mesoamerican architecture has withstood the test of time, many of the
structures not destroyed during the conquest still stand today, whereas numerous
Spanish buildings do not. In pre-modern history, throughout the world burials
have been customarily simi-lar, irregardless the distance. Whether this is
coincidence or not will be determined at some point in the future, but for now I
am of the opinion that since many cultures wor-shipped similar gods many of
their customs will be comparable. For example many cul-tures, including the
Aztecs and the Maya buried bodies in the fetal position facing east. More often
than not various foods and goods were placed in the grave to accompany the
deceased in the next life. Burials usually followed some ritual and occurred
near the home, which would be abandoned soon after (Landa, 57). If they were not
cremated the body would be wrapped in a shroud and buried in the temple (Coe,
76). It is believed that many Aztec adults, though commoners, were cremated,
mainly because of the lack of adult burials found (Smith, 142). Nobles and
priests were cremated and placed in an urn or hollow statue and if the person
was of great importance they would be buried in a tem-ple or have a temple
erected over their burial site. "Foreign lords of the Esperanza phase chose
the temple platforms themselves as their final resting-places. As with the
earlier Miraflores people, each platform was actually built to enclose the
ruler's tomb, a log-roofed chamber usually placed beneath the frontal staircase,
successive burials and their platforms being placed over older
ones…Surrounding him were rich funerary vessels, undoubtedly containing food
and drink for his own use…" (Coe, 84-85). Unlike the Maya who believed
that everyone went to Xibalba, the cold Maya un-derworld, the Aztec believed
there were several underworlds depending on the method of death. "Soldiers
who died in battle and sacrificial victims went to an eastern solar
realm…women who died in childbirth went to a western solar realm…people who
died by drowning or other causes related to the rain god went to the earthly
paradise of Tlalo-can. Most people, however went to one of the nine levels of
Mictlan, the underground realm of death" (Smith, 141-142). Funerals of
Aztec nobles were often attended by peo-ple of importance throughout the empire,
usually bringing jewels or other gifts such as slaves. Although a Spaniard,
Landa was one of the most important historians of his time in regards to
Mesoamerica. His accounts may be less than scientific and a bit biased to-wards
his own culture but at the same time show an awe of the "primitive"
societies they were attempting to civilize in the name of Christ. He was
ignorant and therefore in my mind is not to be blamed much, at least he tried to
preserve information on their culture, though he did burn most manuscripts
written by the natives.

Landa, Diego de. Yucatan Before and After the Conquest. Dover Publications
Inc. New York City, New York, 1978. Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs. Blackwell
Publishers. Oxford, UK, 1996. Coe, Michael D. The Maya. Thames and Hudson Ltd.
London, 1999. Works Cited Landa, Diego de. Yucatan Before and After the
Conquest. Dover Publications Inc. New York City, New York, 1978. Smith, Michael
E. The Aztecs. Blackwell Publishers. Oxford, UK, 1996. Coe, Michael D. The Maya.
Thames and Hudson Ltd. London, 1999.

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